If you order something online and it arrives in a couple of days or less, it’s highly likely that a robot was involved in fetching it from the warehouse for you. This kind of nimbleness is an attractive proposition for brands. It’s an opportunity to set themselves apart through their customer experience and to minimise costs associated with manpower within their warehouses.

COVID-19 has accelerated the growth of e-commerce, driving demand for automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) warehousing. Commercial real estate company, JLL, reveals the take-up of warehouse space by retailers surged to more than 800,000 square metres in the first nine months of 2020, as annual online sales hit new records. Companies including Woolworths, Coles and Kathmandu are all reported to have turned to robots and automation to cut costs and manage their warehousing.

FM Global has seen a significant uptick in AS/RS warehouses in Australia – including those which make use of mini load and top load systems and shuttle carrier automation systems. As an engineer with 20 years in fire risk mitigation, I view the increasing uptake of automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) as a significant area of emerging risk.

The key challenges

The main threat presented by these solutions is the increased density of storage. What was once spread over huge areas in traditional warehouse arrangements is now compressed down in an automated warehouse, with aisles removed, commodities densely packed together, and access limited to robot retrieval.

This configuration and density of materials in top-loading systems, where all spacing between stored commodities is removed and a robot runs along the top of the storage area to extract items as required, presents a particularly high risk of a very deep-seated fire. Critical to remember is that fire protection solutions that involve water are designed to suppress or control the fire. They're not designed to extinguish a fire - this requires manual intervention from the fire brigade.

In the case of the deep-seated top loading warehouse fire, the smouldering components will need to be separated in order to ensure it does not reignite. However, by removing aisles, we've made it much more difficult for the fire brigades to successfully carry out this separation. Remote monitor nozzles, fire brigade access platforms and extended water supply durations – from a typical one hour to as long as four hours – may be required.

The type of storage container used in automated warehouses is also key to understanding and mitigating risk. It’s critical that the industry move towards vented, metal containers which are significantly safer. However, the type of system you are using will be critical to understanding which types of container will best reduce fire risk in that particular scenario. The commodity or commodities being contained within your automated warehouse must also be factored into fire mitigation plans, as these will play a fundamental role in how any fire that breaks out will behave.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that warehouse storage is a fast-moving space – almost as fast as the consumer demands that are driving its evolution. Governance processes associated with standard settings have not kept up. Simply put, this means that the standards governing warehouse fire mitigation, such as Australian Standard 288 Part 1, do not take into account all the latest technologies, the risks they create and how to best manage them.

FM Global data sheet 8-34 on Protection for Automatic Storage and Retrieval Systems includes recommendations such as those outlined in this article as well as numerous other critical considerations to mitigate fire risk in AS/RS environments.

While there are fire mitigation strategies for many types of commodities, we don’t have reliable fire protection solutions in automated warehouses. For flammable products such as hair spray, nail polish remover, or for example, camping gas bottles, proven protection options only exist in traditional warehouse scenarios.

FM Global highly recommends getting the fire brigade, system designers and fire risk experts involved at an early stage when establishing a warehouse. This will ensure owners have the best advice about what is feasible. It’s also key that the fire brigade would understand what a fire might look like in the environment should it occur, what fire protections are available and what infrastructure is being installed to enhance their access should a fire occur.

A high stakes choice

Ultimately when it comes to fires in these new warehouse configurations, even a “successful” outcome in which a fire is controlled can look bleak. While FM Global’s global loss data reveals more than 270 warehouse fires with average gross loss per incident of more than US $1.6 million, these were mostly likely fires that were easy to contain.

If a fire breaks out in an advanced, automated warehouse with associated value density issues, costs could escalate to hundreds of millions of dollars. When a warehouse fire gets out of control, not only can it destroy the entire building, it has major impacts on ability to service your clients and your reputation.

The good news is that if systems and their fire protection are designed right with input from experts, consideration of best available practice and current constraints, and support of your local fire brigade, risk can be significantly reduced. A hands-on, risk-based engineering approach to mitigating and managing fire risk in automated warehouses can be particularly helpful, especially given that it is a new and emerging risk area where there is not a lot of actuarial data to rely on.

Brands spend a lot of time thinking about how to get their name in the media. This is one occasion when you want to do everything you can to avoid just that. With the right fire protections, companies can significantly reduce the chances of warehouse automation costing far more than it’s worth in efficiency gains.

This article first appeared in Fire Australia Magazine (Page 28)