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How Will Covid-19 Change Distribution?

Warehouses and manufacturing facilities can't work remotely, but must adapt to be safe

General Information Inquiry

packing and scanning area in a distribution facility
We don’t know what the next month holds, much less the rest of 2020 and beyond when it comes to Covid-19, but we know changes are coming. However, several things are known in the current situation.

  1. The supply chain must function. Food and medical chains are the priority, but all types of other products must still reach Americans.
  2. This work can’t be done remotely. People must staff warehouses and factories.
  3. Like other facilities, the warehouse requires social distance to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and make their workers safe.
  4. The supply chain must be safe for its workers and its consumers.

We’ve put together some ideas that may help you as the situation evolves.

Cisco-Eagle president Darein Gandall

Warehouses can’t be run remotely

People can’t work in order fulfillment and manufacturing can’t work remotely like many office workers can. In many critical supply chains (food, medical devices, defense, pharmaceuticals and many consumer goods), manufacturing, picking, packing and shipping operations will experience higher demand over the next few months. eCommerce operations and food distribution operations are experiencing record demand in the first days of widespread social isolation, as consumers flock to stores and order online.

Right: Cisco-Eagle President Darein Gandall

Achieving safe distance in the warehouse

Food and pharmaceutical distribution has always worked at higher standards for cleanliness and sanitary handling. Now, higher standards may apply to companies who produce, store and distribute a much broader variety of products.

Fewer touches in the process

“Companies are always working on reducing the number of people it takes to execute a process,” said Darein Gandall, Cisco-Eagle president. “But now, reducing human interaction with each other and the orders is a matter of health.” Fewer people mean less personal contact and less chance for the type of personal interactions that health professionals are working to reduce. “If you can position pickers an appropriate distance from each other, you can still operate and still process orders while you minimize the risks,” Gandall said.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends at least 6 feet of space. How can you accomplish that in a picking operation?

Techniques for maintaining safe space

Lengthen and segment your picking zones

packing and scanning area in a distribution facility

“You can create space by having a picker cover more zones, but that will slow down high volume operations,” said Gandall. “You can assign the zones and pick in waves that separate people. You can rotate pickers to reduce the time they spend in proximity to each other. Anything you can do to reduce the number of pickers operating in the same space will help.”

Social distance stickers and markersMarking the distance – what does 6′ look like?

One suggestion that can be easily and quickly implemented is to mark zones that help pickers understand the correct tolerance between people, as it’s difficult for people to easily and quickly estimate distances. Simple tape lines could help people easily understand their place on the line, rather than forcing them to estimate the necessary amount of space. Social distance markers have been developed that mark the acceptable distances.

Safer surfaces

Covid-19 can live for hours — sometimes days — on many surfaces, including plastic totes, packaging and cardboard. Since an order can pass between zones, touched by multiple pickers, reducing “touch” exposures becomes critical. Pickers should wear gloves and sanitize their hands frequently before handling an order picked by someone else up the line. Once the order reaches packing, packers should take the same precautions.

“It’s easy to say something like ‘let’s extend picking zones,'” Gandall said. “But doing that is more difficult because expanded picking zones may be twice the size and previously covered by multiple pickers. You have to reorganize people and redo processes.” Gandall pointed out that while it’s not always optimum to extend the zones, it can usually be done with some planning and without plant reconfiguration. “The idea is to minimize contact between order pickers over a work shift,” he added. “It would give them extra distance.”

Packing zones and appropriate distance

packing and scanning area in a distribution facility

Packing areas may represent more of a challenge than pick zones. They are often designed with more density, with lines of stations that aren’t limited by the size of storage media, as pick zones frequently are. Easily spreading out packers is more challenging, but can also be done without line reconfiguration. The challenge is more acute because of this design; packers can be stationed one beside another in ways pickers aren’t.

If you can spread packers out to beyond six feet, do so. If you cannot, protective equipment like gloves becomes more critical, as well as frequent cleaning and disinfection. Health professionals tell us that there is no need for masks for healthy individuals, but gloves and easily available hand sanitizer, plus frequent breaks for hand washing are highly recommended.

There are no easy answers here. If a conveyor line runs between stations, you may have to consider where you are able to place packers so they have access to takeaway lines, tables and supplies.

Personal protective equipment

sick workerYou will need to reevaluate PPE in the immediate future from the perspective of spread reduction. Once the pickers are separated, exposure to the virus can be passed to the next zone along with the order, so measures must be taken to sanitize and prevent spread through that channel. Gloves, cleaning procedures and protective equipment should be part of that effort.

“Since the virus survives for hours on many surfaces,” Gandall said, “you have to think about what’s coming into your system, how long it’s in storage and who touches it before it leaves.” Given that delivery windows can be hours or a single day, finding ways to reduce the spread through better equipment is critical.

Items such as scanners, handheld order devices and others should now be disinfected constantly as shifts work to pick and pack orders.

If you’re packing or picking orders, your people are handling materials that have likely been handled by other people and will be handled by others both in your company, by shippers and at the customer level.

Warehouse and shipping workers should be on the list of heroes, right there along with truck drivers, medical staff, retail employees and first responders.

Additional shifts

“One idea is to run people in and out so they’re fresher and able to work at a faster pace for a shorter length of time. You can add shifts so that fewer people are in the building at the same time. Reduce the number of people who are present,” Gandall said. “Splitting shifts makes sense if you can reduce the number of people in the warehouse by spreading their presence out over 16 hours rather than 8.”

Goods to person picking reduce personal interactions

vertical carousel system for goods to person picking

“If you can control the spacing of people, you can reduce the chances of exposure,” said Gandall.

One way to reduce contact is to utilize more goods-to-person methodology (such as flow racking, carousels and other storage and retrieval systems). These methods reduce walking and interactions by letting the picker remain in one defined area. You can define the space where people work with precision. The key here is that the picker can be positioned to work his or her shift outside the CDC-defined six feet.

Moving forward: automation, goods-to-picker, redesigned pick zones and more

“Obviously to really reduce human interaction, you’ll need to reconfigure the line, the process, the equipment and everything else,” Gandall added. “That’s longer-term, but very possible to do. Companies may want to start designing systems that allow them to spread people away from each other in general.” Adding goods-to-picker technology isn’t immediately possible for most companies, but it’s a consideration for the future, when you may want to find ways to reduce risks systematically.

“Can you add a robot that executes part of the process? Can you change your conveyor line structure to spread people out? Then you also have to consider what happens socially in the plant. It’s not an easy process, but when we are talking about long-term changes, everything should be considered.”

Cleaning procedures

The quickest reaction for most distribution facilities is more frequent and comprehensive sanitary cleaning–the type of cleaning that has been present in food and pharmaceutical operations. This is probably a lasting impact, as companies will stress cleaner equipment, cleaner processes for inbound goods and ways to quickly sanitize material handling equipment, production machinery and the inventory itself.

More information: 6 Ideas for a Cleaner Warehouse

“A need for better training”

Distribution center demand has increased during the first days of remote work and social isolation, as consumers try to remove themselves from retail and other operations as quickly as possible. That means new employees and a raft of new training needs on personal distance, cleanliness and other procedures right along with job skills training.

“I hope we are through this quickly,” Gandall added. “But in the meantime, warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing has to operate to support everyone. They’re risking themselves for all of us.”


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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