November 29, 2023
November 29, 2023

Retrofitting Brownfield Sites with Warehousing Automation: A Cost-Effective Solution

The strategic and cost-effective alternative of revamping existing brownfield sites with automation can't be overlooked. Learn the nuances between automating brownfield and greenfield sites and explore the challenges inherent in automation retrofits.


While building a new greenfield site might seem like the go-to solution for expanding warehousing operations, retrofitting existing brownfield sites is a cost-effective and strategic alternative. In this blog, we will explore the key differences between automating a brownfield site and a greenfield site, the challenges associated with brownfield automation, and the value proposition of not moving but rather upgrading your existing space through retrofitting.

What is a brownfield project?

A brownfield site refers to an existing industrial or commercial site or property that was previously developed, often with older buildings or infrastructure, and may have environmental contamination or impediments due to prior usage. These facilities are characterized by their existing structures or infrastructure, potentially contaminated land, or other constraints that need assessment and remediation before they can be repurposed, redeveloped, or expanded for new industrial or commercial purposes.

Example of a brownfield redevelopment project

An example of an American brownfield project is the High Line in New York City. The High Line is a public park built on a historic elevated freight rail line that had been abandoned for decades. The railway tracks had become a derelict and overgrown area in Manhattan's West Side.

New York City's High Line Park repurposed an abandoned rail right-of-way into an urban oasis.

Rather than demolishing the structure, the community and city officials initiated a brownfield redevelopment project to repurpose this disused railway infrastructure into an innovative public space. The High Line park spans approximately 1.5 miles and features landscaped gardens, walking paths, seating areas, art installations, and stunning views of the city.

The project involved extensive remediation efforts to clean up the contaminated site and transform it into a beloved urban park that serves as a recreational space, a green oasis, and a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization. The success of the High Line demonstrates how brownfield redevelopment can transform neglected areas into valuable public assets while addressing environmental challenges.

What is a greenfield project?

A greenfield project refers to a new construction site or development that is built on previously unused or undeveloped land. Unlike brownfield sites that have had prior industrial, commercial, or residential activity, greenfield facilities are constructed on open or agricultural land without existing infrastructure or development. Greenfield projects involve building entirely new structures or facilities from scratch, allowing for fresh designs and layouts without the constraints or limitations posed by pre-existing buildings or environmental issues. These sites are considered "green" or new, as they have not been previously developed or utilized for any industrial, commercial, or residential purposes.

Example of a greenfield development project

One prominent example of a major greenfield development project is the construction of the Tesla Gigafactory. These Gigafactories are large-scale facilities established by Tesla, Inc. to produce electric vehicle batteries, energy storage products, and other renewable energy components. The Gigafactory located in the American state of Nevada is considered a significant greenfield project. It involved constructing a massive facility on an undeveloped or previously unused piece of land.

This factory was built from scratch, incorporating cutting-edge technology and sustainable practices to manufacture lithium-ion batteries for Tesla vehicles and energy storage systems. The project exemplifies a major greenfield development due to its scale, innovative design, and commitment to environmentally friendly manufacturing processes. It aimed not only to revolutionize battery production but also to set new standards for sustainable manufacturing in the automotive and energy sectors.

What is a retrofit project?

Within material handling and supply chain domains, terms like "brownfield" and "retrofit" often overlap. Architecture, engineering, and construction firms commonly handle genuine brownfield endeavors dealing with contamination. Systems integration engineers, however, mainly engage in retrofit projects.

A retrofit involves repurposing an older building for a new use. In the context of warehousing, this might involve replacing an outdated sorting and conveyance system with one that is faster and more efficient.

Example of a warehouse retrofit project

Benetton is one of the hundreds of examples of warehouses retrofitted with AutoStore. The global fashion brand connected a new generation of customers with their products through e-commerce. But they needed new logistics methods at their Italian fulfillment center to provide the service, speed, punctuality, and certainty online customers expect.

