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New Year’s Resolutions for Your Warehouse

What can we change in 2015 to make operations faster, more accurate, safer, and more productive?

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2015 is coming up

Resolutions like losing a pound (or 20!), learning to play a musical instrument, starting an exercise program, giving up smoking, or learning a new language are notoriously difficult to stick with. Worthwhile goals tend to be that way. When you’re thinking about what you’d like to do in 2015, save a resolution for your professional life. When it comes to your warehouse operation, since you work on it all day, every day, January is a good time to look at improvements you can make.

What could you resolve to improve in your warehouse this year?

5S conveyor cell

Resolve to spend more time working and less time walking or transporting materials

One of the major productivity issues in any order picking operation is the time workers spend walking, and forklifts spend traveling, rather than doing productive things. There are ways to reduce the need for travel without a dramatic facility re-engineering. Frequently, saving space equates to saved steps and increased productivity.

  • Analyze your operation through a 5S “filter”. If you aren’t familiar with 5S, here is a primer. It’s basically five Japanese words, seiri ,(sort) seiton (straighten), seiso (shine), seiketsu (standardize), and shitsuke (sustain). All kinds of areas can be improved with this approach, but one of the easy ones is workstation setup. This doesn’t have to be a massive overhaul; specific functions can be improved with little or no time, energy, or money with the 5S concept.
  • Consolidate functions into logical work cells. From an order picking standpoint, if you aren’t automated, the reality is that you should look to reduce steps more than eliminating them. To do this, logical inventory slotting is critical. Can items that are often shipped together be stored together in flow storage, shelves, or racks? Can items that are very high volume be stored at the most convenient place? Can items that are required in terms of an assembly or manufacturing process be slotted beside each other in storage positions? One common method is to replace static storage with carton flow, since gravity flow uses floor space more efficiently. Fewer aisles are required, so at least 50% more goods can be stocked in the same amount of floor space, which eventually translates to saved steps. See “Gravity Flow vs. Static Shelving” for more information.
  • Provide packers with everything they need at their fingertips. If your packers are spending any significant amount of time looking for cartons, void fills, tape, or other needed supplies, it’s a huge productivity drain. While pickers may not be able to remain in place due to the nature of the job, packers are an easier fix. Check our guide “Packing Station Design” for detailed information.
  • Explore automated, “goods-to-picker” systems. This tends to mean automation, but if the applications are correct, then you can leverage a tremendous amount of time savings by implementing carousels, conveyors, or other automated solutions that let people work, rather than walk. See “Questions to Ask: Carousel Systems” for more information on carousel applications.

Resolve to benchmark and measure your success

You can’t improve, the saying goes, what you can’t measure. But what do you measure, and how can you compare it to other operations? There are a couple of avenues. First, check out our article, “How to Benchmark Your Warehouse”. This is a good way to hold your operations to a mirror and find the hidden strengths and weaknesses you can exploit to significantly improve what you do.

Also, check out “Warehouse Key Performance Indicators”. Companies that relentlessly measure sales, customer service, financial, and other functions sometimes treat their shipping and handling operations as an afterthought, which is unfortunate; the warehouse is where tremendous value can be added to the process. It’s often the point where customers will form their most definitive opinions about your company. We offer a range of potential KPI measures in that article, but there are as many as there are ways to work.

For most of us, the coin of the warehouse is time and how it is expended. For advice on what your biggest battle is — the one for time — check “For Warehousing & Distribution, It’s a Battle for Time”.

Resolve to reward top performers, improve average performers, and remove poor performers

HR experts universally laud incentives as a way to drive performance. Order pickers who can earn more based on faster, more accurate picks will work harder and better. Everyone in the facility can typically be aligned on incentives that help drive performance if they are correctly designed.

It’s tricky to design a program that gives true incentives to those who deserve them and balances that with company needs. You start by deciding what you want to reward. You should target some combination of speed, productivity, efficiency, accuracy, and safety. The best programs find a way to create and reward peak performance, not to reward what is already in place. Incentives should be hard enough to achieve that they truly require extra effort, but are not unreachable.

To do it right, you must be able to accurately measure in a way that cannot be “gamed”. Incentives can and do go wrong this way. You have to build a solid, factual baseline for acceptable performance, then be sure that the system is fair to everyone. People in packing shouldn’t have a higher hill to climb than people in picking. Once you know that, you need some rock solid measuring processes (that cannot be in any way bypassed or interfered with by those being measured) and good benchmark data. You also want to ensure that the playing field is level as possible for all departments or groups.

Good incentives are usually cash, but for the right situation you can consider perks like longer lunch hours, free meals, parking privileges, etc. Many people respond to simple recognition, but that may not be enough to help you reward and retain high performers.

