An Adage Meets the New Age

Warehouse design and location strategies adapt to meet a changing business climate.
Form follows function. This architect’s adage may still hold true enough. Yet, it’s seemingly not that simple when applied to a new generation of warehouses and distribution centers.
Fast-moving product. Low inventory. Forward distribution. As logistics professionals embrace new supply chain models, the accompanying shift in strategy is impacting private and public warehouse design and location decisions. Also contributing to change are heightened food industry concerns for product tracking, productivity, energy conservation, and cost savings.
These are just a few observations from several leading design-build and architecture firms working with food processors, PRWs, and distributors.
Interesting, too, is the fact that a consolidated industry itself is behaving differently. For example, coming out of a decade of mergers, acquisitions, and restructuring efforts, there’s been a general shift toward fewer, bigger distribution centers.
“We’re still seeing a trend toward bigger facilities and consolidation,” notes Gil Mayfield, national director of distribution and real estate for Carter & Burgess, Fort Worth, TX. “Companies are tending to close out the smaller building and look to economies of scale with larger storage areas.”
Mike Golden, president of Food Tech Structures LLC, a Hanover, MA-based company specializing in the planning, engineering, and construction of food warehouse/distribution centers, adds that, “We see [consolidation] as the single, largest issue affecting wholesale distribution. As major, national wholesalers continue to consolidate, frequently the decision is made to exit smaller markets. This presents a tremendous opportunity for smaller regional players. Extensive planning and construction is underway to capitalize on this opportunity.”
That’s not to say that divergent warehousing and distribution can’t co-exist. Design-build engineers likewise see increased interest in regional facilities, often dedicated to key customers and sometimes set up as cross-docking operations.
“We see large distributors with multiple distribution centers taking advantage of consolidating slow movers into one facility and then cross docking them to their network of regional distribution centers,” affirms Golden. “This reduces inventory carrying costs, frees up space at the regional DCs and allows for the implementation of the most productive material-handling systems throughout the network for fast/medium/slow movers.”
It’s likewise important to note that designs vary by user, particularly between PRWs and warehouses that are part of manufacturing operations, says Joe Shaffer, PE, president of Facilities Design Inc., Columbia, PA.
“We see different trends when the warehousing is part of a manufacturing operation versus warehousing as a separate business, i.e. public cold storage or distribution,” he says. “As an extension of the manufacturing operations, we see a tendency to evaluate and implement a higher level of automation in material-handling equipment.
“The manufacturers, for the most part, had already installed very sophisticated controls and automation on their production equipment and already have the staff to maintain the systems. Therefore, the use of control systems in warehousing is more easily accomplished.”
Shaffer says PRWs have the same concern for operating and energy efficiencies, “though they are more reluctant to invest in automation than are manufacturers.” Even so, he says, Facilities Design is “seeing a definite trend to invest in a more expensive central ammonia refrigeration system, for instance, when the same company would have used commercial-grade package systems in the past.”
Golden also points to HACCP/USDA/FDA design requirements in the meat industry, in particular, as a primary factor in warehouse and distribution center design. “Food safety is a major concern of the American consumer and foreign countries that import our products. Cold chain management is part and parcel of the aforementioned,” he stresses. “Equally important however is a productive, energy efficient DC – the selection of the correct refrigeration system and material-handling system with computer controls and warehouse management systems is a vital element is controlling operating costs.”
Difference in the details
Material-handling equipment. Refrigeration systems. There are differences in these types of details in today’s warehouses versus those of decades ago. Design-build engineers say warehouse operator owners — private and public alike — are making several changes to today’s structures.
Mayfield sees increased focus on energy conservation in the facilities themselves, with more focus on the refrigeration side and an emphasis on saving money in power usage.
“There are ways to do it with the compressor controls, and variable-frequency drives are helping in those areas,” he notes.
For his part, Shaffer continues to see a trend toward high-rise warehousing, facilitated by automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) but driven by “a definite benefit in land utilization and utility costs.”
Also seeing increased interest in AS/RS is Curtis Manns, marketing manager of E.A. Bonelli + Associates Inc., an Oakland, CA, design firm. Manns adds, meanwhile, that site operators also are more inclined to invest in automated sliding doors that make it easy for rapid and free flow of forklift traffic.
“New automated refrigerated doors are faster and maybe even safer than some of the ones we’ve had before, particularly the ones that are horizontal sliding,” he notes.
Warehousing at plants grows
Another trend designers have noted is that of owners wanting to have substantial storage at plant sites and, in some cases, combining distribution centers with plants.
“We are seeing some owners wanting to have a substantial amount of storage at the plant site,” Mayfield says. “That may be three to five days [of] production, with the idea of shipping from there either to customers or central locations. [Processing plant] projects we have worked on have all had some degree of storage at the site but not the long-term type.”
Manns adds, “It seems to me more and more the distribution centers are part of the processing plants. So we’re having a lot of the cold-storage actually there as opposed to a separate center. We still are doing free-standing distribution centers, but most of our projects [are] all in one, with processing, packaging and distribution all in one location.”
Indeed, as much as cross-docking, eliminating the formal distribution center in favor of having storage take place at only the processing plant is a key method for reducing inventory and increasing capital efficiency for a bottom-line-driven industry.
The trend of shifting storage and distribution functions to the plant has grown to the extent that PRWs appear to be getting in on the act, too, says Ron Cropsey, marketing and sales manager for Realcold Milmech USA Ltd., an automated freezing equipment supplier based in Kansas City, MO.
“Warehousing is one area that’s increasing interest in Milmech’s products,” says Cropsey. “It [stems from] acceptance of the big companies of third parties owning and operating the process freezing, chilling, and warehousing function at their facilities. We’ve been talking with many warehouse operations in the U.S. about this.
“They would have to address these mega beef and poultry and dairy plants where the services associated with blast chilling or freezing of their boxes or carton products that normally have been done from the exterior of the facility, along with maybe storage and distribution. Rather than putting all the boxes on a pallet and into a truck for transfer of the product over to a centrally located cold-storage facility where the product is frozen and finished, why not build that facility right on-site?”
Having a third party operate the at-plant storage as well as finishing operations could eliminate the palletizing step and create “tremendous potential for improving quality, because you’re going to condition the product much quicker and get it more uniform with less degradation,” Cropsey says.
Adding to the opportunity – but also the complexity – is a concept being considered in some of the deals that calls for the third-party distribution and finishing facility to serve the adjacent plant as its primary client, but also to handle product for other outside clients.
“Even though there’s a lot of interest, there’s still some confusion as far as justification goes,” Cropsey says. “But it’s one of those things where once the mold is broken and the industry starts moving in a certain direction, then it’s going to be tough to stop it.”
Bob Garrison is editor-in-chief of Refrigerated & Frozen Foods, and Jack Neff is a Cincinnati, OH-based free-lance writer. Allison Bardic, senior editor of The NATIONAL PROVISIONER, contributed to this article.
Architectural, engineering, and construction firms and technology suppliers participating in this feature include:
• Carter & Burgess Inc., phone (800) 624-7959, or visit
• Food Tech Structures LLC, phone (800) 880-0118, fax (203) 637-2527, or visit
• Facilities Design Inc., phone (717) 285-9442, fax (717) 285-3102, or visit
• Realcold Milmech USA Ltd., phone (816) 407-9750, fax (816) 407-9751, or visit
• E.A. Bonelli + Associates Inc., phone (510) 740-0155, fax (510) 740-0160, or visit