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Custom Safety Solutions for Coles’ Automated Warehouse

In Australia, robotic fulfilment centres and autonomous warehouses are revolutionising logistics and supply chain management. However, this exciting new age in construction comes with unique challenges.

A major challenge is that Australia currently lacks compliance standards for these types of facilities. While traditional buildings and warehouses are governed by a set of regulatory guidelines, robotic fulfilment centres and autonomous warehouses are navigating uncharted territory.

Without guiding standards, everyone in the construction chain faces previously unseen complexities. An increasing number of companies are learning that the hard way.

Advanced height safety solutions for Coles’ new automated distribution centre.

We worked with Coles and Ocado to address complex height safety challenges that arose in the construction of Coles’ new automated distribution centre. Before we jump into this pioneering project, here are the key players:

  • Coles: National supermarket retailer building a new automated distribution centre.
  • The builder: Engaged by Coles to build the warehouse for the distribution centre.
  • Ocado: Engaged by Coles to supply and install the robotic system that makes automated distribution possible.
  • Workplace Access & Safety (that’s us!): Engaged by Coles and Ocado to ensure the robotic system could be safely commissioned.

The challenge for Coles & Ocado.

A red flag.

During warehouse construction, the builder faced an unexpected challenge when integrating Ocado’s state-of-the-art robotic grid system — the first of its kind in Australia. Despite a track record of successful installations around the world, it became clear that Ocado’s robotic system could not be accessed safely by staff at heights for calibration or maintenance, and the builder flagged this as a concern.

The builder also knew that if a fall from heights did occur during the robotic system’s commissioning, Australian safety laws placed the liability on their shoulders, so risk mitigation was a big factor for them.

The grid explained.

Let’s rewind a little — the automatic robotic grid is a steel structure that sits about eight metres off the ground, just below the warehouse ceiling. Once calibrated, the grid becomes the nerve centre of the warehouse, with robots efficiently navigating to sort, stack, and dispatch products.

However, commissioning the robotic system requires precise calibration of the grid to ensure robots can move with pinpoint accuracy. Even a minor misalignment would disrupt the robots’ precision, affecting the entire distribution process.

While elevated-work-platforms (EWPs) were safely used to build the grid, the calibration phase had to be performed from on top of the grid (remember, it’s eight meters off the ground!). The current way of doing this was deemed unsafe, so the builder engaged a Stop Work Order until Ocado/Coles could find a safe way of doing it.

The urgency in finding a solution.

The Stop Work Order had immediate financial implications, costing Coles hundreds of thousands of dollars daily. To resume construction, Coles needed an expert to review Ocado’s procedures and documentation related to the commissioning and maintenance processes. In navigating this complex challenge, Coles recognised the need for specialised expertise and turned to WAS for assistance.

We connected with Ocado’s UK-based team and, appreciating the urgency of the project, arranged a meeting between Coles, Ocado, the builder and WAS the next day.

Why WAS was selected.

As a part of their due diligence, Coles explored various height safety companies. However, our competitors failed to meet Coles’ needs, often pushing unnecessary products rather than viable solutions.

This is where WAS stood out. Unlike others, we offered an independent, product-neutral assessment, focusing exclusively on resolving the safety challenge at hand. Our approach was simple: review all procedures and documentation to recommend a safer commissioning process.

This commitment to unbiased, expert advice quickly positioned us as the preferred choice for Coles.

Overcoming unique hazards & challenges.

A week after our initial consultation, our team was on the ground at the warehouse. With a first-hand view of the challenges, we started reviewing the existing procedures and outlined the necessary steps forward.

It quickly became clear that a solution for this complex situation was not readily available within the Australian market. We had to create a bespoke solution — a process that involved not only the design, but also a retrofit installation onto the existing structure as well as onsite testing.

1. An active environment.

Because of the active environment, operational limitations and set infrastructure dictated the approach of our work. As a result, the project demanded creative thinking and problem-solving, which showcased our ability to innovate under pressure.

2. Load testing.

Load testing was essential to ensure the height safety solution we designed would support weight appropriately if someone fell from the grid. Given that the grid was a steel structure, a predominant concern was the potential for the steel to cut the rope of an inertia reel or restraint line during a fall. An event like that could result in a certain fatality.

Through rigorous tests, our objective was to guarantee that this scenario could not occur. This kind of testing was a world first and had never been done before on a grid system.

3. Not designed for humans.

These systems are designed for robots, but it’s still up to humans to perform maintenance — a factor commonly overlooked. While these systems operate smoothly when functional, challenges arise during breakdowns, testing, or when any form of human intervention is required at height.

With our consulting and implementation of improved procedures, personnel can now safely access areas.

Happy clients & outstanding outcomes.

Once our height safety initiatives had been implemented, there was a flow-on effect felt by all stakeholders. Ocado were able to safely calibrate their robotics grid, and Coles’ distribution centre is now operational.

Safer operations for all.

The outcomes made possible by WAS not only contribute to safer, more efficient, and sustainable operations for our clients, but also within the field of automated logistics and warehousing.

  • Designed and implemented complex height safety systems to safely enable grid commissioning, addressing a previously unmet need in the Australian market.
  • Successful onsite custom load testing of the designed safety system to ensure it could withstand the weight and prevent accidents; a first-of-its-kind for grid systems.
  • Enhanced maintenance capabilities, enabling safe human access for repairs, testing, and retrieval of malfunctioning robots.
  • Reduction in operational downtime and financial losses associated with the decommissioning of valuable robotic assets.
  • Establishing new precedents for future Ocado installations, including retrofit projects in Australia.
  • Provided an independent, expert approach to developing safety solutions, free from conflicts of interest and focused on addressing the specific project needs.

One final takeaway.

This was a complex and highly unique consulting project — but it didn’t have to be.

If WAS were engaged in the design or architectural phase of this project, it’s very likely the warehouse could have utilised an off-the-shelf height safety system. Although we still installed a quality system, our mid-project involvement led to a complicated and expensive custom safety solution for Coles.

The key takeaway is this: when you collaborate with WAS early — during the planning phase — you can avoid a host of complications, leveraging simpler, more cost-effective solutions and ensuring a smoother project progression.

Don’t wait for red flags.

Integrating height safety solutions from the earliest stages of design is not just beneficial — it’s essential. However, if you’ve already started construction, know that WAS can custom design and retrofit extremely complex height safety solutions. And we’ll never try to sell you what you don’t need — we’re independent and solely focused on the task at hand.

Whether you’re embarking on the construction of an automated warehouse, a robotic fulfillment center, or any project where safety and efficiency are paramount, it’s time to think about safety solutions. Contact us to get started.