Narrow aisle configurations might be a concern to claustrophobics, but there are serious benefits to be had from reconfiguring a warehouse to take advantage of the more efficient use of space.
Margins are under pressure across all aspects of logistics. But the trend to use narrow aisle operations to squeeze extra value out of existing assets has made it one of the winners of these straightened times.
At a basic level, narrow aisle configurations allow businesses to make better use of space. This can of course mean fitting more stock into a site, creating more access for picking, or giving space for extra value add operations.
Aisle-Master says that a recent installation for Swedish railway machinery maker Industrispar was motivated by the requirement to stock up on materials when they reach low prices. By switching to 2m aisle widths and using a truck with a 9.2m lift height, the firm increased its pallet storage locations by 30 per cent, and can now keep a store cheaply bought supplies.
The attraction of creating space this way, is that it avoids the challenging territory of finding and affording suitable new premises. The supply of grade A industrial space is practically run dry, and so what’s left is in demand and expensive.
John Maguire of Flex Narrow Aisle says: “This paucity of decent facilities in prime locations is driving above inflation increases in rents as landlords seek to cash-in which, in turn, is putting additional pressure on the already tightly squeezed margins of companies operating in the UK’s logistics industry.
“Over the past three years the supply of new build or refurbished industrial accommodation has fallen steadily to the point where it now represents just 11 per cent of all available stock. Currently 84 per cent of all available storage space in the UK is classed as second hand.”
Indeed this is the key to why relatively expensive narrow aisle trucks, and the substantial cost and time investment required to reorganise a warehouse is seeming so attractive. “The investment in additional land for business expansion is considerable when compared to the comparatively low cost of reducing aisle widths and adding a specialised VNA truck,” says Mark Murfet of Briggs Equipment. “Due in part to the likely lease of trucks being shorter than the lease on a building, it enables a more flexible solution.”
This chimes with Steve Richmond’s view from Jungheinrich: “Companies have chosen to look to increase storage density and pallet capacity at their current sites without incurring the type of costs that a move to new larger facilities would involve.”
“As a result of this approach, there has been a noticeable upturn in interest in VNA storage systems,” says Richmond.
Earlier this year Jungheinrich appointed Gary Bartram to its very narrow aisle team within its systems and projects division, as VNA sales manager to cope with growing demand.
Other manufacturers have also benefited from this upswing, with Flexi, for example, reporting sales at record levels for the first six months of this year, following a global order intake at an all time high in 2011.
However, going to narrow aisles is not a catch-all solution for everybody. Richmond points out that reconfiguring racking will have a knock on effect on inbuilt systems such as sprinklers and other fire protection, lighting, and heating, as well as the individual factors for the type of business, such as the stock profile, product mix, operating environment, throughputs and the ratio of full pallets to picking within the storage cube.
All this becomes particularly relevant when considering the move to even more demanding very narrow aisle operation.
“Traditionally there have been compromises to make,” says Tony Hall of Bendi. “VNA will give you more storage space, but at a cost and inflexibility – guidance, double handling of pallets, additional equipment etc.”
Maguire agrees, and warns that some companies are in danger of adversely affecting productivity by attempting to squeeze too many racking runs into their facilities. He says: “At fast-moving operations where speed of pallet put-away and pick is essential, the speed at which a truck can safely operate in the aisle ways is arguably more important than the need to narrow the aisle ways.”
But this is also where manufacturers are focussing attention for new developments. As long as goods are transported on pallets, there is a limit to how narrow aisles can get. So manufacturers are looking up, to offer ever denser storage. Aislemaster trucks can now lift to 15m and Jungheinrich quotes 17m for its machinery. Toyota’s BT Vector series can work in 1460mm aisles at lift heights of up to 14.8 metres, with load capacity of up to 1.5 tonnes.
And in contrast to the warnings of inevitable compromise, Richmond says speedy access isn’t necessarily a problem for the new breed of VNAs. “Today’s VNA machines offer a high degree of flexibility by combining the ability to handle pallets to lift height s of up to 17metres and order pick from every level at every storage location.
“At facilities where order picking is the main focus, VNA trucks can also be used for high level picking of small parts or unit loads very efficiently.”
The ability of new equipment to work indoors and out also means that they can eliminate double handling, offloading inbound deliveries from HGVs straight into pallet racking.
Asda recently recognised the adaptability of the Mini Bendi with an award for innovation at its annual Store Proposition awards. Simon Grass, Asda back of house development manager, said: “The Mini Bendi allows us to significantly drive the use of the cube in our back of house areas as it can work in the narrow aisle format and maximise the usable height available, but due to its way of working, that allows us to have pedestrian pick within the same area permitting the stores to drop and fill effectively.
“This supports the reduction in the building footprint and thus improves the buildings selling efficiency as we can either build a smaller store or increase the selling sq ft.
“It also allows us to lower the height of the building as we can now store as many pallets above ‘pedestrian pick’ in narrow aisles, as we could in the reach truck aisles at height, which is especially welcomed by the local planning authorities in certain areas of the country,” said Grass.
Murfet says that the versatility of modern equipment means that even VNA trucks needn’t be limited to working in specialist environments. As an example, he cites an installation Briggs made for Trojan Workwear in 2011 where it was able to make maximum use of space by putting racking in at three different roof heights. With the use of Yale MO10 order pickers the aisle widths could be reduced, increasing the storage footprint all within a small business unit on a trading estate.
But Murfet warns that many businesses are taking huge risks if they don’t examine the scope and suitability of equipment and facilities in adequate detail, “the cost difference between an NA and a VNA solution in terms of throughput or space utilisation is all too often based on guesswork.”
