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Jack of all trades, master of none?

Design issues continue to plague cold stores in the GCC region

| | Jul 11, 2017 | 9:37 am
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The 8th edition of the Food Chain conference hosted intense discussions on issues plaguing cold storage facilities today. In this, the second part of the report, we present to you highlights of the energetic exchange amongst industry experts, who touched on such issues as design and construction practices, as well as the vital role that regulation can play in enhancing standards…

You may read part 1 here


Cold stores play an indispensable role in food safety management. In view of that, Ghaleb Abusaa, CEO, GASO, said there is an increasing demand for reliable cold store facilities. “In general terms,” he said, “cold storage [is set to] have natural expansion because of the natural increase in population all over the world, especially in this part of world.” Samee Ashfaq Patel, General Manager, RSA Cold Chain, shared figures in support of this statement during his presentation, where he noted that there is a huge potential for growth and RSA has forecast that “one million incremental pallet positions are likely to be added in food supply chain in the GCC region, based on the urban consumer base, with preference for convenient food options and varied food assortments.”

To further drive the point, Bjorn Ostbye, Project Development Manager, Lulu Hypermarkets, spoke on the company’s strategic expansion plan that also reflects the increasing demand. “We are opening one hypermarket per month this year,” he said. “Next year, two per month, the year after, it’s three per month. That will be around 75-80 hypermarkets in the next three years.” The news falls in line with the company sharing its interest in up-to- standard cold storage facilities. “Cold chain is the most important thing we are facing,” he said.

Room for improvement

Gleaning from his experience in the industry, Ostbye said that there is much room for improvement with regard to cold store facilities in the GCC region. He noted the problem in the region is that fresh and frozen food is received from everywhere in the world, adding he has seen poor conditions not only with the temperature of some produce when it reaches the cold room but also the state of the facility, even sharing his experience of a time when it was full of insects, snakes and scorpions. “When I came to the Middle East, 33 years back,” Ostbye said, “there were not a lot of people dealing with refrigeration. I’m still here, and I’m watching what’s happening.” He added that while there is a lot of talk surrounding innovation across various fields, there are still less-than-satisfactory refrigeration practices within the industry.

One size fits all?

An important issue the industry faces with regard to design is the one-size-fits-all approach of cold stores being leased out. As Brent Melvin, COO, Almajdouie Logistics, put it: “[There are] issues with people that come in and invest in cold stores and [they are] not cold store developers but [they are in] construction, developing a cold store and leasing it out. So, who designed and created the ins and outs, the flows, the quality, the insulation, the flooring. How does that look as an industry?”

Abhishek Ajay Shah, Co-founder and Managing Director, RSA Cold Chain, shared his insight on design from a developer’s perspective, speaking on initial challenges prior to the opening of RSA’s new facility: “We get customers with us 3-5 years, but you’re building a building for 20-25 years. How do you build for flexibility with the right efficiency and materials, to ensure that you’re able to be malleable to the future needs of the customers?”

Abusaa said that it is important to set parameters before embarking on a discussion on specification as the intended use of a cold store plays a very important role in its initial design. Abusaa said: “If it’s built for general purpose or rent, it becomes complicated, because in this case, you have to build it to accommodate any possible type, as much as possible, within the limited budget of the client. [This means that] today, he might be storing [products] above zero, tomorrow he wants to have it frozen.” Abusaa added that in such cases, the client would want to have multiple stages of the refrigeration system for greater flexibility. He commented that one day, the client might store potatoes and onions and special ventilation is needed, but then on other, the client will be storing other vegetation that will require different parameters. The size of the room, he noted, also has a large impact. “If it is a big storage, where you put frozen food, the bigger the room the better they are,” he said. “Because you have a minimum size in the room for you to utilise it at the right cost with the right income.”

Nadia Abdul Aziz, President, The National Association of Freight and Logistics (NAFL), expressed the same opinion. “Custom-built, readymade warehouses are good,” she said. “There, you can start working immediately, because if you’re building your own [even] if you’ve got an excellent contractor it will take him five months to do it for you; if you have a consultant, there is work in place and you know what you want. You have to look at the cost factor and what type of products you’re moving. If the ready-made warehouse has the tracking system in place, an ample docking bay and has all the requirements for your kind of business, then it can do.”

