It took $10 million and two years to build and perfect, but a new warehouse which Safeway Stores, Inc., opened recently is worth the effort, officials at the food chain's Washington division headquarters say.

Theirs is no ordinary warehouse. They believe it is unlike any grocery warehouse in the United States, and quite possibly the world.

The new Safeway storage facility in Landover towers 80 feet above the chain's main warehouse, a 400,000 square-foot structure that was built in 1952.

The two warehouses complement each other but the difference in configuration is only the first visible sign of Safeway's transition from the humdrum of a traditional storage operation to advanced technology.

With the installation of a high-rise automated storage and retrieval system, Safeway has increased its storage capacity by 50 percent. The routine of forklift drivers dodging each other across the wide expanse of the old warehouse gives way to robot carts and mammoth computer-driven cranes in the high rise.

The new system, which includes a network of racks resembling a giant erector set, was custom-built for Safeway by Eaton-Kenway, Inc. It is capable of storing 14,000 pallets loaded with cases. ully operational, the system is capable of retrieving 90 loaded pallets and reloading an equal number in one hour. It is much faster and far less labor-intensive than a conventional warehouse operation.

The additional storage, vertical configuration and speed of the operation allows Safeway to take greater advantage of advance purchases in larger quantities, which can result in a savings to consumers, said Safeway spokesman Ernie Moore.

Eaton-Kenway designed a similar system for a warehouse in Safeway's Portland division but the original has fewer automated features, local officials of the chain said.

The decision to build the 41,000-square-foot high rise here was dictated by a lack of space to expand horizontally. Moore said it became necessary to expand because Safeway is building bigger stores which require more inventory.

"This is probably the most modern, automated grocery storage system in the country, if not the world," Moore claimed.

Giant Food Inc., Safeway's principal competitor in this market, also has what are considered among the most advanced automated dry grocery and frozen food warehouses in the industry.

Although the Eaton-Kenway system was designed specifically for storage of dry groceries, there are indications, Moore said, that the chain food industry is studying the possible use of a similar system for storing other products.

"We're all locked into computers and it's getting scary," Louis D'Orsaneo, Safeway warehouse manager, remarked on a recent tour of the high rise.

"Technology sure has revolutionized the industry," D'Orsaneo continued. "People have always thought of warehouses as dark dungeons until now."

In the new operation which D'Orsaneo supervises there is a blend of the old and new.

Typically, cases loaded on pallets are assigned for storage either in the conventional warehouse or in the high rise after they are delivered by truck. If a pallet is assigned to the high rise, a forklift operator transports it to a machine which sizes, or nudges, the cases so that they are evenly stacked.

An electronic eye then signals an automated cart (Robocarrier) to pick up the pallet, which is given a number by a computer operator.

The Robocarrier transports the pallet to the high rise, where one of eight towering cranes picks up the load, glides along a rail in the floor at 400 feet a minute until it finds the nearest suitable rack, and deposits it.

A computer records where each pallet is stored, and when an order is required from the high rise the computer directs one of the 80-foot cranes to retrieve a pallet, initiating the process in reverse.

Although the system has been in place for about a year, technological "bugs" forced several delays before it was declared ready for use. But D'Orsaneo assured a visitor recently that except for routine maintenance the system works just as "those software boys" said it would.