Warehouse, manufacturing facilities go high-tech

Warehouse, manufacturing and logistics buildings are more than simple boxy structures used to make products and store them before they move onto their next destination. Engineers working find these facilities can be as complex and advanced as any other building. What’s more, factors like increased interest in online shopping and demand to have desired products yesterday are boosting demand for these projects.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer May 21, 2020


Leonard Belliveau Jr., PE, SET, vice president, strategic accounts, Jensen Hughes, Framingham, Mass.: Belliveau has more than 22 years of experience managing fire protection engineering design and code consulting on government and commercial projects. Clients include a large shipping company, U.S. Department of Transportation and Leidos Corp.

Jason R. Gerke, PE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C, practice area leader – Mechanical/Plumbing | Principal, GRAEF, Milwaukee.: As a practice area leader, Gerke has worked on a broad range of projects, including convention centers, schools, airports and others. He has more than 12 years of mechanical design, commissioning and project management experience.

George D. Halkias, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB, senior principal, Stantec, Pittsburgh: Serving as senior principal, Halkias brings more than 20 years of experience — as well as knowledge on a wide range of project types — to the company. He has designed, consulted on or managed more than 2 million square feet of U.S. Green Building Council LEED certified buildings.

Josh Meinig, PE, senior mechanical engineer, CDM Smith, Maitland, Fla.: Meinig is the lead mechanical engineer in the southeast region at CDM Smith. He has more than 14 years of experience in mechanical design and construction services for environmental, industrial, military and commercial facilities.

Doug Sandridge, PE, principal, RTM Engineering Consultants, Wheat Ridge, Colo.: Sandridge, principal, comes to RTM from Concord West, an engineering firm specializing in design, construction and management services that the firm acquired in June. His portfolio includes a number of liquor distilleries and international projects.

CSE: What’s the current trend in warehouse, manufacturing and logistics facilities?

Leonard Belliveau Jr.: One of the strategic accounts I am responsible for is working with a very large corporation that ships packages throughout the U.S. and Canada. Due to the nature of the work involved, this client has more than 600 strategically located different sized distribution facilities and warehouses to get the packages to where they need to go.

The biggest trend that I see in this industry is the want, desire and need to be the fastest and most accurate shipping mechanism out there. The industry players have been offering the free two-day shipping option and many of them are looking into the free one-day shipping as a possibility. Seven-day package sorting and shipping is also a trend that is taking over this industry.

Jason R. Gerke: Our firm is seeing a request for manufacturing facilities that were once considered heavy industrial and dirty processes to be high-tech and clean. This request is being addressed with special filtration systems, integrated control systems connecting processes not otherwise interacting and a high level of design phase coordination for system layouts.

George D. Halkias: Multistory warehouses are not just a trend — they are occurring in more densely populated areas. To reduce the distance and therefore the cost, of the “last mile” of deliveries, warehouse spaces are reentering larger suburbs and sometimes urban areas. Multistory warehouses and automated storage systems, like automated storage and retrieval systems, are also becoming more common and the call for more dense storage solutions will continue to increase due to the projects occurring in more populated suburban and urban areas. Additionally, this trend is increasing due to the operational needs of fulfilment activities being included in distribution operations. Moving small or single pieces vertically is more effective in both real estate usage and in material handling.

Josh Meinig: Energy efficiency.

Doug Sandridge: For warehouse distribution centers, it is about turn over. The size and use of the warehouse need to match up with a minimum number of days for turnover of the entire warehouse (days it takes to empty the entire warehouse inventory). Manufacturing facilities are being streamlined for maximum production in the optimal (minimal) space. Construction budgets are tight and engineering fees are competitive for warehouse and cold storage facilities.

CSE: What future trends should engineers and designers expect for such projects?

Halkias: The future is here. With unprecedented requests for shorter project durations, more distribution network capacity and a reduction in retail real estate footprints, the demand for reduced delivery times for online shopping is outpacing the markets ability to meet the demand. Engineers and designers (and also construction professionals) should expect to move forward on their projects in this space without all of the information that would be traditionally required.