A push for specialised solutions

Similarly, Aziz firmly encouraged the value of investing in customised cold store facilities, as they provide specialised solutions that are especially suited for the food chain. “If you can afford to build your own,” she said, “I would recommend [it] for the long term, especially for the food industry. We have events, population growth is high. I would recommend to go and build your own. [Even though the] up-front money is higher, returns are also there and people are opting for specialised facilities for the cold chain to reduce the risk and liability.”

Aziz added that from a cost-benefit perspective this is especially vital as any small mistake can have potentially damaging consequences. “You can be liable for a lot of things,” she said, “food poisoning, claims damages, etc. Readymade is good if you’re handling dry products, general cargo. But when it comes to specialisation and temperature-controlled goods, I would rather use specialists in that field, and you would rather also check on the companies handling the goods [to ensure that] they check on their clients, their warehouses and do site inspections.”

Abusaa also touched on the value of customised cold stores. “It’s value engineering and life cycle cost, if a customer is building for his own business,” he said. “We build cold stores according to size and the product he wants to store or use in his cold store. That is the optimum. Then, we meet the minimum standards required by all industries [in terms of] environmental, food safety, even food security, because we are talking about business. This part of the world depends on food from the outside, so there has to be a minimum stock in the mind of the consultant when he designs the volume or recommends the size and volume of the cold store.”

Additional value-added features of cold stores also heavily benefit from being introduced as part of the initial design within a customised approach. Pontus Grimberg, International Sales Director of Frico, spoke with regard to the installation of air curtains: “For us, we clearly see the advantage, if we are there at the design stage. So, we do quite a lot of extensive works with consultants and building owners. A lot of our models are good for retrofit or afterwards, but we do have model that we need to be there when the building is produced. It helps us and the customer as soon as possible at an early stage.”

Jack of all trades

Broadly speaking, there was a common recognition of the benefits of customised cold stores amongst the participants at the conference. While a bespoke solution is favoured, are there enough specialised consultants and contractors in place to help recommend or implement best practices in this regard, though? No, said Ostbye, adding that in his experience he is hard pressed to find consultants who are experts in this regard. “In refrigeration, it’s not just panels, it’s not just floor solutions, it’s not compressors – it’s the combination of all these things,” he said.

Ostbye went on to cite Lulu’s comprehensive chain, which includes cold stores, reefer trucks, chillers, and freezer air storage, amongst others, which he said, had provided the company with knowledge and experience to help enhance standards. However, while referring to projects of others, he said, “Unless you have that ability to judge what is what, these people can fool anyone who doesn’t know any better.” In the case of Lulu, Ostbye said, the technical team works towards training the decision-makers to make the right decision, especially with regard to type of products that cannot be associated with one another.

“You need to be a jack of all trades, if you are a consultant,” Ostbye said. “I agree that people who know should be listed up and should have license to operate as a consultant, not civil, not structural, not MEP, but refrigeration HVAC specialists in that field.”

Abusaa went one step further, calling for stronger solidarity among relevant stakeholders, saying that all share the burden of responsibility. “When it comes to execution, we go now for the supervision and restrictions that could be imposed on the consultant if he is supervising the project in this case,” he said. “Because, ultimately, it is business for the consultant, the contractor and the owner. Money plays a big role here. Therefore, [there is a need for] supervision from the government or authority to implement the safe practises in that particular country, without fail. Because, the ultimate people suffering will be the clients like us, who are going to eat the food.”

The importance of enhancing the standards of cold store facilities remains a relevant and pressing issue. Indeed, the cold chain is not only dependent on the technical infrastructure, its success also lies in the cooperation within the eco-system of contractors, consultants, developers and end- users operating within an ever-evolving business landscape. Essentially, there is a need for the industry to ensure that while it promotes the value of being a jack of all trades, it doesn’t end up being a master of none.

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