Reaching for the sky

by Array

From a distance, the orange and blue racking looks delicate and fragile, resembling a creation built from an old Erector Set.

Looks, however, are often deceiving. The racking, which was visible to motorists on Ontario’s Highway 401 between Toronto and Mississauga, is actually the strong core of an automatic storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) built by Conestoga Cold Storage.

The Kitchener, Ontario-based company is a cold storage and distribution operation offering warehousing, trucking, storage, blast freezing, case picking, and import/export services to the frozen food industry. To offer those services efficiently, the company turned to automation with a hands-on approach. “We’ve actually been designing, building and installing our own stacker systems since 1980, said Conestoga president Greg Laurin in an interview conducted before the new AS/RS was complete. “Right now we’ve got 10 robots operating in Ontario, and we’re going to be adding an additional three with this expansion.”

Gavin Sargeant, vice-president of automation, says building its own systems is so important that Conestoga employs staff for that purpose alone. “The internal building group is dedicated to doing buildings specifically for us, so we have the expertise in engineering, in project management, system design, even programming the robotics, all in-house. It allows us to be very specific and very streamlined in getting these buildings up and running.”

This time, however, Conestoga tried a new approach. “For this building we’re working with other suppliers for the first time to get some different ideas,” said Laurin. “We actually spec all the equipment, all the rack design and then we have it built to our specifications.” Conestoga purchased racking for the AS/RS from Long Valley, New Jersey-based Frazier Industrial Company.

The size and scope of the construction are also new territory. “This is a large project. It’s one of largest projects we’ve done in one hit,” said Sargeant. “We’re putting three AS/RS robots in it. The initial building is about 500-ft long, so the length of the aisles is 500ft and the building itself is about 125-ft tall. This is the first building we’ve done at 125ft, so we’re increasing our cube utilization and our efficiency of land use by going higher,” added Laurin.

Construction began in May 2012 and phase one was completed by January 2013. The AS/RS added 10,000 pallet positions. Phase two, an extension large enough for 5,000 pallets, will begin in the spring. It will be erected so the two units can be joined and turned into a single AS/RS.

“What we do is we run the [phase one] aisle down 500 ft and we’ll cap a wall off on it,” explained Laurin. “Then in the spring, when the ground is thawed, we’ll continue on with the concrete slab. We’ll build the [additional] rack and enclose the building. Then we’ll cut a hole in the end of the building and drive the stacker right through towards the new part of the building.”

While punching holes in walls and joining two buildings seems daunting, Sargeant said it is fairly simple. “We make preparations for that during the building process. We make [it possible] for the racking of the extension to tie into the existing racking. The only time when we have to stop things and affect the operation of the existing building is when we cut that panel out in the middle and tie the two buildings together.”

The AS/RS stores frozen food at -18ºC. Inside the freezer, three robotic cranes process over 50 pallet transactions per hour each. They can pick two pallets at a time from a two-deep racking layout up to 100ft in the air.

They also operate completely in the dark. The only lighting in the building is emergency and task lighting in case the AS/RS needs repairs or a pallet needs to be checked manually. Laurin and Sargeant say the money saved on lighting plus other features—such as doorways with small entrances to prevent too much cold air from escaping and too much warm air from entering, and small roofs that reduce the amount of heat loss—make the AS/RS units much more energy efficient than traditional cold-storage facilities.

Update: As of May 2013, construction has begun on the second phase of the AS/RS, and once again, racking is visible to 401 commuters.

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