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Automated Material Handling Systems & Adjustments To Your Pallet Storage Can Increase Warehouse Efficiencies

Posted on Apr 24, 2023

Automated material handling systems continue to be touted as a key driver of increased efficiency in warehouses and distribution centers, as evidenced by the hundreds of automation solutions on display at the recent ProMat material handling expo. But it’s not the only way to realize improvements in productivity and throughput, says Ryan Wachsmuth, Dynamic Storage Sales Manager at Steel King Industries. Wachsmuth gave an educational seminar at the event along with Bryan Gauger, president of Cisco-Eagle, a provider of material handling solutions and partner of Steel King.

“In many conventional warehouses, opportunities for efficiency gains are often overlooked,” according to Wachsmuth. “By addressing some of these areas, you can create a more fluid, flexible operational facility without the fixed constraints or costs of automation.”

If you’re looking to increase efficiency, first look at your warehouse’s existing set-up to identify how to optimize the use of its square footage, and how you can make better use of existing storage systems or upgrade systems, he adds.

Automation Offers Multiple Benefits

“Automation, either in parts of your operation or in its entirety, can be a solution that brings increased efficiency and that can otherwise improve operations,” he notes. Those benefits include:

  • Increased Productivity and Throughput – Automation can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Optimized Labor Costs – Individuals can be removed from tasks that are highly repetitive and moved to functions that cannot be automated economically or that provide a greater value.
  • Improved Quality – Less human contact can reduce incorrect product movement and reduce product damage; with fewer handling mistakes, less time is needed to fix those mistakes.
  • Improved Safety – Worker health and safety is safeguarded when they experience fewer repetitive movements, and a reduced potential to face human-forklift contact.
  • Reduced Business Costs – If fewer people are needed, costs associated with hiring, interviewing, and training are reduced.

“Those benefits are real, but there are situations where storage solutions also can provide valuable solutions to address time, space, labor, quality, and cost issues without engaging automation,” Wachsmuth says. Better utilization of existing space is one area where value can be added.

“For example, consider how unused space could be used for storage, including the space over dock doors, which can be ideal for certain types of storage, such as pallets,” Wachsmuth advises.

Get More Storage From Existing Space

Also, look for ways to get more storage out of existing space – which can also reduce transit times. That includes the removal of aisles where possible, the addition of portable storage, and the addition of storage platforms. Different types of pallet racking can help you make better use of existing space, too. When looking to optimize existing space, AutoCAD can be a great tool, allowing you to move existing equipment and racking, and thus identify areas for improvement.

“Various types of pallet racking allow for higher density pallet storage,” Wachsmuth notes. “That includes drive-in racking, pushback racking, and pallet flow racking.”

Even systems that use selective racking, which is very space-intensive, can be optimized, Wachsmuth notes.

Selective Racking – “Selective systems can be modified, based on your data and needs,” says Wachsmuth. “All storage layouts and all warehouses aren’t necessarily laid out to optimize space. You can do plenty with selective racks to improve your space utilization and speed. You can narrow your aisles, you can build smart inventory slotting and can add things like carton flow or dedicated picking aisles. There are plenty of methods to achieve greater efficiency.”

Portable Racking – A system build-out isn’t always needed to optimize existing space. Portable racking, which includes storage containers or pallet racks – both of which are stackable, can provide extra storage when needed.

Drive-In Racking – Drive-in racks are “last-in, first-out” systems with reduced selectivity and efficient storage density. For items that will have a longer life in storage, and don’t require immediate access, these systems are an excellent solution. “You’ll need to slot the same SKU into each bay, but that works for many products and operations,” Wachsmuth notes. “This is a very high-density system that helps you concentrate storage of slower turning products that aren’t as time-sensitive.” With drive-in racking, you’ll get high pallet-storage-density without the need for mechanization and other technology,” he adds. Drive-in systems are slower to access, but also less mechanically complicated than the next type of high-density storage: pallet flow.

Pallet Flow Racking – “If high-density pallet storage and first-in, first-out access are what you need, no system is better than pallet flow,” Wachsmuth says. “You can store as many pallets deep as you have the space for, on multiple levels. Your facility footprint is your only limitation.” Each lane needs to store the same SKU, but for many products, that’s not a problem.

“Pallet flow, which stores in a first-in, first-out process, helps you attain many of the inventory rotation and storage density advantages of automation,” Wachsmuth says. “These systems also help you operate more safely because they reduce the number of forklifts needed to pick and place more pallets.”

Pushback Racking – When product perishability or rotation is not a factor, pushback racking allows for more flexibility and better selectivity than pallet flow or drive-in solutions. In a pushback rack system, forklifts place pallets on nested carts riding on inclined rails. Those pallets are pushed back by subsequent loading, exposing the next cart—a last-in, first-out storage strategy. Unlike drive-in racks, you can place a different SKU on every level. The trade-off is twofold, according to Wachsmuth: First, pushback systems require an angled pitch so that pallets push to the front once one is removed. That pitch consumes vertical space.

Productivity in a facility also can be boosted through the use of work platforms and mezzanines. Mezzanines and platforms also affect space and time by using vertical space to add functional areas for high-density pallet storage, people, and processes. Platforms and pick modules are naturally part of automated material handling systems that reduce travel time, deliver goods to pickers, and integrate with many other types of automation.

“Mezzanines are a big part of many automated systems because they can host conveyor lines, vertical conveyors, reciprocating lifts, spirals, and robots,” says Wachsmuth. “Pick modules — multilevel platforms with a variety of picking and put-away options — are where automation meets platform storage, racking, and storage systems.”

Establish Metrics to Verify Material Handling Automation Benefits

Once you’ve addressed existing space, equipment, and people, and have documented your processes, you can plan for immediate or future adoption of automation. “Ask yourself, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and create measurable metrics based on answers to that question,” advises Cisco Eagle’s Gauger. The review might disclose processes that are not ideal; those bad processes shouldn’t be automated, or you might lose the benefits of automation.

“There are numerous factors to consider when looking into automation,” according to Gauger. Those include:

  • Safety – is always the top priority.
  • Seasonal and date-sensitive storage.
  • The product and SKU mix.
  • Daily inflow and outflow patterns.
  • Whether existing systems can be moved within a facility – Room constraints are always a factor when adopting automation, Gauger notes.
  • Personnel – Don’t approach automation solely as a way to reduce the number of people in your facility, Gauger cautions. “You’ll still need people, but with different skill sets. You’ll need people who can operate and maintain the robotics and automated systems.”
  • The impact on people – If you automate processes that were previously all or mostly manual, expect that the automation will impact your people more than you think, Gauger adds.
  • Downtime – Implementation of automation will require downtime. Try to limit that, and determine how inventory needs to be built up to cover downtime.

“Automation can bring benefits to your operations,” Wachsmuth says, “but approach it very deliberately, clearly determining all the factors involved. Don’t assume you have to automate everything. Don’t think it’s quick to install and activate. Don’t think automation will be inexpensive. And understand its use will change the type of personnel you’ll need to run your facility.”

Contact the experts at Steel King to see how we can help optimize your warehouse processes with the materials, components, and expertise that you can trust.

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