The company decided to retrofit AutoStore into their facility rather than building a new facility. This bespoke adaptation ensured that the system was in perfect alignment with Benetton's business model and operational strategies. Aligning with sustainability goals, AutoStore fits within Benetton's existing structure, reducing the environmental impact of new constructions. Its scalable nature ensures adaptability to future business trends and needs, providing a sustainable solution for growth and expansion.

What are the differences between brownfield and greenfield sites?

When discussing brownfield warehouses in supply chain management, the focus often revolves around strategies for upgrading or retrofitting these existing facilities to enhance efficiency, optimize storage capacity, introduce automation, or adapt to changing supply chain demands. Unlike greenfield warehouses built on new land, brownfield warehouses require evaluation and potential modifications to align with contemporary supply chain practices, technological advancements, and operational requirements. Companies might choose to refurbish or reconfigure these warehouses to improve logistics, streamline inventory management, or implement automation systems while addressing any existing constraints from the site's prior usage.

What is the value of retrofitting a brownfield site vs. relocating?

Retrofitting may seem like a daunting task, but it presents a compelling business case. The cost savings associated with not moving to a new location are substantial. Building a new site from scratch involves signing a new lease, overlapping operations, relocating a management team, and potentially hiring a new staff. The service disruptions that can occur during the transition to a greenfield site can result in inventory downtime. Retrofitting, on the other hand, allows for a smoother transition, minimizing service disruptions.

How does the implementation of automation in brownfield warehouses align with sustainability and environmental initiatives?

Implementing automation in brownfield warehouses contributes to a more sustainable operation by minimizing waste, energy usage, and environmental impact while improving overall efficiency and productivity. The implementation of automation in brownfield warehouses aligns with sustainability and environmental initiatives in several ways:

  • Optimizing energy use: Automation technologies often incorporate energy-efficient designs, reducing overall energy consumption.
  • Waste reduction: Improved accuracy in inventory management and order fulfillment minimizes waste and reduces the environmental impact of excess inventory.
  • Transportation optimization: Automated systems can optimize routes and schedules, reducing fuel consumption and emissions.
  • Longer-term benefits: Though initial manufacturing of technology may have environmental impacts, the long-term reduction in waste and energy use outweighs these concerns.

What are the challenges of automating a brownfield site?

When considering brownfield automation, several challenges come into play:

  • Building suitability: Can the existing building handle automation? Factors like clear height, floor quality, and fire protection systems need to be assessed.
  • Space optimization: Does the layout of the current facility match the operational needs efficiently? Suboptimal layouts can increase operational costs.
  • Integration with legacy systems: Integrating automation into an existing system can be complex. Modular automation technologies like AutoStore can be configured to work alongside legacy systems, offering flexibility that traditional ASRS systems may lack.

The advantages of modular warehouse automation technologies and phasing

One of the strengths of modular automation technologies like AutoStore is the ability to phase in automation while manual processes continue. This flexibility allows businesses to start with high-impact, slow-moving products, gradually introducing automation to other areas based on their specific needs. This adaptability is invaluable for optimizing operations in brownfield sites during system cutover.

In fact, approximately 65% of the 1,250+ AutoStore systems are located in retrofitted facilities not purpose-built for automation. No doubt, this is due to the flexibility of the modular system, which is designed to fit around any warehouse layout, integrate with any hardware or software technology, and easily scale.

Companies like Best Buy and PUMA are among the well-known brands who have successfully implemented AutoStore into their brownfield sites, often reaping the benefits of cost savings, space optimization, and seamless integration with their existing systems.


How do I determine the scope of work required to retrofit AutoStore into my warehouse?

Generally speaking, requirements for installing AutoStore are more modest than comparable warehouse automation systems, which have stricter floor loading and fire safety requirements. Because the Grid is an enclosed storage area, some level of sprinkler modification is required. It’s critical, however, to have a flat, level concrete floor.

A flat concrete surface is a requirement for AutoStore. If the floor inside a brownfield site is not as flat and level as required by AutoStore, it can usually be remediated with grinding and patching.

