When is the last time you were in a warehouse?
Was it some damp, under-lit place that smelled of ‘something unknown’, and you wish you had brought your ‘Muck boots’ with you? Or perhaps it was some pristine clean environment with color coded RFID-imbedded strips on a sealed concrete floor, and an endless view of narrow isles between row after row of pallet racks?
Well-built and well-organized warehouse facilities are essential for wholesalers and large retailers, so if you are striving to become a ‘trusted advisor’ in the area of inventory and warehouse management you need more than a QuickBooks, and even 3rd party inventory software, background. You need to also understand the concepts of warehouse design and configuration, almost from the ground up. A little more than two years ago, I got called by one of my inventory clients, who we had helped to reconfigure their ‘primary warehouse’, as part of implementing inventory and warehouse management software. They were considering a major expansion, to include a new 72,000 square foot warehouse, and they wanted some guidance about how it should be configured to fit into the overall schema we had implemented a couple of years back. So what did I know about building a new warehouse? Simple, not nearly enough, but isn’t that what ‘civil engineers’ are for anyway! I quickly decided that I needed a crash course in warehouse design – you guessed it, ‘You tube’ to the rescue. This article is the first in a mini-series covering a little about what I learned, and have experienced, as this project went from concept to construction to completion.
Long before the first products are stacked in your new warehouse, or even the first shovel of dirt is dug for the foundation, there has to be a plan that sets out ‘the what’ of the warehouse. The size, layout and even site plan all are critical to the overall success of a new warehouse. Some of the factors that must be taken into account in determining the size and layout include the average volume of inventory, the maximum stock levels of your various items, and the way in which goods are stored (bins, rows, shelves, pallet racking or floor pallets). Other factors include the type of storage (fully enclosed, open air, climate controlled, quarantine or isolated), and the efficiency of the inventory control and processing functions. Other factors impacting size are the number of personnel involved in the warehousing processes, and the number and type of machinery used within the facility.
Let’s look at just one ‘for instance’. Many warehouses use CNG or LPG powered forklifts for inside operations because they run cleaner and produce less toxic fumes, of course electric forklifts produce essential no toxins. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has ‘truck designations’ for approved forklift types working within designated locations based upon numerous factors regarding those locations. So what are the differences in ‘accessory space’ requirements for the 3 different types of forklifts (diesel, CNG/LPG, electric)? Storage, refueling, and light maintenance of these ‘warehouse critical’ pieces of equipment, how do they fit into your design?
An effective warehouse provides the correct environment for the storage of salable goods, but just as importantly it insures an efficient flow of product in terms of receiving, order processing, and distribution (delivery and/or shipping). In today’s world more and more businesses are shifting from manual warehouses to mechanized warehouses. So what are the differences, you ask?
Manual warehouses typically hold items stored on shelves in quantities that do not require mechanical assistance to be moved about. While some stock may also be held on floor pallets, the vast majority of products are unpacked upon receipt and transferred to bins, shelves and rows based upon the overall inventory schema.
A manual warehouse is appropriate if the vast majority of your products are received and stored in packages or quantities that can be easily moved about by hand or with the assistance of a hand cart or dolly. Even in such warehouses some palletized materials maybe present, but these will typically make use of some designated area of floor space. In these instances, manual ‘hydraulic pump’ pallet trucks can be used to move about, off-load and on-load palleted goods. These warehouses may make use of rows of shelving for either goods to be stored in bins, or within packaging. The top shelf in most configurations ranges from 66 to 84 inches in height, and packaging typically weighs no more than 40 to 50 pounds.
In contrast, ‘mechanized warehouses’ are designed around modern methods of storage and materials handling; typically, these warehouses have tiers of pallet racks, perhaps 40 or more feet high. Mechanical equipment is used for handling during the unloading and storage of goods received, and often to load outgoing goods onto delivery vehicles. The mechanical equipment used in these facilities can range from manual pallet movers to human-operator-forklifts, but it can get as sophisticated as computer controlled automatic handlers, like robot controlled forklifts. 5 years ago I had never seen (other than in some movie) a robot forklift, within the last 6 months I have seen 3 new ones move into my client’s warehouse; one operator can remote control 3 of them, effectively eliminating the need for 3 manual forklift operators. But even more importantly, because these robot forklifts are more ergonomic and space friendly, they easily operate within the confines of smaller spaces; that means closer isles, and closer isles means more isles per square foot overall, and that means more product stored in the same space. So then the warehouses become more efficient in terms of space, manpower requirements and logistics.
Mechanized warehouses are needed if a large percentage of products will be received and stored on pallets. The use of pallets as the primary storage schema in the warehouse requires powered forklifts, or other equipment, designed for moving pallets within the confines of the warehouse design. In many instances pallets will be stored on both the floor and on pallet racks. While pallet standing/block stacking maybe used in some smaller warehouse environments, the overall efficiency and handling of pallets can limit inventory control functionality. For example, if you use FIFO (first-in, first-out) for inventory, you typically find that the ‘first in’ pallet is now on the bottom of the stack, thus requiring a re-stack to execute orders. The same may apply if you use FEFO (first-expiring, first-out) as part of your quality control directed handling of product. In either of these cases you are best to design the warehouse to make use of pallet racking rather than stacking.
Neither yourself, nor the business owner and staff, are going to do all the planning, you most certainly are going to need the guidance of a qualified civil engineer, but as a ‘trusted inventory and warehousing advisor’ you must be thoroughly familiar with all of your client’s needs and requirements, as well as the options and opportunities that a ‘new’ (or even a completely rehabilitated) warehouse facility can provide in streamlining the warehousing and order fulfillment process, and thus improving the bottom line of the companies you serve.
Next time we’ll look at some other aspects of ‘warehouse design’ to help prepare you as a ‘trusted advisor’ in developing an 'inventory & warehousing' practice niche.