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Massive Richland freezer is journey through automated world

From the outside, Preferred Freezer Services’ Richland facility is a white monolith looming over the northern part of the city. But inside, millions of pounds of cherries, tater tots and frozen dinners go on a journey through an automated world.

Each day 250 to 300 semi-trucks deliver frozen fruits, vegetables and meats from production plants within 50 miles of the site in the Horn Rapids Industrial Park at the north end of Richland.

Another 10 to 12 rail cars a day pull in through six doors built for them to pick up products.

Much of the new $115 million building is like a Disney Tomorrowland ride — fully automated with monorail and conveyor systems in a sub-zero nitrogen atmosphere where no humans venture without an oxygen tank.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind freezer, not only in its size and scale, but in the complexity of the automation,” said Burnie Taylor, the facility’s general manager. “It’s a first in the industry-type facility.”

About two-thirds of the 116-foot-tall building is freezer space.

“In our industry, this is kind of the new benchmark,” Taylor said. “It is, by far, the largest freezer in North America.”

The building has the largest footprint of any Richland building, said Rick Simon, the city’s development services manager.

“It certainly is a significant boost to our tax revenue, plus the jobs it adds to the community,” he said. “Those are two very significant outcomes.”

The warehouse employs 150 people, while another 40 workers drive Preferred Freezer Services trucks to and from the warehouse that took about 15 months to build.

About 65 percent of the goods are delivered by the company’s trucks to one of four automated docks, where no human needs enter the semi trailers to remove the pallets of food.

Workers manually unload pallets at 14 other docks in the chilly loading bay, cooled to 36 degrees.

A conveyor system attaches to the company’s truck trailers, with their own conveyors inside. The pallets are rolled back and placed on a monorail system to be carried through a series of doors.

“It basically goes in a loop, constantly picking up and dropping off pallets,” Taylor said.

They move into one of three freezer rooms, where temperatures are negative-10 degrees. One of 15 cranes moves down five aisles to stack the food on pallet storage racks.

The entire process is managed by workers in a control room watching on large monitors.

Windows on the mezzanines above the loading docs on the north and west sides of the building also offer views inside the deep freeze.

But the freezer is only entered for maintenance because it’s kept at a very low oxygen level to prevent fires. Self-contained breathing equipment, similar to what firefighters wear, hang outside entrances to the main freezer in case someone must go inside.

The freezer, which can hold up to 250 million pounds of food, allows small and large companies like ConAgra’s Lamb Weston to store their frozen fruits and vegetables.

Products stay in the warehouse an average of a month before being shipped to grocery distribution centers or restaurants.The less than 5-month-old facility already is nearly 70 percent full. Taylor expects it to reach capacity early next year.

The 455,000-square-foot building sits on 40 acres but could grow even bigger. It has infrastructure in place to allow it expand by a third.

It’s Preferred Freezer’s 35th United States facility and just the second in Washington, along with one in Lynden. The company also has three in Asia.

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