What type of work is required to create a flat surface and how much does it cost?

Specialist subconsultants familiar with AutoStore specifications will conduct a floor survey to determine the scope of work required to make your warehouse floor perfectly level. Most commonly, the process involves grinding, patching, and applying a thin, 1-inch overlay to the concrete slab. In rare cases, a new topping slab or replacement is required. The cost of leveling a floor varies per site. But because the price is modest compared to other automation technologies, AutoStore is an attractive option for many businesses seeking to automate a brownfield site.

What is the process for creating a level floor?

CoGri, a global industrial flooring specialist experienced in automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) specifications, has worked on over 500,000 sqm of AutoStore floors globally throughout Europe, America, Canada, Asia, and Australasia.

They start the survey process using their patented laser-guided Robotics Profileograph digital measuring equipment to check a floor’s surface regularity. Basically, the Profileograph is a rolling device taking direct readings of the AutoStore requirements as it moves along the floor. The survey runs are carried out at 1-m centers in both directions over the proposed AutoStore footprint, as required in the AutoStore floor specification. In one pass with the Profileograph, the company surveys two lines and collects the data to report on the flatness and levelness to the two gauge lengths of 1.2 and 2.4 m.

The Profileograph measures six properties of floor flatness and has additional attachments which can be used to measure TR34 DM, EN 15620:2008*, DIN 15185, VDMA, FEM, and the ACI F min surface regularity specifications.

Following a survey, CoGri will produce an error plan, as shown above. The errors, as noted in lines, are typically located along floor joints and easy to grind into specification.

Areas with a very poor profile are not as common. In this situation, an overlay would be proposed because the time and cost of grinding the floor outweighs the time and cost of installing a topping.

“Generally, we find that the floor can be ground into compliance with minimal disruption to onsite activities and no disruption to the project program,” said James Dare, a consultant with CoGri subsidiary Face Consultants, Ltd.  

“The costs can vary for carrying out any of these works and it is all dependent on the condition of the floor, size of the AutoStore footprint and remedial methods.  Some projects may need under a week of work with a small team, others may require a large team for a number of weeks.”

CoGri uses walk-behind grinding machines to carry out the remediation while walking along a CoGri Group Surveyors who constantly checks the ground areas and verifies compliance. For those floors deemed economically “un-grindable,” a screed topping layer such as CoGri Fastfloor IT is typically applied.

Can eco-friendly concrete flooring alternatives be used for AutoStore?

Although there have been great developments in the eco-friendly concrete market, such as ashcrete and silica-based mixes, industrial floors need to provide multiple properties and be workable enough to achieve the surface regularity limits. The best way to reduce the carbon footprint of flooring is to “do it right the first time.” Make sure that the slab design is not over-specified and that it adequately supports system loads. That way, further remediation or replacement can be avoided. In the right conditions, pulverized fuel ash (PFA), aka “fly ash,” or ground granulated blast-furnace slag (GGBS) can be used as a cement replacement to help reduce the carbon footprint. The former is a byproduct of coal burning and the latter from iron and steel production.


The bottom line: don't let growth push you out of your existing location. You’re likely only using 50% or less of your warehouse's potential. You can maximize space utilization by retrofitting a brownfield site with warehousing automation, which presents a strategic, cost-effective alternative to building new greenfield sites. The challenges associated with brownfield automation are surmountable, and the value proposition of not moving but rather optimizing existing space is compelling. By leveraging modular automation technologies like AutoStore and working with expert partners, businesses can achieve a smooth transition to an automated warehousing operation, enhancing efficiency and competitiveness.


How can automation transform existing brownfield warehouse sites?

Automation has the potential to revolutionize existing brownfield warehouses by introducing advanced technologies that streamline operations, enhance accuracy, and optimize overall efficiency. It allows for the implementation of robotics, AI-driven systems, IoT devices, and sophisticated software solutions. These technologies automate routine tasks such as inventory management, picking, packing, and transportation, thereby reducing manual labor, errors, and operational costs while increasing throughput and productivity.

