Advanced cold storage logistics for sensitive drugs

By Koh Seng Teck, head of warehouse and distribution division, Southeast Asia, at Swisslog.


Hoffmann-La Roche AG, or Roche for short, is an international pharmaceutical company headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. With more than 90,000 employees, Roche had sales of approximately 48 billion Swiss francs in 2015. This makes Roche one of the world’s largest enterprises of its kind. Roche develops drugs, diagnostic agents and medical devices, focusing on innovations that offer a distinct advantage over products and solutions already on the market.




For a number of years, the Swiss pharmaceutical company has been pursuing an ambitious development strategy aimed at further improving its research infrastructure, creating attractive jobs, and sustainably expanding specific locations. This includes the Kaiseraugst location in the Swiss canton of Aargau, a cornerstone of Roche’s international production and logistics network.


In 1995, Swisslog had been instrumental in implementing an extensive logistics facility at Kaiseraugst. A state-of-the-art cold storage warehouse was added in recent years.  It stores biotechnology-based drugs that are temperature-sensitive and require an uninterrupted cold chain.


All operations at one location

The new cold storage warehouse in Kaiseraugst closes a previous logistical gap: In sterile production, which consists of different operations (manufacturing, filling, packaging, shipping) that cannot be completed in immediate succession, the company had been forced to temporarily store products outside the Kaiseraugst campus. This process was inefficient and created extreme challenges for their material handling efforts in light of the need for a closed cold chain.


The new cold storage now ensures that all operations can completed at the same location across short distances, all within the control of Roche – from sterile production to packaging and shipping of injectable and infusible medications via truck and air freight.  The warehouse was constructed over the course of two years and went into operation in 2013.


The solution

Hoffmann-La Roche‘s new cold storage logistics in Kaiseraugst essentially consists of an automated high-bay cold storage warehouse with 8,100 pallet locations, which is kept at temperatures between 2 °C and 8 °C. In addition, a deep-freeze warehouse kept at –10 °C offers room for 196 pallets. Both warehouses are largely independent: The cold storage warehouse is for temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals, the deepfreeze warehouse for refrigerated containers and cooling elements needed for shipping.


The cold storage logistics is connected to an annex with four floors (lower level, ground level, first and second upper level). The lower level is connected via a tunnel system to storage areas in production and packaging. The ground level is linked to the receiving and shipping areas with their four loading docks.  The first upper level houses bulk picking of entire storage units as well as “Pick and Pack” for production, packaging and shipping. The deep-freeze warehouse is located on the second upper level.


For Hans Reimann, Project Lead and Senior Project Manager at Roche, the biggest challenges were completing all construction and installation work during ongoing operations as well as coordinating between external and internal distribution centers. Sophisticated planning and systematic implementation made it all possible. Equally difficult was developing constantly new processes which had to be implemented within very short project phases. Designing the cold storage workstations was challenging as well because they had to meet strict ergonomic guidelines.


High-bay cold storage

The high-bay cold storage is a self-supporting steel silo structure with a height of approximately 29 meters and a volume of more than 40,000 cubic meters. It operates at 2 °C to 8 °C. The roof and wall cladding is attached directly to the supports and roof girders without using additional components.  The base plate is 10 meters below ground so that from the outside the structure has a visible height of 20 meters above ground. The cold storage has four aisles for single-deep storage.


Storage and retrieval of the 8,100 pallets is fully automated using Vectura cranes from Swisslog. Their clear height is 26.5 meters, and the aisle length is 73.57 meters.  Each crane has a maximum load capacity of 1,000 kilograms per storage or retrieval unit.  The system can handle approximately 120 in- and outfeeds per hour.


