Adding Robots to the Cold Chain

With the right application, robots can play a key role in your cold-chain operations.

Robotics in manufacturing and warehousing are seemingly everywhere these days, but can they also work in refrigerated environments? Yes, and the similarities to ambient environments probably outweigh the differences. But before you make a move toward robotics in your cold chain, it’s important to understand what those differences are, and how the automation can be of use there.

One of the big issues that refrigerated warehouses face is finding labor. Working in cold environments isn’t easy, and when given options, most employees will choose an ambient workplace. This makes robotics an attractive option, because it helps solve that labor issue, as robots can in some cases take the place of humans.

Within the cold chain, there are three primary uses for robots that a company can employ. They include: Full pallet unit loads; layer pick pallet loads; and case level picking. Of the three, full pallet unit loads and layer picked pallets are the easiest to cost justify. Case level automation is possible, but the cost of automating could be a challenge.

Layer pick pallet loads are often referred to as rainbow pallets due to their nature of mixed SKUs and each layer is typically composed of one SKU. Automated layer picking systems often need a buffer of product, and that buffer may need to be at freezer temperatures. The best automated layer pick systems allow you to put the buffered product in a freezer but keep the robotics in a cooler, or above freezer temperature environment.  Keeping the robotics in a warmer temperature makes maintenance easier, and the individual components will last longer.

When using robots within the freezer spaces, figuring out specs and adding special componentry to ensure they work appropriately can get expensive. Robots in a refrigerated environment, however, don’t have such limitations. This is where a linear gantry-style robot is ideal. Linear gantry robots can travel longer distances and access more SKUs, order pallets, slip sheets, and empty pallets which can simplify the overall design of the system.

The layered pallet use case for robotics is growing by leaps and bounds. Stores want economical ways to receive their products, but don’t always want full pallet quantities, which might sit for long periods before selling.  Layer picked pallets give the stores a reasonable amount of product while at the same time simplifying the automation process for the distribution center supplying the store.

If you’re interested in exploring how this application can work for your organization, work with an automation expert. Come prepared with the data they’ll need to assist you, such as your item master data, inventory snapshots, and sales information. From there, your automation partner can help analyze the data and provide a use case for their implementation. You can also work from this starting point to design a fully automated warehouse or distribution center.

Working together, you and your automation partner can determine the optimal way to add robotics to your cold-chain application for increased efficiencies.

Source: Ryan Smith, Westfalia

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