Which automation technologies are most suitable for upgrading brownfield warehouses?

Several automation technologies are suitable for upgrading brownfield warehouses. These include but are not limited to:

What are some challenges of automating a brownfield site?

  • Legacy Equipment and Infrastructure: Existing facilities often have older equipment and infrastructure, which may not be compatible with modern automation systems. This can require extensive retrofitting or even replacement of equipment.
  • Integration Complexity: Integrating new automation systems with existing infrastructure can be challenging. Legacy systems may use different communication protocols or technologies, making interoperability a major challenge.
  • Downtime and Disruption: Implementing automation in a brownfield facility may require shutting down parts of the plant for installation and testing. This can result in downtime and production disruptions, impacting profitability.
  • Skill Shortages: Finding personnel with the necessary skills to work with legacy systems and upgrade them to modern automation standards can be difficult. Training or hiring experts in these areas can be time-consuming and expensive.
  • Safety Concerns: As older systems might not have the same safety features as modern automation systems, ensuring the safety of workers during the upgrade process is crucial.

What are the benefits of automating a brownfield site?

  • Maximizing Existing Investments: Brownfield automation allows companies to make the most of their existing assets and investments. It's a cost-effective way to improve efficiency without building entirely new facilities.
  • Incremental Improvement: Brownfield automation allows for a phased approach to automation, which can help manage costs and minimize production disruptions. You can automate one section at a time.
  • Reduced Environmental Impact: Upgrading existing facilities can be more environmentally friendly than building entirely new ones. It reduces the need for additional resources and land.
  • Preserving Historical and Local Context: In some cases, brownfield automation can help preserve historically significant industrial sites while still modernizing their operations.
  • Local Expertise: If you're operating in an area with a strong industrial heritage, there may be local expertise in working with legacy systems that can be leveraged for the upgrade.
  • Compliance and Safety Improvements: Brownfield automation can bring older facilities into compliance with modern safety and environmental regulations, improving overall safety and reducing environmental risks.
  • Improved Data and Control: Upgrading automation systems can provide better data collection and analysis capabilities, leading to more informed decision-making and improved process control.

Are there specific industries or sectors that benefit most from automating older warehouse facilities?

Industries such as e-commerce, retail, manufacturing, logistics, and distribution benefit significantly from automating older warehouse facilities due to their high-volume, repetitive tasks that can be optimized through automation. However, any industry with warehouse operations can experience improvements in efficiency and cost savings through automation.

What considerations should be made regarding the existing infrastructure when implementing automation in brownfield warehouses?

Considerations regarding existing infrastructure involve assessing the compatibility of current systems with new technologies, determining if structural modifications are needed to accommodate automation equipment, evaluating power and network requirements, and ensuring that safety standards and regulations are met.

What is the main scope of work required to install AutoStore within a brownfield site?

While the scope of work varies for every location, typically floor leveling is required to install AutoStore. Most commonly, the process involves grinding, patching, and applying leveling agents to concrete. In rare cases, a new surface may be poured, adding a few inches of new flooring. The cost can vary but is typically a few dollars per square foot.

How many AutoStore systems are installed in greenfield sites vs. brownfield sites?

Approximately 65% of the 1,250+ AutoStore system are located in retrofitted facilities not purpose-built for automation. This is due to the flexibility of the modular system, which is designed to fit around any warehouse layout, integrate with almost any hardware or software, and easily scale. The system’s modularity provides the ability to gradually phase in automation while manual processes continue. This adaptability is invaluable for optimizing operations in brownfield sites during operational cutover.

"... Approximately 65% of the 1,250+ AutoStore systems are located in retrofitted facilities not purpose-built for automation. No doubt, this is due to the flexibility of the modular system, which is designed to fit around any warehouse layout, integrate with any hardware or software technology, and easily scale."

Jon Schechter
Vice President, North American Business Development, AutoStore

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