How to build concrete slabs for the future of warehousing
The world is in a period of great change – not yet to a fully autonomous future, but well beyond the manual past. Warehouses, where goods and materials are stored and distributed, are prepared to benefit from evolving technologies that can help them overcome the challenges of today. But the infrastructure necessary to support automation is still coming into focus.
Warehouses and distribution centers are tasked with managing that evolution against a backdrop of challenging factors: They need to invest in building facilities and spaces designed to accommodate robots and built for the autonomous future while also delivering the quality, longevity, and performance they need today. Nowhere is this future-ready demand more critical – and literally foundational – than in the flooring of a facility. Today’s concrete should be poured with tomorrow in mind, and warehouse floors should pave the way toward the automated future of your warehousing operations.
A recent PrīmX panel discussion, “How to build efficient, robot- and automation-ready concrete slabs that save CO2 emissions,” focused on the role concrete flooring will play in the future of warehouse construction. Panelists included experts from engineering, flooring, construction, environment, and more sharing knowledge on topics ranging from autonomous equipment in warehouses to reducing concrete CO2 reduction and creating the flexible facilities of the future.
Redefining core expectations for industrial flooring
The pandemic and its subsequent supply chain disruptions have created an environment of rising need for warehousing and distribution centers. Warehouse purchases by retailers shot up between March 2020 and November 2021, driven by a sharp rise in ecommerce and homebound buying. Whether they constitute new constructions or repurposed warehouses, many of these industrial properties require warehouse flooring built to specifications that will withstand years of use by workers and equipment alike.
This time of change warrants a reevaluation of priorities, as many of the things builders expect from concrete flooring solutions will become vital to mitigating today’s issues, increasing efficiency, and preparing for the future.
- Automation ready. The ability to create slabs in accordance with warehouse floor specifications is already crucial. Metrics like floor slab long-term flatness and dimensional stability will remain relevant with the increasing adoption of precise distribution and delivery systems.
- Safety. In the present, manpower and equipment work together on the warehouse floor. Warehouse automation has the potential to reduce injury rates and improve ergonomics, but only if the necessary infrastructure – like warehouse floors designed for robots – allows for smooth, accurate, independent operation.
- Maintenance. Traditional concrete slabs require maintenance twice over: on the joints themselves and on the equipment that operates on it. With time and wear, both the slab and the vehicles that cross it present maintenance liabilities that drive up long-term cost even as you realize the ROI of installation.
Warehouse floors built for an automated, sustainable future
The warehouse automation market is expected to reach $41 billion by 2027, but many of today’s warehouses aren’t built for the future of warehousing. Warehouse floor specifications are often set to accommodate today’s equipment and practices – even if the warehouse itself might be in use for decades to come.
Warehouse automation systems and warehouse floor robots have many different applications, from loading and unloading to sorting and storing. Warehouse flooring design is a crucial element in making systems and robots like these work smoothly:
- Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are robots that can detect, learn, and understand the environment of a warehouse independently to perform tasks without direct supervision.
- Automated Storage & Retrieval Systems (ASRS) combine equipment that handles, stores, and retrieves materials in a warehouse with the controls that guide them.
- Collaborative Robots (also known as ‘cobots’) are lightweight robots that easily integrate into warehouse operations to directly assist humans with tasks that might be repetitive, complex, or hazardous, freeing up your human workforce to think strategically and tackle bigger problems.
- Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), like cobots, perform tasks without human intervention – but in a warehouse, facility, or distribution center, they’re often tasked with transporting the same type of material or items from point A to point B, over and over again.
Depending on the equipment and how it’s used, everything from the flatness of the floor to its dimensional stability and joints can impact the usability and effectiveness of warehouse robots. “Joints can be responsible for robots bumping around, which may reduce the effective lifetime of a robot,” said Tom Andersson, Co-Founder of STIQ. “In short, a flat floor with the fewest number of joints is always best for warehouse automation systems,” he added, noting that flat, jointless floors also reduce the need for intensive maintenance that can lead to downtime and reduce warehouse productivity.
But the autonomous future isn’t just concerned with self-driving equipment, automatic loading, and optimized sorting machines. The warehouse of the future will also be built with flexibility and sustainability in mind – and so will their concrete flooring.
Flexibility of purpose
The industrial world is currently in a distinctly VUCA environment – one characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The unpredictable atmosphere that drives change makes it impractical to build warehouses that are limited to one distinct purpose. Post-pandemic trends in warehousing have shown that it’s difficult to predict how warehouse operations might need to change rapidly, and traditional concrete flooring needs to be able to support change and growth.
“Pandemic years showed us that whatever we do, we have to build with flexibility and agility in mind,” said Janis Oslejs, Founder and CEO PrīmX. “One day, most deliveries go via retail chains. The next, everything must be delivered directly to the customer.”
For example – avoiding joints and rebar allows you to have more flexibility in racking placement and gives your facility more freedom to adapt as your operations evolve.
In 2018, cement production accounted for around 8 percent of global CO2 emissions. Between regulatory guidelines and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, the impact of concrete production reaches beyond concrete CO2 emissions. Sustainable concrete production is becoming a key driver of value for construction companies and warehouse owners.
“Sustainability is moving from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must-have’ situation,” said David Martin, BSc MCIOB AMICE MInstRE, Director of PrīmX UK, “as far as specifications are concerned, as far as client requirements are concerned, and as far as funding is concerned.”
Martin said that for warehouse floors, a smaller concrete carbon footprint translates to environmental credits, certification with regulatory bodies, and advancing your company’s corporate responsibility initiatives.
“We need to make sure that we’re doing these new slabs with as little energy and little emissions and materials as necessary,” said Kevin MacDonald, PhD, PE, P. Eng, President of Beton Consulting Engineers, LLC. “The best way to do that is to have systems that don’t require jointing … and that will remain flat and jointless throughout their service life.”
Martin outlined three primary ways to address the issue of embodied carbon in concrete production as warehousing enters an automated, sustainable future:
- Clever design that uses fewer resources and reduces minimum concrete floor slab thickness without sacrificing performance and longevity.
- Smart materials choices, including testing and mixing available materials to mitigate supply chain challenges.
- Raised production efficiency to reduce cost and commercial uncertainty, which can include tailoring a concrete mix based on local materials.
Reducing waste and ensuring performance with PrīmX
PrīmX’s jointless concrete is a future-proofed solution for warehouses, distribution centers, and material handling facilities. With up to 70% less CO2 emissions, PrīmX concrete flooring is an efficient and environmentally responsible choice for concrete construction that lays the groundwork for the digital transformation of warehouses across the world.