More on incentives:

Resolve to work safer

forklift aisle

Safety and efficiency are not enemies. In fact, they may be best friends when both are ingrained into an operation. Some ways to increase safety this year include:

  • Resolve to lay out your facility for safety. Due to traffic patterns, work cell placement, and other factors, many warehouses face safety difficulties because they are laid out without consideration for safety. If forklifts and pedestrians routinely encounter each other in a poor visibility area, could that be rectified with better traffic management? Are work cells near forklifts guarded by steel rails or other inexpensive methods to reduce the chances of a terrible accident? What about evacuation routes in case of an emergency issue? One inexpensive but highly effective method is to mark routes with tape. If you have a power outage and little external light, Photoluminescent tape might be worth the bit extra it costs.  Are the rack aisles laid out wide enough to reduce the chances of a forklift hitting an upright and causing a collapse?
  • Resolve to make a traffic management plan. This is partly related to bullet point one, but it deserves its own attention. Do you have defined traffic lanes where pedestrians and forklifts are assigned? If not, you’re essentially waiting for an accident to happen. And it happens often enough, since there are tens of thousands of these types of collisions–and serious injuries–every year. Once you have a plan, it should be enforced by rules, by training, and by judicious use of guardrails, tape lines, gates, and sensors.  More on the causes of forklift/pedestrian accidents from AisleCop®.
  • Resolve to reduce musculoskeletal stress and strains. Many companies stress the big picture type of accidents — forklift accidents, machinery issues, etc. No doubt, you must guard against those issues. But musculoskeletal disorders are also worth your attention, and can actually be guarded against relatively easily. Some helpful articles include “Ergonomics and Picking from Pallets,” which details ways to help prevent these types of injuries in a very common warehouse scenario.  Another one to consider is “Ergonomic Considerations for Designing Conveyor Workstations,” which goes into methods for reducing these strains in the design process. Also, check out the research on why workers will lift incorrectly (with their backs): “Why Workers Ignore Safe Lifting Advice.”

Resolve to make capital equipment decisions on the total operational costs, not just initial costs

We have covered this a bit when it comes to conveyors, but it applies to pretty much every stick of equipment, every piece of software, and every person working in your facility: stop making decisions on initial purchase price, and work toward making decisions on the full cost of ownership.

When it comes to conveyor, which is what we work on most often with our clients, you have a number of factors that weigh on the real cost, not just the purchase price.

conveyor load specification

For conveyors the factors in a nutshell are:
  • Initial cost: the purchase price of the hardware. No one is saying that this isn’t an important number — it’s obviously highly important. What you want to do is be sure that the maintenance, energy, and other ongoing costs are not increased due to incorrect specification or a relentless focus on the initial number. Be sure you are receiving apples-to-apples bids, and that your spec serves potential long term needs.
  • Maintenance costs are essential. All conveyors must be maintained. All conveyors can break down. Be sure your load and future loads are profiled when you spec your system. Also, look at the way the conveyor is built. Can technicians easily access drives and motors when it comes time to execute a scheduled maintenance program?
  • Operational costs: electrical usage  & pneumatics usage are going to factor heavily. Utilizing the right drives, motors, and reducers can significantly reduce cost over time. For instance, a conventional belt-driven conveyor with a centralized drive costs less than a innovative alternative such as Hytrol’s e24 24-volt DC power roller system with its decentralized drive system. But the e24 is less expensive to install, operate, and maintain. When it comes to controls, at the conveyor level, a sleep feature can remove loads from an entire drive. For example, in a pick module application, when products aren’t being picked, the conveyor can be programmed to sleep. Not only does this save energy, it prevents needless wear and tear. Also look at safety factors. A hidden cost for every conveyor system is its potential to injure employees.
  • Costs of installation: Not all conveyors will install as easily. Be sure you understand the mechanical and electrical implications of the conveyor type you are purchasing.
What about pallet racks?

Racks are simpler than conveyors (and less expensive to maintain), but they do have longer term costs that should be considered. Some are simply more durable and less likely to sustain critical damage than others. I am an unapologetic fan of Steel King pallet racks due to their sturdier, fully-enclosed uprights. They will last longer, survive impacts better, and require less maintenance than open back rack frames. For the relatively low cost difference, peace of mind is worth it.

  • Cost of the racking: this is an easy one. So long as you’re looking at equal specifications, you can grasp this cost pretty easily. But you should also be sure you are hitting your load profile correctly.
  • Cost of incorrect capacity: Don’t under-buy capacity. It’s not ideal to over buy it, but you when it comes to pallet racks that are there to store many pallets in the 1,000 to 3,000 pound range, high in the air, over-specs are preferred. Too little and you court disaster. That doesn’t mean you should massively over-engineer your rack system, either.
  • Costs of installation: Racks are a relatively easy installation. Inferior or used rack can cause time frames and installation costs to spiral out of control.
  • Overall safety and load bearing factors: It’s highly important to spec the rack correctly when it comes to its load bearing and operational needs. Do you need a higher density, or a higher selectivity solution? Will the upright frames bear the loads of your beams? Understanding these things up front helps you save money in the long term.
  • Costs of operations: The main thing here is to align the rack spec to its workload. Don’t buy a rack that is too flimsy to store future loads.

What are some of your warehouse resolutions? Share with us on Twitter or comment below. And have a Happy New Year!
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Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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