The measure of success for a warehouse is typically determined by results: the units of product successfully and efficiently received, processed and shipped, minimal inventory damages, no injury incidents. If target numbers for categories like these are achieved, warehousing strategies might not venture beyond maintaining the status quo — the adage of "don't fix what isn't broken" at work. What fulfillment center managers often fail to realize, however, is that assessing and improving warehousing layout can move a business from treading water to real change, the lasting kind that bolsters the all-important bottom line.
Does your warehouse fits all of your needs?
Warehousing needs are multi-faceted. Square footage can't be the only consideration when it comes to warehouse-company matchmaking. True, you don't want to end up with more racks and stock than available floor space, but even a large warehouse with poorly-placed loading docks or inefficient temperature control can still hobble your efficiency. In order to find or fit your warehouse to your workflow, these facets will need to be incorporated:
- Comfort, ease and safety for your warehouse team. Is there adequate HVAC infrastructure to combat temperature extremes? Are there enough facilities — break rooms, bathrooms, et cetera — to accommodate your entire workforce? Are the floors even and free of severe pitting, cracking or gaps that can lead to safety concerns?
- Loading docks that your supply chain partners or 3PL companies can easily access. Be sure to account for access in bad weather, as well as stock safety and coverage while loading during rain or snowstorms.
- Multiple zones for different stock types. If, for example, you warehouse and move both shelf-stable and refrigerated items, you'll need a warehouse that can house both traditional shelving and cold storage equipment, the latter of which is often heavy enough to compromise second-story flooring and supports.
- Wiring and electrical hookups. If you struggle to find areas to plug in recharging stations for pick/pack scanners or hardwire network and internet connections for computers, you will need to either invest in additional wiring installation or seek out a facility that already has more in place.
- Proper wi-fi coverage. With so many markers of warehouse success riding on IoT technology, manually uploading data or wandering around with devices held overhead to boost a weak signal are time-consuming inefficiencies you can't afford to overlook.
- The ability to adapt to future plans. If your company is looking to drastically change their volume of SKUs carried, or eyeing a merger with another company, these weighty business decisions need to be taken into account within the warehouse. Additionally, if technology such as RFID tags will be rolled out in the near future, it's prudent to test connection strength from aisle to aisle to see if any infrastructure improvements will be needed.
Walk through your current or potential warehouse space, thinking like an employee.
If it's been awhile since you walked the warehouse floor, it's time to roll up your sleeves, grab a scanner and either pick a typical order or shadow an employee while they pick. Document their movements from beginning to end and aggregate data and insights at the end of your observation period. Ask your team what parts of the workflow they struggle with, where time-wasting redundancies crop up or where they have to work harder to locate difficult or confusing skus. Each instance where an employee has to stop and use a workaround, or hunt for a poorly-racked bin, is time that they aren't moving the company forward. When you base your observations on hard data alone, rather than the human element of your workforce, you're only getting half the picture. If you turn over skilled warehouse staff for poor performance and find out the problem was your warehousing layout itself, you're saddled with the same issues and a lack of seasoned talent as well.
No one knows the warehouse floor better than your employees, so don't hesitate to use their collective opinions and suggestions as a tool for improving your layout. There may be complications you didn't need to consider when the warehouse was initially designed, or your core business might have changed and hot products may be entirely different than they were years ago. If new, fast-moving products are all the way at the back of the warehouse and weren't shifted forward, for example, every order that includes them will be needlessly eating up valuable working hours.
Measure time in A-to-B scenarios: How long it takes an employee to load or read pick orders, how long it takes them to reach each section of the warehouse and how long it takes them to deliver those items to the pack station. Depending on the volume of your overall orders, it might be beneficial to invest in software or algorithms that optimize these pathways, sending employees on the most efficient path to complete their order.
Make sure your product rotation is efficient.
Receiving is often at least half of the work duties of a given warehouse, and depending on average storage times, it may be even more than that. Your warehouse should have a clear staging area for receiving goods — as well as a clean, uncrowded area for unpacking, checking against invoices and staging product for restocking. If your current warehousing strategies pit employees attempting to restock against other employees who are actively picking or packing, incorrect orders and invoice-checks are likely not far behind. SupplyChainLink agrees that setting aside a dedicated space for receiving keeps boxes from getting mixed up and allows a clean, accountable transition of products into your warehouse. Ideally, this area should be set up inside the warehouse to protect the stock from the elements, and close to the loading docks to ensure timely cooperation with 3PL delivery providers.
As Mecalux points out in an article on warehousing efficiency, your equipment — forklifts, pallet wrap holders, and other important machinery — must also be able to fit, turn and park within the warehouse aisles to keep warehouse storage and retrieval efforts on track. For example, incorporating pallet jacks and difficult turns to get newly-arrived stock within reach of forklifts uses more employees and equipment than it should. Remember: each time you place stock in new sets of hands or on another piece of machinery, you increase the risk of injury to your staff or the goods they're transporting. If your current warehousing layout doesn't allow for minimal transfers, reconsider the movable structures, such as shelving or packing tables, surrounding your permanent loading docks and staging areas.
The success of your warehousing layout is as much about efficient human interaction as it is about the walls, floors and doors that make up the structure itself. Your warehousing strategies need to be comprehensive and flexible to meet the ever-changing needs of the supply chain, and there should always be room for input from trusted employees. Don't lose the proverbial forest for the trees when chasing efficiency: make sure you periodically take a step back to examine your warehouse's overall efficiency and layout, rather than just the day-to-day operational numbers it produces.