Leaders at Orca Cold Chain Solutions are modernizing the food supply chain, one facility at a time. Automation is the centerpiece of that strategy, and the company is reaping the rewards of a recent project designed to meet the needs of the cold chain market in the Philippines, where Orca handles chilled and frozen food products for fast-food restaurants, exporters, importers, and small entrepreneurial food businesses. The project? Construction of a fully automated cold storage warehouse in the densely populated city of Taguig.
“When we first conceptualized this, we found out that a lot of clients were not satisfied with the service level of cold chain operators here,” says Yerik Cosiquien, Orca’s president and CEO, explaining that cold storage facilities in the region are often outdated, making it difficult for them to keep up with the market’s growing volume demands as well as changing safety requirements. “These things really mattered to our clients. Also, we lacked a lot of cold storage [locally], so the demand was always there.”
Located in metropolitan Manila, Orca’s first automated facility—and the first of its kind in the country, according to company leaders—delivers temperature-controlled logistics, warehousing, and pre- and post-storage value-added services to help food businesses and the agriculture industry prolong and maintain product freshness. The facility is also helping Orca meet internal goals and objectives, including reducing human intervention in the food supply chain, trimming labor costs, and maximizing space and energy efficiency in a densely populated urban marketplace.
Planning and development for the Taguig facility began in 2015, construction began in 2017, and the building was fully operational by October 2019. The material handling systems were integrated into the building’s construction from the start, Cosiquien explains, crediting systems developer SSI Schaefer with helping Orca create a seismic-proof structure capable of withstanding the region’s harsh weather conditions. The building is a rack-clad warehouse, meaning that the storage systems form part of the building’s structure, rather than just supporting the stored goods, reinforcing the building’s stability and resistance to earthquakes, typhoons, and other storms.
The warehouse is powered by an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) and features high-bay storage in a small footprint: it accommodates roughly 20,000 pallet positions in 86,111 square feet of space. The system can move up to 4,800 pallets in one day, using a combination of conveyor technology
Automation also means less human intervention, which contributes to product safety and energy savings. Cosiquien points to temperature fluctuations within a cold storage warehouse as one example.
“Every time you open the door [in a cold storage facility], the temperature changes,” he explains. “In a manual operation, that takes a minute or two. With automation, it takes a few seconds. You are conserving that energy, [and] you are keeping the cold in [to preserve freshness].”
Automation also reduces the facility’s reliance on lighting—primarily because there are fewer people on staff—which adds up to even more energy savings. Cosiquien says the Taguig facility uses about 30% to 40% less electricity than a comparable manual facility and about 30% less labor.
Interest in material handling automation within cold storage environments is on the rise, driven by increasing e-commerce, last-mile delivery, and other demands. But it’s no small undertaking, as Cosiquien and his partners at SSI Schaefer emphasize. Automated equipment needs to be adjusted to operate at lower temperatures; this includes almost everything in the system, explains Matt Rivenbark, SSI Schaefer’s director of sales for food and beverage.
“Special gearboxes, dry pipe fire-protection systems, specific conveyors, special greasing and oiling protocols, isolated and heated control cabinets, and just about all the electrical components are [designed] to handle lower temperatures,” he says. “Even the little things are critical. At SSI Schaefer, we design our systems to incorporate air locks and other components that help the freezer system work efficiently. In these types of environments, warm and cold air can clash and cause condensation, which in turn can cause damage to the products themselves. This is something that can’t [be tolerated] in a freezer and cold chain environment. Therefore, all components must be designed to withstand these harsh conditions.”
The WMS works differently as well.
“With cold chain and freezer environments, the WMS … controls all warehouse functions. Two important cold chain features that are built into [SSI Schaefer’s] WAMAS are the tracking of inventory through temperature zones to ensure that the cold chain isn’t disrupted, and the ability to track lots and expiration dates to ensure [FE/FO] principles are followed and that the correct inventory is picked,” Rivenbark adds.
The WAMAS system also incorporates preventive maintenance scheduling, another key to keeping products fresh and safe as they move through the handling process.
In addition to safety improvements, energy savings, and labor reduction, Orca is also benefiting from faster delivery to customers. Daily throughput has increased exponentially, Cosiquien says, comparing the thousands of pallets processed per day at Taguig to just a few hundred per day at Orca’s conventional facilities.
“At the end of the day, when it comes to the supply chain, it’s all about turnaround,” he says. “The faster [you can] get [product] out of the facility and to retail areas—the better.”
Orca is applying its lessons learned in Taguig and is building a second fully automated facility in partnership with SSI Schaefer. Slated to open in April, it will include similar technology designed to improve the food supply chain and maximize urban development.
“We are building another fully automated facility near the port in Manila,” Cosiquien explains. “I really believe in automation, especially in urban areas. Where traffic is quite bad and where real estate is quite expensive, automation is the way to go. It really makes a difference.”