Mixed Racks Are The New Storage Medium For Food
With a larger number of SKUs coming off the production lines, intense competition forcing every company to increase throughput and reduce handling time, and a need to maximize space utilization, food storage facility operators are looking at additional modes of storage, and many have started to move away from standard static, drive-in racks to multiple racking types within one facility.
"Rather than picking full pallet loads, a lot of companies are picking smaller quantities, which has given an entirely different perspective to the industry," says Skip Eastman, vice president of sales at Steel King Industries, Stevens Point, WI.
Eastman also notes that as many companies start to redesign their distribution networks around larger regional distribution centers, many different racking types—drive-in, push-back, flow and multi-pick in particular—are being combined in one warehouse to take advantage of the different types available. Many companies are also combining double-deep and double-wide racks with singles.
"Variety is definitely forcing the food industry to look at different picking and racking systems," agrees Ray Chase, president of Twinlode Corp., which recently merged its two divisions, Salinas, CA-based Twinlode Manufacturing, and South Bend, IN-based Twinlode Racking Systems, into one division headquartered in Chicago. "We're tailoring a lot more of our products for companies that only do carton flow, for example."
This level of variation is being implemented to accommodate the different storage needs and movement speeds of different products, but experts are quick to warn that this type of system will not work for everyone. A careful examination of product flow and operational demands will be necessary to make sure that the choice of racking types enhances efficiency and does not cause confusion or bottlenecks within the facility, they suggest. It will also require different types of forklifts and other material handling equipment, and personnel that are trained to operate each of them.
But it goes beyond just combining multiple racking types. As more and more systems integrators and third-party logistics providers get involved with designing and outfitting storage facilities to maximize cube, a mixing of racks from multiple manufacturers has followed. "The possibility of one manufacturer being able to provide all those types of systems is unlikely," says Pete Rice, vice president of sales at UNEX Manufacturing, Jackson, NJ.
"As everybody tries to increase their cube utilization, there will obviously be different mediums that will be looked at. They're not just going with traditional pallet racks any more," Rice explains.
The new distribution model is also forcing racking inside these larger facilities to go higher than ever before. In more modern facilities, it's not uncommon for racks to reach heights of 100 or 110 feet, according to Bart Van Went, vice president of Nedcon USA, based in Harrison, OH.
And with that goes a greater focus on durability. In food storage in particular, the tide seems to be shifting toward more use of structural steel where in the past, cold roll-formed steel was the medium of choice.
Structural Racks Grow
Structural racks, made of hot-rolled steel, are gaining in popularity among operations that store and distribute food because of their ability to withstand the wear and tear of the toughest storage environments. They've especially surfaced a lot more in cold storage facilities and freezer areas of multi-temperature facilities.
"In the food industry in particular, more and more people are going with structural steel because it's stronger," says Chase. "The food industry really abuses its racks because there's such a high volume of activity with the need for quick turns. There are a lot of hits with forklifts because of this."
The majority of the racks purchased over the last number of years were made from roll-formed steel, a lighter-duty metal formed of cold-rolled sheets bent into a specific shape, mainly because roll-formed steel was a lot cheaper. Current steel prices, though, have brought costs for both types of steel closer together.
Twinlode expects sales of the stronger, more industrial-grade structural steel racking to grow approximately 30 percent this year and at least 25 percent more next year. "Because of the current stabilization of steel prices, it's becoming more popular," he maintains.
"In a freezer, I would only recommend structural steel because that is a very abusive environment," says Eastman.
"Structural has always been the preferred medium in grocery cold storage, and I can't say that I've seen a major shift away from that," adds UNEX's Rice.
But there is still wide disagreement among manufacturers as to which steel type is better under normal storage conditions. "Outside the freezer, there's not as much of a need for abuse resistance, and it can be more cost-effective to go with roll-formed," Eastman argues.
"That structural racks are better is a misperception," says Nedcon's Van Went. "You can establish the same strength with cold-rolled, with fewer pounds of steel involved, and you can shape it into any form you want."
Even at companies like FKI Logistex, Marietta, GA, the debate rages. When the company installs an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS), it usually recommends roll-formed racks. "With an AS/RS installation, the chance for damage to the rack from a forklift is minimal," says Percy May, director of sales and marketing. "Structural racks have more of an ability to withstand damage, so they're great for static storage."
"With racking, still the most important thing to look for is the ability to build taller with higher tolerances. Tolerances are paramount to the success of any project we do, and the taller the project gets, the more of a leaning toward roll-formed racks we have," May says.
Many warehouses are also requesting racks where the shelves can be adjusted fairly quickly and easily, without having to take the racks out of commission for long periods of time, as their product mix and storage methods change. If that is a real concern, most agree that roll-formed racks are better. "Shelf adjustability is easier and less costly with roll-formed because with structural, everything is molded and bolted together at the mill."
But whichever rack, or racks, are ultimately selected, flexibility is key. Some manufacturers offer flexibility in their selection of rack type, or in their ability to add or subtract equipment as storage volumes change. And wherever they're at, few warehouses can expect the luxury of assuming that their business demands will not change during the life expectancy of their racking systems.— L.K.