Business

Have a look inside that big white cube in Tacoma

The giant, white cube in Tacoma is finished. So what does it do?

Watch as a system of automated cranes and conveyor belts move packages of frozen food throughout NewCold's new cold-storage facility.
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Watch as a system of automated cranes and conveyor belts move packages of frozen food throughout NewCold's new cold-storage facility.

The big white cube is open for business.

We're talking about NewCold, the 140-foot-tall warehouse that covers 3.5 acres and encloses 25 million cubic feet of space along Orchard Street in South Tacoma, near Fircrest.

Within its walls, cranes and conveyor belts move pallets of frozen food in an automated choreography. Its major client, Trident Seafoods, already has begun storing its products there.

Inside the building is the realm of robots, where it's 5 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and there's 20 percent less oxygen than outside. That environment reduces the risk of fire, but also means people can't work there without supplemental oxygen.

In a traditional warehouse, "you are driving a marathon to load the truck, whereas over here the products are brought to you," said Jonas Swarttouw, business development manager for the U.S. operations of the Netherlands-based company. "The system automatically collects the right pallets in the right order and stages them in front of the dock, where a truck docks to be loaded.

"The final part is still a manual process. It's a combination of technology and people."

So far NewCold has nearly 50 employees. These aren't just any warehouse jobs. Some people drive forklifts, but the robots do the heavy lifting. The humans run, repair and monitor them.

As the company ramps up capacity, it is hiring more people for those robot and forklift jobs. By the end of the year it could hire 50 more people in various positions, Swarttouw said.

"People with an appetite for technology, and who are interested in being in one of the most advanced warehouses in the country are welcome to apply," he said.

Though the warehouse's automated system can move more goods quicker and more accurately than people driving forklifts could alone, the idea is not to remove people entirely from operation, Swarttouw said.

"The objective is to support people with technology so they can deliver the best service in the best way," he said.

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Automation means a NewCold customer can reliably order goods a day ahead of its shipping date, Swarttouw said. Traditional warehouses run entirely by humans might take twice as long or longer, he said.

A traditional warehouse would be much shorter and take up four times the land area as the NewCold building, Swarttouw said. The height of a traditional building is limited by the reach of relatively short forklifts. In the Tacoma warehouse, the automated cranes, which lift the pallets into position for storage, require less room than a forklift would.

This economy of space contributes to the building's energy efficiency. It uses 50 percent of the energy a conventional warehouse would require, enabling it to save enough energy each year to power 700 typical Tacoma homes, Swarttouw said.

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The Tacoma warehouse is NewCold's first venture in North America. The company also has warehouses in Australia and Europe. It's developing another in Idaho and considering an East Coast warehouse.

"Eventually we want to have a nationwide presence," Swarttouw said.

Kate Martin: kmartin@thenewstribune.com, @KateReports
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