Sandridge: The absorption rates of industrial properties in most parts of the country are very low. In states with cannabis, empty warehouses are rarely left on the market for long. New warehouse facilities are being built with speed and economy and are high in demand.

Belliveau: One recent trend that was a future trend, but now in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is a reality, is the no-contact drop-shipping delivery method. There is a push for more automation. One of the more interesting concepts that is being explored is the use of drones for shipping and delivering packages to clients.

In the warehouses and distribution facilities with more automation comes a reduction in people, but an increase in machinery, wires and cable and other materials that may not have been originally thought of when the facilities were first built and the fire protection and other code compliance measures were put in place to protect the buildings. Engineers and designers need to take into account whether these machines and materials add to the combustibles assessment of what is in the building in the terms of additional plastics and wires and cables, power consumption, hydraulic fluids and other oils that are required to make these pieces of equipment function.

Gerke: Design professionals should anticipate these types of facilities will require more connected control systems in the manufacturing environment. Energy use in all building types, but especially in manufacturing is receiving additional scrutiny as the entire design and construction industry works to create lower energy use buildings. This drive for lower energy use buildings is driven by owners’ desires for long term operational savings as well as corporate commitments to goals such as the 2030 Commitment by the AIA to support the 2030 Challenge.

Meinig: Balancing thermal comfort and energy usage.

CSE: How is the growth of immediate-delivery services impacting warehouse and logistics facility projects?

Sandridge: This is called the last mile, products arriving directly to the consumer’s front door. The vast majority of the retail, pharmacy and grocery market sector is rapidly evolving to accommodate and streamline the last mile. The stay at home impact from COVID-19 may reshape or accelerate changes in the last mile. Will consumers return to the stores, like before? Some of RTM’s clients are building smaller warehouses, but in more locations.

Meinig: With dwindling brick and mortar retailers, warehouses and logistics facilities are growing rapidly. As the old saying goes, time is money holds very true for this industry. Delivering the project on time and on budget is a necessity in this industry.

Halkias: Immediate delivery services (less than one day) is the next large trend in the warehouse, distribution and fulfillment center space. We have been seeing the impacts of this trend as well. More distribution spaces are being called for in almost every geography. With a shortage of available move-in ready leased space, some companies are building their own networks of distribution buildings. As many consumers globally have increased (and will be increasing) their online shopping the push for much more capacity in this space will be exponential in 2020 and 2021.

Belliveau: Because of the emergence of the immediate-delivery services, the amount of throughput is increasing. These facilities are seeing more packages come through. Shifts are being added so that in some cases facilities are running 24/7. Wear and tear on the machines require technicians and mechanics to keep a regular preventive maintenance routine as well as dealing with the immediate concerns of machinery malfunction and or breakdown that will need to be repaired to minimize the down time.

CSE: What types of challenges do you encounter for these types of projects that you might not face on other types of structures?

Belliveau: Warehouses bring a lot of challenges that your typical rectangular five-story office building do not bring. A lot of times the buildings consist of one very large space that is not subdivided into smaller spaces. There can be lots of complex machinery and/or an interwoven menagerie of conveyers that move products from place to place. This equipment poses challenges

Halkias: Schedule, schedule and schedule. Speed to market is the only conversation. How quickly can we design, permit and construct are the issues on every project in this space? The challenges of “schedule stacking” and the risks associated with that activity for all the project components needs to be discussed at the outset of these projects, so that all parties can manage their expectations and risks. For existing structures (especially those built under previous codes) the additional challenges surrounding air conditioning, increasing ventilation and more stringent fire protection are the most common. For these older structures, these issues usually add insulation requirements and air change requirements that are costly and time-consuming to implement.

Sandridge: Automation systems and robotics are changing the way these facilities are being designed. It’s all about speed, both for storage and retrieval. Automation in fulfillment centers is in response the last mile race.

