As large food processors and distributors push for fresher and safer products, quicker distribution, and cheaper storage along the way, cold storage operators increasingly respond with more and more automation wrapped in the tough, thick skin of a temperature-controlled building.

“There’s a push for higher quality at a lower cost,” said Jonas Swarttouw, US country manager of NewCold, a Netherlands-based cold storage developer and operator that has recently begun a push in America. “The next generation of cold storage warehouses is high-tech solution.”

On many fronts, cold storage is playing technological catch-up with the dry-goods warehouse industry. Propelled by the relentless distribution and fulfillment demands of ecommerce, dry-goods warehouses have been forced to layer robotic hardware and automation software on top of traditional methods. Cold storage, by contrast, hasn’t had the pressure from its customer base to invest heavily in automation.

That’s changing. “The fish guy or the cheese guy has yet to have proof that there’s a huge requirement to go into the newest, most cutting edge, most technologically, cutting edge advanced buildings, because they are cost conscious,” said Scott Pertel, senior managing director of the real estate brokerage and advisory firm HFF. “That being said, as all costs continue to rise as to freezing products, as time to delivery becomes more relevant, the trends are starting to prove out where the buildings that are the most functional in the best locations that have the lowest operating costs, are starting to take tenants from the older antiquated buildings.”

These new buildings don’t come cheaply. NewCold, for example, is spending almost $200 million on two cold storage warehouses in the Pacific Northwest, one in Washington and one in Idaho. These were developed with particular customers in mind: Seattle-based Trident Seafoods for the Tacoma warehouse, which opened in May; and McCain Foods, the world’s largest manufacturer of frozen French fries, for the Burley, Idaho warehouse, due to open next spring.

Technology includes automated storage and retrieval systems – AS/RS, consisting of elevators, conveyor belts and driverless stacker cranes, which can easily lift and retrieve pallets in racks that extend to near the ceiling of the 40-foot-tall buildings. The buildings are cooled to minus 5F. Trucks are unloaded inside this temperature-controlled environment, which, the company claims, saves 50% the energy costs over traditional cold storage warehouses.

One big key, Swarttouw said, is advanced software that regulates warehouse management, material control and programmable logic controllers. In each case, NewCold uses its own proprietary software, including its WMS, developed and marketed by a wholly owned subsidiary, Davanti. “We decided early in our history that the software was at the core of our activities. It enables us to operate warehouses very reliably,” said Swarttouw.

Just how automated a new-generation cold storage warehouse should be isn’t at all clear-cut.

“For the type of customers that we have, we think it’s useful to automate all the flows of pallets through the warehouse from the moment of unloading the trucks through storage back to where the trucks are loaded,” explained Swarttouw. “However, there are certain value-added activities, for instance, repacking, re-boxing, case picking, some of the small touches, we still have people do that.” But the direction is quite clear. Pertel describes a New Jersey warehouse his firm is in the process of selling. “This building is operated by five employees” equipped with computers and joysticks, Pertel said, who remotely maneuver AS/RS. “The entire building is operated in the dark.”