Sainsbury’s innovation chief lifts the lid on what it takes to run a vast refrigeration estate

Sainsbury’s Aerofoil fridge 3

Refrigeration is an important area for any operator – but what’s it like for a major supermarket chain? With everything from merchandisers and cafe refrigeration to aisle cabinets and frozen food units to consider, decisions taken on cold chain infrastructure can be worth millions to the business.

One man who knows the answer to that question better than most is David Pilbeam, head of technical innovation at Sainsbury’s. Here, he shares his thoughts on the significance of innovation and the effect refrigeration has on overall energy usage across its 1,400-strong estate.

“As part of my role in the Sainsbury’s property team one of the things I am responsible for is the engineering and innovation related to our refrigeration systems. I am a relative newcomer to the world of temperatures and air flow – but what a fascinating world it is.

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“As will be obvious to anyone who has been in a supermarket, we have a huge reliance on refrigeration technologies. What is less obvious to those outside the industry, is the scale of the effort, investment and technological innovation which goes into the design and maintenance of that equipment.

“As customers, we know how frustrating it is when a store suffers a refrigeration failure. With issues often caused by hot weather, we have a legion of engineers and systems that work night and day to prevent it on a scale I can only imagine is comparable to the moon landings.

“In the grand timeline of human history, refrigeration is a reasonably recent invention – consumers could reliably refrigerate products in their own homes from the 1950s. Alongside a range of other factors, this laid the foundations for the development of the modern supermarket as we know it.

“Today, refrigeration is key to our customers’ expectations of the products that we sell, and as a result it’s vital for us as a team to get right. At Sainsbury’s, we’re proud pioneers of refrigeration innovation and have a strong track record of championing new technologies.

“Refrigeration is one of the most significant contributing parts to our overall energy usage and we have called it out as a key focus on our path to be net zero across our own operations by 2040.

“We’re focused on bringing some of the most innovative technical solutions to bear on our refrigeration techniques to drive energy usage as low as possible, whilst maintaining the high standards of convenience and reliability that customers require.

“We have already begun to make headway by investing substantial time, research and money into refrigeration. So much work we’ve being doing is invisible to customers though is making an incredible difference on our operations, such as increasing the use of natural refrigerant.

“To this point, we have been working for some time with partners in the motor racing world who use computational fluid dynamic airflow modelling to bring formula one technology into our refrigerators.

“We were the first supermarket to install Aerofoils in 2017 after undertaking extensive research into the technology, and earlier this year installed our 400,000th, meaning all our convenience stores and supermarkets are fitted where possible. Our move to roll out Aerofoils across our property estate has resulted in a 15% energy reduction. We know creating partnerships with technological leaders across the world of engineering is key to our future success of reducing our carbon footprint even further.

“We have a large property estate to trial and test new technologies and always welcome ideas and collaboration from academia and industry.”

Foster Refrigerator is the Platinum Partner sponsor of the Refrigeration category of FEJ Kitchen Excellence Week. For information about Foster and its sister company Gamko, call 01553 691122 or visit

Tags : Kitchen Excellence WeekRefrigerationSainsbury's
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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