Deep-freeze storage

The deep-freeze storage is a channel storage system consisting of a freestanding steel structure. It houses 2 x 10 channels with 5 pallets each and 2 x 8 channels with 6 pallets each. Of the 196 pallet locations, 54 are suitable for weights up to 1.4 tons while the others can handle weights of up to 1 ton.  The deep-freeze storage has one aisle. A fully automated multi-depth crane with multiple load handling attachments can access all channels; their ends are equipped with push-through guards. The system can handle approximately 40 in- and outfeeds per hour.  For safety reasons, the area is surrounded by a fence with a height of two meters which has four access doors.


Cooling and fire safety

The entire storage facility is cooled using recirculating cooling units. Fire safety is ensured through inertization (reducing the oxygen concentration of the air). Air locks and air curtains minimize the temperature and air exchange between the various storage areas.  The new high-bay cold storage is separated by reinforced-concrete firewalls from an adjoining warehouse and a building used to transfer stock. A staircase tower attached to the outside facade of the warehouse acts as an escape route from the service platforms for the cooling units and allows roof access for repair and maintenance purposes.


Conveyors and workstations

The cold storage has 500 meters of roller and chain conveyors as well as lift tables, step-overs and transfer shuttles. Featuring two independent lift platforms, a vertical elevator with a height of 16.5 meters allows pallets to be transported between the various storage levels. The first upper level houses four picking workstations. They are equipped with lift systems to minimize physical strain on the picking operators.


In “Pick and Pack,” goods are made available at a height that is optimal for each picker.  Display screens are easy on the eyes, and there are no sharp edges or clamping or pinch points. In addition, Roche accommodated recommendations from its medical department as well as employee suggestions to improve workstations even further.


The Roche warehouse manager is also happy with the commitment and motivation shown by employees. Thanks to their strong sense of ownership, they have no problems working in the cold storage warehouse. Jürgen Simons adds: “Our employees organize their own working hours in the cold storage warehouse. Roche provides them with the infrastructure and the thermal work clothing they need.“



In an SAP environment, the new cold storage warehouse at F. Hoffmann-La Roche is controlled by a material flow and warehouse management system (WM 6) implemented by Swisslog and tailored to the customer’s specific requirements. The overall functionality of the system is subdivided into the Material Flow Controller (MFC) and the downstream controllers. The MFC coordinates all transports across subsystems. Automation technology (SPS) controls the process sequences of the conveyor elements.


A TCP/IP network (Ethernet) ensures an uninterrupted flow of information between the controllers and the MFC, including visualization. Integrated process control and operation of all transport equipment are the basis for uniform data traffic across all systems.


Another essential task performed by the WM 6 system in deep-freeze storage is the seamless tracking and tracing of warehouse and shipping processes that affect quality and safety. The implementation was done in accordance with the V model, which thoroughly verified, risk-tested and documented preconfigured and new software functions.  As a result, Roche has a validated system that meets the strict international requirements for drug safety in accordance with the GMP Guideline.


Complete warehouse geometry

Roche’s new cold storage is part of an extensive warehouse design that also includes areas with normal temperature conditions. In addition to the cold storage and deep-freeze warehouses for biotechnology products, Roche has a high-bay warehouse with 16,600 pallet locations that is kept between 15 °C and 25 °C and is used to store tablets, packaging materials and finished products.


A miniload warehouse with 5,250 trays for smaller quantities also operates within a normal temperature range. Approximately 400 trays are stored and retrieved every day.  In contrast, the pallet warehouses move 1,000 to 1,500 loads in the same time period.  Receiving and shipping handles 250 to 600 pallets daily – the equivalent of 35 to 50 truck loads. In addition, 19 automated guided vehicles transport pallets between the various buildings through underground tunnels.


A Swisslog System Operation (SO) team works hand in hand with Roche to ensure smooth operations without disruptions.



“Automating most of our material handling operations has paid off in many ways,” says Roche warehouse manager Jürgen Simons.  Material flow has become significantly faster. Integrating cold storage logistics into regular warehouse logistics in Kaiseraugst has also yielded synergy effects, for example in quality control as well as in logistics and IT support.