Meinig: With maximizing storage space, room for mechanical equipment is at a premium. Innovative was to condition the space must be used. Another challenge for these massive spaces is fuel source for heating. The site must be carefully selected not only from a logistics standpoint but an operational energy standpoint.

CSE: What are professionals doing to ensure such projects (both new and existing structures) meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Gerke: The design industry has always needed to make considerations for what is next when designing a new building or renovation. Sometimes these considerations made during design are evident in the final building product, such as extra space in telecommunication rooms, oversized electrical services, heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment rooms that include space for additional connection and other decisions to allow for future growth.

However, building codes require right-sizing of building HVAC systems and owners are not interested in empty space in a building that is squeezing their corporate budgets. Design professionals need to look at other opportunities to allow for new and emerging technologies to be incorporated, such as building infrastructure connections for future expansion, specifying systems that create a strong backbone — whether literally a strong information technology backbone or robust control systems that are expandable. Finally, design professionals must always consider the use of the latest technology to facilitate future upgrades.

Sandridge: You have to understand the technology. If your client is a manufacturer, you have to understand the process and be able to recommend ways to improve efficiency. At RTM, our engineers are experts at integrating production equipment with the building and with building utility systems.

Meinig: Professionals have a responsibility to the clients and their profession to use and make owner aware of new technology and the benefits.

Belliveau: Partnering with these companies and establishing a strategic account relationship devotes a single point of contact to keep watch on everything from providing a cost estimate for a particular project, to assigning the right knowledgeable and geographically located engineer to be the lead, to developing standardized document templates so that projects can be bid out properly, maintaining a list of recommended contractors to go to and holding regular weekly (and daily, if need be) communication sessions over conference call, email, video conferencing or some other medium with the entire team so that everyone is updated on the project and there are no surprises. Above all, communication is the most important thing that is and should be happening with projects to meet these challenges.

CSE: In what ways are you working with information technology experts to meet the needs and goals of a warehouse, manufacturing or logistics facility?

Sandridge: RTM designs all low-voltage systems and we can integrate the original equipment manufacturer controls with process operation control systems. In some cases, we will modify existing OEM controls or add a human-machine interface such as graphic display, to enhance production efficiency or better interface with building systems.

Gerke: The increased demand for interconnected control systems brings together numerous disciplines or departments that have not always worked as intimately in the past. HVAC controls have typically have not been concerned about machine tool control system architecture or control language, plumbing systems have not needed to watch the weather to estimate rainfall to refill a water reuse system. The requirements for these systems to communicate has required not just the previously disconnected systems to now talk, but to figure out how they talk through programming, wiring and black boxes.

Meinig: With the facilities that I’ve seen, the owners usually look for integration of the building management systems with their preferred vendor.

CSE: Describe a high-tech industrial manufacturing facility project. What were its unique demands and how did you achieve them?

Halkias: While all of our manufacturing clients and projects are confidential, we can describe some of how they are unique and what some of the trends are to be expecting. Automation, clean manufacturing and additive manufacturing and their effect on building systems, are where we see the most activity.

We should add that robotics is the game changer. How do you design a facility where robots are building other robots? The detailed process planning, key equipment coordination, pre-assembly, crucial data networking and full system commissioning are some of the mission critical portions to this answer. Fully integrating your design team into the engineering team for your clients and vice versa is the only way to start the process.

Meinig: We are designing a U.S. Air Force storage facility in Europe with dual traveling bridge cranes with precise humidity control. Traveling bridge cranes will be provided with automated inventory management system.

Sandridge: High-tech or advanced manufacturing require controlled environments. With some facilities, we have to minimize or filter out certain particles from the production space (cleanroom). And others require prevention of static electricity or other induced currents from damaging sensitive electronics. Also, we will enhance security features and systems for this type of facilities, due to the intellectual property or Department of Defense requirements.

CSE: Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy.

