Other Voices: Taking inventory of more than just goods

A thorough and ongoing analysis of processes can identify plenty of opportunities to boost warehouse efficiency.
By · January 05, 2018

Editor’s note: The following column is by Marcus Warner, director of strategic accounts for NITCO, a New England-based provider of forklifts, materials handling equipment and comprehensive warehouse solutions. It is part of Modern’s Other Voices column, a series featuring ideas, opinions and insights from end-users, analysts, systems integrators and OEMs. Click here to learn about submitting a column for consideration.

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Is your warehouse operating at maximum efficiency? That’s always the goal, of course. But in reality, there’s almost always room for improvement. There is much to be learned, and productivity to be gained, from slowing things down for a moment so you can step back and take a closer look at the big picture. Here are common-sense tips for rethinking your warehouse productivity. It all starts with taking inventory — in a different way.

Taking Inventory: A Warehouse Efficiency Exercise

Keeping close track of inventory is key in the world of warehouses and distribution centers. But how often do we stop and take inventory of our processes? The potential to discover efficiencies and cost savings makes it well worth the effort, whether you’ve undergone recent changes or have been doing things the same way for decades.

Are you handling different types of products? A greater volume? Have you moved to a new space (bigger or smaller)? If so, make a note of such factors. But at a more basic level, the process of discovering how to do things more efficiently involves a more thorough analysis of:

● How your product comes in
● How it’s handled within your warehouse
● How it goes out
● The height of your shelves
● The width of your aisles
● The weight of your typical and heaviest loads, etc.

Among the key factors that impact warehouse efficiency:

Touches
How many touches occur from the time materials enter your warehouse until they exit? Reducing that number is one obvious way to increase efficiency. For example, there are a range of belt and roller conveyor systems that can be customized to your space to help facilitate a smoother, speedier workflow while reducing handling costs for repetitive tasks.

Aisles sizes
Do narrow aisles create a need for specialized equipment? Do unnecessarily wide aisles create an opportunity to gain storage space by reorganizing? In the first instance, there are many options available for versatile narrow aisle forklifts capable of operating in tight quarters. In the second, there are a range of products designed to help you make more efficient use of your existing space. These include automatic storage and retrieval systems, high-density storage solutions and a wide range of innovative pallet storage racks.

Vertical space
Suppose your warehouse has 20- or 30-foot-high ceilings, but most of the action happens at ground level. Such a scenario introduces numerous possibilities for better utilizing your vertical space. Erecting higher shelving and making sure you have lift equipment with the necessary reach and power to handle the job is one way to accomplish this. You can also add durable, versatile mezzanines to add a second or third level inside your facility.

Equipment

Taking inventory of your existing equipment will help you determine whether the machines you’re using are powerful enough to handle your height and weight requirements safely and without unnecessary wear and tear. But such analysis could also reveal that you are devoting too much power to certain applications, for example using a bigger machine when a smaller one could save energy while handling the same workload.

Personnel
Warehouse logistics also means making sure your workers don’t suffer unnecessary wear and tear, that they have the tools they need to do the job safely and efficiently, and that they aren’t placed in situations that end up needlessly slowing down the process. For example, lifting a substantial weight may be easy for a rugged warehouse worker. But if that same weight must be lifted repeatedly throughout the shift, or if the worker has to reach too high or too low to move it, a bit of mechanical assistance may boost operational efficiency. For this, there are a range of ergonomic solutions that promote productivity and reduce injuries in the workplace, including lift tables, tilters and pallet positioners, hand trucks, scissor lifts, overhead cranes, and more.

Automation
Automating certain functions in the picking, packing and shipping process is another way to boost efficiency, potentially reducing the number of touches. For example, robotic automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) and vision guided vehicles (VGVs) can haul large loads using programmable navigation that includes the ability to automatically slow down or stop if they “see” someone or something in the way and then resume when the obstacle is gone.

You may also find it helpful to explore new technologies designed to better manage your work flow — for example, cutting-edge engineered systems and logistics management software that can provide real-time stock management and inventory control while enabling greater synchronization throughout your warehouse.

The process of conducting such an internal efficiency audit is almost guaranteed to yield insights that will help you work smarter and more productively.