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Integrating Automation into the Industrial Building Design Process

KAM Project Consultants LTD
Automation Paper
Scott Price
As featured in this month’s magazine (Volume 17 : Issue 6)


As eCommerce continues to expand, automated distribution facilities have become more commonplace to meet this demand and improve logistics operations.

Developing the right overall strategy for these huge investments is key, as decisions made in the early stages can have a significant impact on the design, commercials and programme for Go-Live.

The building itself can be seen as a relatively uncomplicated construction project, but it’s the fit out where the complexities are found on integrating various systems, plus aligning the base and fit out specifications. Some of the main points to consider in the industrial building design process are recorded.

Negotiations with a developer

At the outset of any enquiry with a developer, one of their first queries will be to request a specification of requirements. This is because developers will have a standard base specification which may not fully align with the customer’s requirements.

Therefore to optimise time, feasibility work should have been completed on the customer’s brief before negotiations commence, focusing on developing the automation in parallel with the building.

On behalf of the customer, an experienced project manager and consultant team will lead the process of assessing the developer’s base specification, review the interface between the concepts for the building, automation/fit out and support in the negotiations to secure the right deal.

Alignment of contract terms for automation and build

Automation companies will commonly have a set of standard documents covering a myriad of subjects from slab requirements, to lifting details. Essentially they set out the contractor’s preference for each aspect of the project which include references that are important to the successful operation of their systems, plus the management of risk.

It’s absolutely vital that these are scrutinised by the customer’s design consultants as an integral part of the automation tender process. The documents are often extremely comprehensive and could contain references which may increase construction costs, or place further risk on the customer. Ultimately the emphasis is negotiating a solution which strikes the right balance for all parties.

Floor slab design

Ultimately there will be a solution to agreeing a final floor slab performance specification, but the starting point commonly requires negotiation. Agreeing the right specification at the outset is paramount to manage risk, plus importantly to ensure unnecessary costs are not being added into the developer’s base build specification.

The automation contractor’s standard documents will include a variety of clauses on their preferred floor slab performance specification. These need to be reviewed in detail to agree the right design solution, or strike out unachievable references. Some examples are:

Some examples are:

  • Post Construction Deformation limits during automation operation – If the automation firm’s starting point is accepted without challenging, unnecessary costs or time could be added, for example a piled slab.
  • Slab shrinkage – Concrete floor slabs will shrink. References have been included to restrict shrinkage to levels which are not achievable in the time between casting the slab and the installation of automation.
  • Pattern loading – This can be critical on floor slabs which are supported by piles, where during the operation of the automation the racking is unevenly loaded with product. Making an allowance for pattern loading in the design increases cost.


Future expansion – mezzanines and pick towers

Where traditionally some operations were more focused at ground level, the growth of e-Commerce has seen the use of internal space change, or maximising the volume. Considering growth and therefore flexibility within the facility is key.

Finding the right balance between adding cost into the base build at day one and minimising disruption to the operation at a later date is an exercise to complete. For example, instead of extra foundations for future growth, planning for a smaller mezzanine grid which lines up with the space between dock doors and can be built off the slab could be feasible. Another idea is adding additional steel into structural mezzanines to permit future vertical expansion with pick towers.

Electrical design

Typically the automation firm has not completed their electrical design at the point when the base build specification is being agreed with the developer. The final fit out requirement will be greater than the base offer, so dependent on the increase this could be a significant cost.

An electrical engineer will challenge the loads being quoted by the automation firm as typically diversity has not been applied, meaning the demand could be excessive as it is based on all the automation equipment starting at the same time.

The electrical installations will be extensive and therefore volt drop is an important consideration. A strategy for apportioning this will economise the fit out costs and manage risk.

Sprinklers and insurers

Technically the design of some automation equipment will not follow common details, meaning lengthy design reviews. This will involve agreeing sections through densely installed equipment where motors, totes and conveyors are all in close proximity to each other eg multi-shuttle systems.

Early engagement with the customer’s insurance team is paramount to foster a good working relationship from the outset. Also to agree the initial design principles and approval process, so this can be factored into the procurement of the building services and aligned with the automation programme.

Health & Safety

The CDM Regulations 2015 require a Principal Designer to be appointed for the Health & Safety associated with the building works and also the automation installations.

Segregation of the site into specific areas wherever possible should be considered, even if there is more than one Principal Contractor. For example where mini-load cranes are being installed this is often the most substantial element of work, so instead of the fit out contractor controlling this zone as part of the overall site, the automation firm could be better placed to be the principal contractor for this specific area.


Programme and phasing

Whether the project is a new build, or a fit out within an existing building, the success will be dependent on aligning the various programmes. The programmes will be staggered and each will require information at set milestones.

A developer will require data from any customer at the pre-deal stage plus milestones during the build such as to finalise floor slab joint layouts. If the fit out programme has not been aligned with this, the base build could be delayed and additional cost incurred.

The development of the automation is an extensive task. Clearly documenting the stages of design and level of accuracy is key to permit the main fit out packages to be secured on an accurate basis and achieve competitive tender returns.

Finally, setting out the customer’s requirements. If a sectional completion is required in the base build to permit the fit out to commence early, then this needs to be negotiated at the pre-deal stage. Also, if the fit out programme needs to be split into phases to meet the occupier’s Go-Live this must be at the core of the design and programming of the fit out.


Automation projects are a major investment and a growth part of the industrial market. Due to the nature of the installations and the numerous stakeholders involved, they are complex in their planning and delivery.

Developing a clear plan from the outset will enable all of the negotiations and interfaces with the various stakeholders to be commenced at the right time and with the right data.

Integral to this is appointing an experienced team at the outset who have delivered multiple projects of this type to develop the design, support in negotiations and manage the delivery.



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