One of the state’s first automated cold storage warehouses could open in Tacoma by the end of the year.
The more than $50 million project comes from a Netherlands cold storage company called NewCold. When complete, the warehouse will be one of the biggest in the country, with storage capacity at more than 25 million cubic feet, according to the company.
The warehouse, off South Orchard Street in South Tacoma, is NewCold’s first large United States project, said Jonas Swarttouw, business development manager for the company’s U.S. operations. It will be among a handful of automated cold storage warehouses in the state.
Starting about mid-year, NewCold will start hiring around 100 people to operate the Tacoma Automated Coldstore.
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NewCold’s 130-foot-tall facility and others like it break the mold of the decades-old cold storage industry. Though the company will still hire some forklift drivers, the warehouse will need fewer of them. Instead, a computer will deploy robots to shuffle products around to pick up customer orders.
In addition to forklift drivers, the company will hire people to talk to customers and transportation companies, Swarttouw said. Others will maintain the robots’ hardware, while system operators will make sure the automation is flowing smoothly.
Fisher Construction of Burlington has broken ground on the project. The company has designed and built more than 2.5 million square feet of cold storage spaces, but this is the company’s first automated warehouse.
The building , not far from Interstate 5, will look a bit like a giant ice cube.
Swarttouw said automation became the solution for NewCold’s Europe operations in response to increased labor, land and energy costs. Businesses in the United States are now facing those pressures, he said. Customers also want faster and more efficient shipping options.
“They want to be able to order today and ship tomorrow,” Swarttouw said. “You have to (have employees to) work at night and there’s not as many people interested.”
The night shift is not the only challenge for cold storage companies. The warehouses are, well, cold. Temperatures in the continuously-operating NewCold facilities are below zero degrees.
Computers track products from the moment they enter the building — an added benefit if there is a food recall.
“The advantage (to automation) is that you are performing in a very stable and controlled way, and with limited human-product interactions and limited chances the humans will damage the product or pick the wrong pallet,” he said.
The company builds where there is demand, he said. NewCold is partnering with Trident Seafoods, its first major client. Tacoma was a logical place to build, Swarttouw said, citing a shortage in cold storage options in the region.
In a news release, Trident Seafoods chief financial officer Randy Furtner said NewCold will play a pivotal role for Trident in its regional cold storage chain.
“We have been investigating the possibilities of optimizing our cold chain with an automated coldstore for a long time,” Furtner said in the news release.
Products will be stored on a system of racks in low oxygen and pitch dark. When needed, pallets will be transported to the loading area by a series of conveyors and robots.