For many years it has been a sine qua non that warehouses should maximise the best use of their storage space but never before has it been more urgent to compete in a very dynamic, changeable market in which demanding consumer habits emphasise speed and accuracy of delivery, often to their door or a click and collect pick-up point of their choice. This delivery speed is so crucial in terms of competitive advantage that it is forcing global distribution and traditional retailers like Amazon and Walmart to consider revolutionary distribution methods.

Walmart, for example, has filed a patent in America for an airshipstyle aircraft to rival Amazon’s “airborne fulfilment centre.” Such flying warehouses, accompanied by drones, could reduce their reliance on local delivery companies, cut costs and hasten delivery times. It could also be significant environmental boon. Previously it filed a patent for in-store drones to stock shelves. Meanwhile, among Amazon’s more remarkable innovations is a stockless system for books that can deliver within one hour from order receipt to shipping at its Polish facility, its third largest globally. How is this possible, you may ask. Within its warehouse it has a book-printing facility that can print and bind in a batch size of one, to a quality level as good, if not better, than traditional mass printed books.

For those, however, looking for a more down-to-earth, less futuristic means of using their warehouses as a competitive tool, in most cases the optimal warehouse design is one that balances capacity and operational efficiency, so they must look to how efficiently they can pick, pack, despatch and replenish goods, while ensuring they have built in an agility to give consumers greater service variability and faster lead times. It will be a constant struggle to adapt or perish.

While we could expect to see more automation in future warehouses married to the appropriate form of racking and shelving, one must not lose sight of the fact that all operations are different, so there is no one size fits all solution. Automation may not be cost effective or provide the flexibility needed, for example. Before any new warehouse scheme is undertaken, therefore, businesses must properly analyse their SKUs and throughput data to arrive at a solution that suits their needs best. This can be a timedemanding exercise, as while some businesses know every warehouse activity measured to the third decimal place others may have only a very sketchy or inaccurate information about volumes, sizes, fragility, hazard level, etc.

Simulation packages can be helpful as a verifier of suggested designs but long before it can be used the design process must deal with the collection, analyses and interpretation of quantitative data, which should then be subjected to thought on delivering innovative options for the methods, layouts, and dynamic systems. This should often include the impact of logistics trends like JIT and crossdocking. Fast track distribution today stresses the importance of floor space for picking, sortation and load consolidation rather than the use of the cube.

Even so, wasted space is wasted money, therefore it is crucial to choose the most appropriate racking and shelving formats for one’s individual needs. In certain types of warehouses, like cold stores, the choice is easier and often falls on mobile racking or drive-in, which provide the densest form of storage to keep high energy costs, (up to 25% of total running costs) as low as possible.

If getting close to a warehouses capacity and so more is needed there may be options much cheaper than new builds. If, for example, using conventional forklifts in aisles typically 3.6 mt wide there is the option of switching to articulated forklifts that only need 1.6 mt of aisle width, which combined with rearranged and supplemented racking could deliver up to 50% more pallet positions. If not using a slick stock forecasting program another option could be to buy one because they have been known to cut stock levels by 30% without harming customer service levels. Their payback can be measured in just a few weeks.