Cold Storage: New and Emerging Technologies

By Mark Edward Nero

The coronavirus global pandemic turned the food supply chain on its head during the first quarter of 2020, but one thing it didn’t have an adverse effect on was the demand for cold storage, which continues to grow for the commercial fishing industry.

According to market research and consulting firm Reports and Data, the global cold chain market, which was valued at $197 billion in 2018, is expected to reach $358 billion by the end of 2026, at an annual growth rate of 7.7 percent.

The market for seafood in particular is expected to be high in the future, with demand growing in part due to advancement in processing, according to Reports and Data.

Also, according to another firm, San Francisco-based Grand View Research, the North American market for cold chain storage, is expected to more than double between 2019 and 2025, driven by improvements in packaging and processing as well as shifts in the retail landscape.

To keep pace with the expected growth, companies in the commercial fishing industry in the US and elsewhere have been investing in new and emerging technologies, processes and equipment, including blast freezers and transportation, to keep pace.

Among those methods cold storage providers are using in today’s market are individual quick freezing, increasing investment in automation, energy efficiency and company mergers and acquisitions.

Fast Growing Market
North America is expected to have the fastest growing markets for individual quick chilling over the new few years, according to Reports and Data, due to the growing amount of investments in various food processing technologies by quick chilling equipment manufacturers.

Among the Pacific Northwest companies expanding their footprint in the cold storage industry is Bellingham Cold Storage in northwest Washington. Currently, the company already has 16 cold storage warehouses – both open and with push-back rack systems – on its 25-acre property. In recent months, BCS has begun to develop two more warehouses, which would be the 19th and 20th overall, including chill and dry storage.

BCS is already among the largest portside cold storage complexes on the West Coast, with an area of 550,000 square feet and a volume of 13.6 million cubic feet, with a capacity of 145 million pounds of product. It also has ultra-cold storage available, at -20 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as a Customs-bonded warehouse.

Cold storage facilities like BCS are generally under more pressure to manage energy costs than other types of warehouses, with energy being the number two expense in most cold chain warehouses, behind labor. With this in mind, last year, BCS made the decision to become a 100-percent voluntary corporate purchaser of renewable energy.

Through a wind and solar power distribution company, Bellingham Cold Storage buys renewable energy certificates produced by generators throughout the United States, encouraging the development of new clean energy sources by providing renewable developers with additional revenue, which in turn helps them sell electricity at prices that are competitive with power plants that use other energy sources.

BCS continually works to use less energy by upgrading systems and equipment and becoming more efficient at the work it does.

For example, in 2019, BCS placed a new roof on one of its warehouses that adds an additional four inches of foam-board insulation. This helps reduce heat loss and thus lessen necessary equipment runtime.

Another project the company has undertaken is adding speed doors to a couple of warehouses that open and close faster, thus allowing less heat to enter those buildings. BCS has also installed energy-efficient LED lighting on site.

Blast Freezing
A global player in the cold storage industry is Lineage Logistics, which serves both North America and Europe and is the world’s largest refrigerated warehousing company.

Among the cold storage services that the Michigan-based business offers at many of its locations is blast freezing of seafood, FDA and USDA inspection services, and product picking and packing.

Under blast freezing, fish are placed in big rooms called blast freezers, then very cold air, between -35F and -25F, is blasted through the product to freeze it and allow for safe storage and transport.

Lineage, which has about 100 facilities in North America, including several in Washington, Oregon and California, has also been part of a trend of mergers and acquisitions within the cold storage market, as some companies have been using this strategy to grow their customer base, and and are theoretically expected to drive the market for frozen seafood products.

For instance, in 2019 alone, Lineage made three significant acquisitions: first, it bought global warehouse operator Preferred Freezer Services in February. Then in September, it acquired two European facilities from Van Soest Coldstores. In November the company purchased Emergent Cold, giving it a new hold in the Australian, New Zealand and Sri Lankan temperature-controlled logistics markets.

Individual Quick Freezing
Since seafood products can only take 10 days to a few weeks of cold storage before spoiling or becoming unsuitable for serving, prolonging the life of the product via freezing is imperative if it’s going to be shipped out to a different region.

An already established process that has helped the effort and is expected to continue to grow in popularity is Individual Quick Freezing, or IQF, which allows compact pieces of seafood, such as shrimp and small fish, to be individually frozen in a matter of minutes.

According to an analysis released in March by Reports and Data, the global IQF market, which was valued at nearly $16 billion in 2018, is expected to reach $23.65 billion by 2026.
Along with the reduced freezing time, one advantage of IQF of over forms of freezing is the lessened possibility of water molecules joining to create ice crystals, which can damage fish at the molecular level and thereby ruin the product.

An added advantage of IQF technology, proponents say, is its ability to separate units of the products during freezing, which can produce higher quality product compared to block freezing. This is something vital for food sustainability, since the consumer can defrost and use exactly the amount of product needed.

Increased Automation
Another area where the cold storage industry has seen evolution in the past couple of years is automation to perform tasks that had traditionally been performed by humans. Automation technology that has been integrated into the design of current cold storage facilities, experts say, can generate savings in building costs as well as labor and energy.

Lineage Logistics is one company that has invested heavily in robotics.

“Professionals in the cold chain can agree on a universal truth: automation is the future,” the company says. “At Lineage, we embrace automation as an opportunity to further ensure efficiency, food safety and sustainability in our customers’ extended supply chains – and we have made the investment and commitment to prove it.”
The company’s Sunnyvale, Texas facility is the world’s most advanced automated warehousing and food distribution facility, according to the company.

Some of the facility’s primary automated solutions are also used in the company’s other deep-freeze or temperature-controlled warehouses, including: pallet stacker crane systems; pallet shuttles; pallet conveyors; and automated carton-handling systems.

Pallet stacker crane systems can enable vertical storage up to 140 feet by eliminating the need for forklifts; they allow aisle widths to be reduced from 12 feet to five feet, thus freeing up additional space for storage.
Robotic pallet shuttles in deep-freeze and chilled temperature warehouses are capable of storing pallet loads in high-density configurations at heights up to 110 feet.

Pallet conveyor systems can provide energy efficient automated transportation of pallets for both light and heavy loads, while automated carton handling can automate the task of building shop-friendly pallets by combining goods shuttle systems, conveyors and high-performance de-palletizing and palletizing robotic technology.

Automation systems in low temperature environments, however, require some special adaptations to perform reliably, such as cameras on racks to enable remote visibility; cold-resistant lubrication for equipment; service-friendly control cabinets and motors should be placed close to the ground wherever possible to facilitate access.
Also, in order to limit service technicians’ exposure to harsh environments and reduce the time it takes them to make repairs, quick-disconnect couplings can be added.

Going Strong
While the cold storage industry may have been taxed by the pandemic that gripped much of the world in the early part of the year and whose lingering effects are being felt in North America and elsewhere, the industry is still effective in the wake of the adversity.

And if projections are correct, the commercial fishing industry will likely increasingly rely on commercial storage to help get its product to consumers undamaged and in a timely manner.