Simple Solutions To Improve Warehouse Work Flow

Large technology investments in your operations will almost always improve your efficiency, but if not done wisely, it may limit your flexibility and close doors that are better left open.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on designing an equipment resistant distribution center. The second part will appear in the January/February 2007 issue of Food Logistics.

Large technology investments in your operations will almost always improve your efficiency, but if not done wisely, it may limit your flexibility and close doors that are better left open.

Before you open your wallet for that new state-of-the-art integrated picking system or expensive pick-to-light racking, consider simpler solutions first. Do your picking steps follow a “one and done” strategy?

When designing a distribution center work flow, companies often profile their inventory based upon a linear pick scheme. They assume the assembly of the orders are processed by one team, through an ideal slotting scheme, based on pure product velocity. Often overlooked are crucial productivity inhibitors that can virtually cripple a work flow and prevent the full throttle of a large scale labor-force.

I suggest considering heavily weighing the raw labor and traffic flow as an integral part of your inventory slotting and racking strategy. Recent fishbone theories of racking layout suggest 20 percent improvement based on the labor component fuels the argument for this type of strategy.

Ask yourself key questions before designing a new work flow. Do you want more than one piece of equipment in a pick zone at a time? More than one picker? A picker on foot, in the same aisle simultaneous with a fork lift truck? I suggest for maximum productivity and flexibility during peak seasons, the answer to these questions is a resounding yes.

Ground Control
Always slot maximum amount of SKUs in ground locations.

Your location velocity codes may say to put that “A” product nearest your docks in a forward upper level location, but think of the limitations that may result for the gain in proximity. Pickers using carts, transporters and hand jacks are immediately removed from of the labor pool to draw from the upper level picks.

If you have temporary workers during peak seasons, they likely don’t use vertical equipment either. If you use all four basic pieces of equipment, you have limited 75 percent of labor options. Many times, floor locations, even at peak travel times and in the most remote zone of your facility, are the winning solution.

Consider the boost in raw labor with this strategy:

  • Forklifts and their operators (likely your premium labor) become more available in a less congested area;
  • Expansion of seasonal labor and temp worker (your most affordable labor) pick assignments;
  • Simultaneous pick lines and zone picking, especially for your top products;
  • Accelerated pallet to shelf bin replenishment for high velocity products;
  • Expanded picking capacity for untrained second and third shift workers;
  • Flexible ground level picks when conveyors, forklifts or computer systems go down.

Some operations that are labor intense and require a lot of individual product handling may consider not storing any products in elevated positions. I recently worked with a client who had no real practical use for high ceilings and racking due the oversized products and few options for material handling automation or equipment. Find what work flow best suits your company’s specific needs.

Always Put Safety First
Ensure forklift operators are sensitive to pedestrian traffic and balance the timing of their picking in these areas. Also consider spreading your velocity codes to a wider range. If you slot products too close, there may be insufficient space to allow simultaneous multiple waves of both workers and equipment.

In the January/February issue of Food Logistics, I will discuss the drawbacks of conveying systems, ways to increase the amount of floor space in your distribution center and offer 10 tips for boosting your picking speed.