Gerke: Our company is finishing the design of a new manufacturing facility for a large mining equipment company in Milwaukee. This new facility will reduce the process equipment energy demand by more than 30% as compared to the existing facility. This energy savings is in the process systems alone and does not include other energy savings related to HVAC, lighting and overall building environmental improvements. To achieve this energy reduction, a robust control system with monitoring points throughout the facility is being implemented to provide feedback to a central user interface. This system of monitoring points, cutting edge process systems and building systems far in excess of code minimums is allowing this manufacturer to meet their energy and water use reduction goals.

Sandridge: A recent project for SWARCO in Mexia, Texas, gives a great example of building system and process system integration. Exhaust fans and cooling systems were actually attached to the superstructure of a large piece of process equipment. Both structural and electrical modifications were required for the process equipment. This design resulted in less ductwork and piping to be installed, had

Meinig: A current project is for the U.S. Air Force in Luxembourg. This project is part of the European Reassurance Initiative for storage of Air Force war readiness materials. Not located on a base, host nation codes needed to be followed in addition to a few Unified Facilities Criteria. The design is down is both French and English along with metric units and European construction standards. The warehouses have controlled humidity systems, fire protection and automated crane systems.

CSE: How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?

Sandridge: The codes can’t be compromised and industrial buildings typically do not have a lot of aesthetic features. If cost of a project must come down, our company will work with the owner to phase in production equipment, reduce the footprint of the building or help them evaluate other production equipment that might be less expensive.

Belliveau: In our case, we are using standardized templates for bid documents so that small revisions can be made to tailor the project to that facility if there are changes. We also look at cost estimate and pricing templates, proposal templates and using staff that are familiar with these type of projects and have built relationships and a reputation with the authorities having jurisdiction as well as the contractors working on the projects and client’s project engineering teams. It’s all about trust. By using documents that are technically accurate and repeatable, it quickens the response time needed to draft and distribute these documents.

Meinig: Through energy modeling and using building information modeling, construction costs can be accurately estimated and value engineering options can be evaluated on the fly.

Gerke: The days of design-bid-build are largely gone. Design professionals must be adaptable to a variety of project delivery methods. Any large-scale project involving our firm has a construction manager on board early in the design phase, typically at the same time the architectural engineering firm is hired by the owner.

The early involvement of a construction manager/general contractor/cost estimator is imperative in today’s building industry. Owners want to understand project costs and receive verification throughout the design process that the project is trending toward their planned budget. Contractor review of design documents for pricing feedback and constructability reviews throughout the design phase provide valuable information to the design team and help mitigate everyone’s favorite part of projects, the deadly value engineering phase. Getting in front of contractor suggestions that may occur late in the design phase or bidding phase allows the design professional to ensure that the owner project requirements are met as well as code requirements without sacrifice.

CSE: How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery, virtual reality or virtual design and construction into a project?

Meinig: Our team provides IPD through our design build process with our in-house contractors. Construction materials and systems are vetted with the owner and procured in advanced to streamline the process. This eliminates rework and speeds construction. Progressive design build is another way we deliver in a fast-passed industry. Construct while the design process is still underway.

CSE: What is the typical project delivery method your firm uses when designing these a facility?

Halkias: We’ve begun using the term “schedule stacking” to describe a delivery methodology focused on achieving the clients end date. This term means that tasks that would typically align in a schedule after another task is completed, now start before its traditional predecessor is completed (and even before that!). This method requires a significant amount of trust and communication from all parties. Owners, developers, engineers, architects and contractors must be able to talk through all of the issues, roadblocks and obstacles openly and as early as possible. Each party needs to respect that each other party is working hard to achieve the end goal while understanding they must move forward with partial information.

Gerke: A recent project manufacturing designed by GRAEF included a standard contract arrangement between the architect and engineer resulting an agreement similar to design-bid-build. However, the owner hired a construction manager at the same time the design team was selected. While neither party was contractually obligated to work together beyond exchanging information throughout the design phase, the overall goal was for the owner to make informed decisions about the cost of specific systems and criteria throughout the design phase.

Meinig: For these types of facilities, design-build is almost always seen. Depending on the client, integrated project delivery or progressive design is used.