Just as online shopping is transforming warehouse storage techniques so, too, changing trends in frozen food demand will seriously impact cold storage handling methods. UK frozen food sales in 2010 were estimated at £7.5 billion and have been increasing steadily over the last five years,
driven perhaps by changing public health perceptions that show frozen food in a more favourable light. But it is clear that existing pallet racking configurations will not cope as efficiently as before faced with these changing trends. The need now is for cold stores to adopt the storage and picking methods of the chilled and dry grocery products, says John Maguire, sales director of Flexi Narrow Aisle, who has been providing heated cab-equipped, articulating forklifts to the cold store sector for over five years.
Traditionally, cold stores relied on racking to give the densest forms of pallet storage and so minimise the high cost of energy. These included mobile racking, drive-in and flow storage but they all lack 100% instant pallet access and they can be costly or damage-prone. Given that frozen food storers now face growing demand for greater and faster pallet selectivity, additional pick face replenishment activity and customer case quantity order assembly, the racking most suitable for that activity is very narrow aisle (VNA) racking, which offers 100% instant pallet accessibility. So what will that mean for the forklift of choice?
Hitherto, the popular forklifts for cold store work have been the cab-fitted reach truck, followed by dedicated VNA trucks. The former, however, needs at least 2.6-mt wide aisles and so is relatively wasteful of valuable space. The latter are costly machines, ponderously slow, space-wasting at aisle ends and inflexible. The need to minimise space, however is a key criterion owing to high energy costs.
In environments where operating temperatures are typically minus 25ºC, energy costs average between 20% and 30% of total warehouse running costs, but it can be far worse. One study by Bristol University, for example, found that initially efficient freezing plant can become very inefficient over a few years, consuming more than eight times the energy of the most efficient cold stores.
There are many factors influencing cold store energy costs, particularly warehouse size, and some are easy and cheap to improve, like dealing with energy losses at unsuitable doors. But no matter what improvements are put in place, cold store operators will still be pressured to minimise the cold store footprint and that means minimum aisle widths where 100% instant pallet accessibility is preferred.
The most suitable truck in that environment seems to be the articulating forklifts equipped with heated cabs because these can work in aisles only 1.6 mt wide and lift to 12 mt or more. That means they can provide up to one-third more pallet positions than reach trucks in a given storage cube, and they are not much more expensive than cab-fitted reach trucks. The big advantage of heated cabs is that drivers can work a full eight hour shift, as otherwise opposed to drivers taking a 15-minute break every hour. Britain and Ireland have only three makers of articulated forklifts, Translift Bendi, Flexi Narrow Aisle and Aisle-Master, and all now offer heated cabs for cold store work.
If the trend to more frozen food buying continues, environmentalists and food retailers have reasons to rejoice. It would mean, for example, less waste than other choices because at present much chilled food fails to sell by its ‘best by’ or ‘sell by’ dates. Unsold produce goes to landfill sites and its disposal costs the food industry millions of pounds every year. Organic foodies may also feel kindlier towards frozen foods as they contain fewer chemicals and preservatives than chilled food because freezing in itself is a preservative.
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