Warehousing faces unprecedented changes and challenges over the next few years, which if ignored could see many operators disappear. The key to survival will be the use of valuable storage space in the most effective way and the flexibility to cope with the strong trend to order picking for direct deliveries to the consumer – in short, multi-channel distribution. This does not mean that there will be a trend towards mega sheds, though, of course, some goods providers will do just that. Toyota, for example, believes that in coming years there may be a growth in medium-sized ‘mini third party logistics’ companies to service small e-tail businesses. This would result in the need for flexible, localized distribution centres.

Home delivery, currently boosted by online shopping, is already a huge factor in the changing face of order picking, says warehouse automation specialist Swisslog, and according to one report some 40% of all retail shops will disappear from the British high street within five years. This may not mean that the number of orders and order lines picked will increase significantly over that period, but what is certain is that the warehouse must be able to support both case picking and item picking. It is, therefore, imperative that automated solutions are designed to cater for this trend. One interesting development already seen in this respect, says Linde, is an increase in mezzanine floors to allow multi level picking.

Fortunately, the business of choosing the right mix between forklifts, racking and automated handling hardware can be eased by the use of simulation software and all leading forklift suppliers offer some free help on this, like Linde’s powerful Stratos tool.

Given the trend away from full pallet load handling when fulfilling shop-based orders towards more single item picks for direct home deliveries, the need for picking speed becomes paramount. Individuals walking down aisles or using order picking trucks is time consuming and tiresome. “If companies are not willing to invest in appropriate picking processes, they will soon see their ‘units per hour’ productivity rates decrease significantly as well as increased congestion in busy picking areas,” says Linde.

To get around this, automated material handling suppliers like Dematic, Swisslog and Toyota developed ‘goods to person’ systems which are not only fast (delivering over 800 picks/hr) but also highly space efficient and ergonomically easier on the pickers. They are usually backed up by paperless picking methods like pick-to-light, voice and hand-held RDTs. Such paperless picking is more accurate than paper pick lists and allows real time stock updates. In terms of payback, they can often deliver in under one year and sometimes justify themselves on huge reductions in order picking errors and big increases in order picking rates. Full automation of hardware equipment, however, often requires a much longer payback period, typically at least five years.

There will, of course, be many warehouses that will continue to deliver full pallet loads to other businesses and retail distribution centres and so a truck-based handling solution, backed up by a WMS, will remain the most viable option. But the use of space will determine the leaders and laggards. The cost of space varies widely according to location, but industry estimates suggest that the cost of a pallet position is about £2-£3 per week. Various pallet racking formats have been developed over the years to provide warehouse operators with a choice of pallet storage density. These include APR, drive-in/drive through, VNA, push-back, gravity-fed live or dynamic storage, mobile and block stacking.

As regards APR, this is normally used with conventional counter balance trucks and enables only 40% of space utilisation. Reach trucks can offer 46% and VNA trucks 59%. Drive-in racking offers 65%, live storage 80% and aisle-free high density systems, like Swisslog’s Autostore and Toyota’s BT Radio Shuttle, 85%. However, the denser the storage racking used the more that instant pallet selectivity is diminished so there is a trade off between pallet access time and maximum cubic utilisation.

It is not, however, all about achieving the best use of space. The choice of forklift can also be critical, because some trucks are far more productive than others in terms of pallets moved or even the number of trucks used. Into this bracket must fall the articulated forklifts first developed in the UK 25 years ago and now provided by Translift Bendi, Flexi Narrow Aisle and Aisle Master. These trucks can work outside on the roughest of yards as well as within 1.6 mt-wide aisles. They can lift to over 12 mt, well beyond conventional counterbalance trucks. Such flexibility can dispense with having different truck types and so move more pallets per shift.

There are many other ways in which warehouses can save significant costs. Some are of an environmental nature, and others to do with the method of forklift acquisition. One significant challenge facing warehouses is the need to comply with the Energy Act, 2011, by 2018. Failure to do so, according to Government figures, could see up to 18% of buildings outlawed if their energy rating performance is F or G. The problem could be far worse than that, according the DTZ Global, whose recently-published report shows that over the last 12 months an audit of over 1,000 energy performance certificates indicated that around 40% of commercial property would be on a borderline E rating or below. Warehouse operators, therefore, must start looking now at what can be done to save energy and create energy in a carbon-free way, or one that sharply cuts the carbon footprint.

On truck acquisition methods, around 70% of all forklifts are on some kind of rental/lease agreement. Owing to the competitive nature of this business, truck hirers have had good value for money, as hire rates have not changed significantly over 20 years and a truck on a single shift of 40 hours a week equates to a car hire of 62,000 miles a year. But some users have been shocked on the return of trucks when faced with repair bills for damage that was not fair wear and tear. To clarify this, the FLTA has issued a 32-page booklet outlining dealer expectations when a truck is returned at the end of a hire period. The message is clear to all truck hirers: treat the truck as though you owned it, and you are less likely to be hit by expensive but justifiable repairs/replacements.

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