In fact, Murfet sees the importance of planning as the most promising area for suppliers. “What’s exciting to us is the shift in the way the supply of equipment to a warehouse is being viewed. Rather than it being something that is ordered to ‘fit’, warehouses are increasingly being designed around the VNA unit offered to achieve maximum efficiency.”
So while the economy makes profit margins ever tighter, narrow aisle operations, the new breeds of VNA equipment, and considered approaches to warehouse planning represent new routes to savings.
Case study- Streamlined Flexi fleet for BDR Thermea
BDR Thermea, the manufacturer and distributor of heating and hot water systems has upgraded its materials handling equipment in its French finished goods warehouses with a fleet of Flexi Narrow Aisle trucks.
The firm, which includes brands such as Baxi boilers, had been using a combination of counterbalance and reach trucks to load and unload trailers and deliver pallet loads of product to the double deep storage locations within its store.
After a review, it relocated pallet racking into single deep aisles, and switched to a fleet of eight Flexi EURO VNA trucks. Flexi reckons these trucks can work in aisles 200mm narrower than comparative models. They have a compact front wheel drive axle design that articulates through 220 degrees, allowing easy and safe stacking with minimal manoeuvring in the aisles.
The EURO VNA’s ability to work indoors or outdoors, eliminates the need for any special warehouse flooring. This has allowed BDR to reduce the number of trucks required at the French facility which, in turn, has resulted in operating cost savings.
Case study- Bendi powers Heartbeat
Heartbeat Manufacturing, a designer, maker and supplier of display equipment for the retail sector has taken on Bendi trucks for its new warehouse facility in Redditch.
The new site has been designed to accommodate up to 3,000 pallets of varying shapes and sizes. With an aisle width of only 1800mm and a top beam height of 7000mm.
Bob Cave, Heartbeat warehouse manager, said: “The significant growth of the Heartbeat business has created interesting challenges for the efficient storage and distribution of goods. Before we started to use the Bendi, we had a mixture of reach and counterbalance trucks but it soon became obvious that we needed an alternative solution.
“We initially considered VNA to give us the storage capacity but it was considered expensive, too slow and would have meant additional trucks for outside work. After a recommendation we contacted Bendi and haven’t looked back since.”
Bendi says its trucks can load and unload vehicles in external yards and work comfortably in 1600mm aisles at heights up to 12m and beyond. The firm also reckons its trucks offer higher storage densities than reach trucks or even VNA trucks. They are available in front wheel drive, rear wheel drive and 4×4 all wheel drive configurations to suit any operation.
Cave said: “The initial attraction of the Bendi was undoubtedly the amount of extra pallets we could accommodate in the warehouse and the fact that it operates equally as well outside loading and unloading the vehicles, but we also had to consider the type of loads we handle.”
Heartbeat creates custom made products, which necessitates a huge diversity of storage requirements, for various raw materials as well as the final products.
“With manufacturing such an extensive range of products for customers both here in the UK and overseas, the warehouse has to be flexible enough to cater for loads of all shapes and sizes including Euro pallets. The Bendi gives us this option without having to worry about losing valuable space or causing damage to products or racking,” said Cave.
Case study- Narrow rationale
Dedon is a manufacturer of luxury outdoor garden furniture which needed to rationalise its four German warehouses along with other sites in Belgium and Switzerland into a single facility in Germany.
The new central distribution facility was built to suit, and Dedon selected a combination of wide and narrow aisle storage designed by Jungheinrich which also supplied the WMS, racking and materials handling equipment.
The store features nine aisles of narrow aisle storage, with a top beam level of over 12 metres, served by guided Jungheinrich EKX 515 electric order pickers/stackers.
The EKX 515s use RFID transponders embedded in the warehouse floor to navigate routes around the store.
Stefan Zander, logistics manager at the new distribution centre, said: “Planning a warehouse for our furniture posed a particular challenge – largely because of the widely differing sizes of the products that we store and their awkward shapes.”
In addition to the trucks and the WMS, Jungheinrich also installed the racking at the new store.
The system had to be able to support boxes of furniture measuring some 2700mm long x 1,150 mm wide and 2,750mm high as well as traditional Euro pallets.
With the introduction of the new store, Dedon has been able to reduce its stock holding by 30 per cent and cut delivery times from six to two weeks.
– Briggs Equipment has strengthened its senior management team by hiring Bill Goodwin, previously sales director at Jungheinrich, as sales director. The move follows Briggs’ takeover of Barloworld UK, and its consolidation as one of the largest businesses of its type in the UK and the main supplier of both Hyster and Yale Europe Materials Handling Equipment.
– Chinese group Weichai Power is taking a 25 per cent stake in Kion, the parent group for Linde and Still forklifts. As part of its 738m euros investment it will take a 70 per cent stake in Kion’s hydraulics business.
– Flexi Narrow Aisle has launched the AC2.5T, a new 2.5 tonne articulated forklift truck, which can lift beyond 10m high and operate in aisles as narrow as 1.8 metres wide. The truck’s manoeuvrability is enhanced by its articulated design, and its rear wheels being integrated into the chassis. This eliminates wheel arch extensions, which most frequently come into contact with racking.
– Toyota Material Handling has launched the BT Reflex O-series multi-function reach truck, designed to work in both indoor and outdoor applications. This new truck has a ground clearance of 145mm, which allows it to work on uneven terrain.
– Jungheinrich has launched of a range of electric-powered pedestrian operated stacker trucks which can lift loads up to 1,200 kilos. The new EJC 110/112/212 models use 3-phase AC motors and can lift loads to a height of 4.7m.
– Toyota Material Handling is offering quick deliveries a selection of its industry standard trucks equipped with the most popular specifications in a scheme dubbed Toyota First.