Cold chain storage facilities can be extremely dangerous places for operators to work in. Tony Raggio, General Sales Manager, and Wade Adams, Group Manager at Dematic, explain to MHD why the company’s third-generation freezer rated automated guided vehicles are suitable solutions for smoother and safer operations.
Dematic is renowned for designing, building, and providing intelligent automated solutions.
Its latest innovation is the third iteration of its freezer rated automated guided vehicles (AGVs) – driverless robotic forklifts that operate autonomously to transport a wide range of materials within a facility – for cold chain storage environments. This is the only one of its kind available on the Australian market, and one of few available worldwide.
When working on these newest AGVs, Dematic’s local Sydney-based operations, had to meet the new global safety standard, which requires any type of AGVs or AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) to include certain safety sensors, devices, and safe program logic to avoid and proactively minimise risks in the workplace.
The third-generation freezer rated AGVs feature advancements in both sensor and navigation technologies, on both the high-reach and counterbalance models, and has been entirely designed and built in Australia where it’s being deployed.
Cold storage facilities pose occupational health and safety risks, which can lead to injuries in the workplace. A range of safety checks and restrictions are required to protect operators.
According to SafeWork NSW, working in extremely cold environments increases risk to worker health and safety.
A list of potential harms from prolonged exposure to cold stress includes fatigue, mild to serious health issues (increased risk of incident/injury, hypothermia, and frostbite/trench foot), and long-term health effects (arthritis, rheumatism, breathing difficulties, and heart disease).
Workers in manual warehouse freezer operations need frequent breaks from the cold – every hour worked in the freezer requires 10 to 20 minutes out of the freezer. An AGV system minimises these risks and increases productivity because it can pick and transport products full-time in -25°C environments automatically and can be controlled remotely if required.
AGVs operating in Australia are covered under the recently updated Australian Standard – AS 5144-4 (equivalent to the International Standard – ISO 3691-4), which specifies clear procedures for achieving safety for both manufacturers and operators.
Dematic AGVs are designed to meet the Australian safety standards. Some of the safety features include: 360° safety scanning system with automatic slowing and stopping; easily accessible emergency stop buttons; visual and audible warning and alarm lights; redundant and safety-rated features; and compliant system and solution design.
Food & beverage and grocery supply chains operating cold storage facilities will find AGVs can help them overcome the complex challenges compounded by occupational health & safety and labour shortages. This solution can perform in these harsh cold chain environments 24/7.
“Our design team paid a lot of attention to detail when redeveloping the latest AGVs,” says Wade Adams, Group Manager (Mobile Automation) at Dematic. “They looked at serviceability, usability, and operability. These operators can’t be inside these cold storage facilities for long due to the potentially hazardous conditions.”
While AGVs overall run predictably, the in-built safety sensors ensure that on the rare occasion when something doesn’t go to plan – such as an unexpected hazard (material or human) getting in the path of an AGV –the AGV will stop and avoid any incidents with items in their field of view.
These AGVs are not only less likely to cause harm, injury or damage to workers, products, or warehouse infrastructure, they’re also capable of increasing productivity and efficiency gains. Dematic’s AGV safety package includes both in-depth personnel training and environmental awareness.
“This isn’t a common application,” explains Tony Raggio, General Sales Manager – Dematic ANZ Mobile Automation. “Dematic is one of only a handful of automation companies globally creating these freezer rated solutions.
“We have 10 years’ worth of experience in this field. One of the things that’s changed during this time, is that we now have access to freezer-rated components whereas a decade ago we had to work with non-freezer rated components.”
AUSTRALIAN MADE AND OPERATED
Freezer applications are usually in remote areas such as rural parts of a state or territory. This coupled with harsh working conditions usually deters potential operators from applying for cold chain-related roles.
AGVs suit the cold storage facilities because – unlike workarounds such as regular forklifts with an enclosed and heated cab – they don’t impact the environment’s regulated subzero temperature that they’re operating in.
An AGV solution remains in the freezer where it can sort several thousand pallets. By moving the AGV in and out, it means there’s no need to open doors frequently, and it makes it easier to control the room’s temperature.
“AGVs don’t have heated cabins that create excessive heat,” Tony says. “That would then require us to add more energy to keep the freezer cold.”
Two committees – one from Dematic’s parent company, KION Group, called Global Safety Committee – and Dematic’s own Local Steering Safety Committee, reviewed the global standard and developed a program off the back of it. This involved a full risk assessment and implementing the controls. It was executed locally and supported globally.
“We’re the only AGV company that has a design and software team based in Australia, which is unique for this market,” notes Wade. “We can install the AGV and provide local support for the system. We have service teams in the major capital cities, and they’re all trained specifically on these AGVs.”
The freezer rated components used in the AGVs are from Dematic’s suppliers. AGVs have replaced the human element in the harsh refrigerated environment with a machine that is only removed from there when it needs to be serviced. An operator rarely needs to go into the freezer; they can simply handle all the operations on the other side of the wall.
“There are always operational reasons for people to go into the cold storage facility, but this new generation minimises the duration the personnel needs to spend in those environments,” explains Wade. “By minimising exposure to the cold, you can minimise risks.”
Manual labour in refrigerated environments and using a freezer forklift is gruelling, says Tony. “Operators don’t need to be a mechatronics engineer to monitor a Dematic AGV. Forklift drivers can operate these solutions. While the technology’s hardware and software are complex, the interface has been designed to be simple and easy to use.
“Our AGVs don’t require full-time attention. The operator only needs to spend a small percentage of their time monitoring the AGV, which means they can focus on other tasks and the business can save on costs.”
INCREASING PRODUCTIVITY AND ROI
To help customers with operating Dematic’s AGVs, the company offers mentoring and training programs. This involves onboarding and equipping operators with the skills required to use the solution when its system goes live without needing a Dematic technician in the facility.
“I use the phrase predictable logistics,” Tony says. “If you’re trying to run a business at 100 pallets an hour, and all of a sudden four forklift drivers don’t turn up for work, then you can only run 50 pallets an hour.
“If an AGV solution is designed to run at 100 pallets an hour, you can count on it to run at 100 pallets an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And with labour, you can’t do that, so you don’t have the reliability in your business of knowing what you’re going to be able to produce because you don’t know who’s going to turn up to work in the morning.”
He notes many of Dematic’s customers are saying they are currently experiencing high staff turnover and a competitive landscape when it comes to wages.
“For example, five people may turn up for an interview. They’ll be offered a job then when Monday comes around, only two people will show up. This is often due to the fact that the roles require working in cold storage facilities where the conditions are tough and very unpleasant.”
For those running multi-shift operations, Dematic AGVs can provide extremely short ROIs.
“One person per shift can monitor and support 15 AGVs,” explains Wade.
“In most safe work method statements or risk assessments, there’s a risk matrix, which works on the premise of consequence versus probability or likelihood. By removing team members from the operation or lowering their duration in the cold environment, you can work to lower the risk of incidents.”
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