It all comes down to saving or making more money. But the myriad options for narrow aisle equipment and applications, and the sensitivity of ROI means that there is no one size fits all solution, and there are many factors to weigh up…
We’re actually selling warehouse space…
It’s possible to buy perfectly serviceable counterbalance trucks for highly competitive prices – particularly in the current market which is still in recovery mode. But many firms are realising that investment in narrow aisles is a more meaningful approach to cutting costs, and indeed increasing profits.
When business growth, or a physical increase in product size or volumes makes more space a necessity, investing in narrow aisle often represents a saving compared to the alternative of renting more room.
“We’re actually selling warehouse space,” says Martin McVicar, managing director of Aisle-Master. “We can help a customer to grow if they’re running out of warehouse space without having to spend more on rent.”
The price, and the recent shortage of prime space in the UK has forced many operators to develop their existing premises.
“Even in areas where good quality new sites are available, banks can be unwilling to provide the capital to fund a move… so companies make the most of what they have for a fraction of the cost,” points out John Maguire of Flexi Narrow Aisle.
And rent isn’t the only consideration. Simon Brown, managing director of Translift Bendi says that he faced scepticism when he took the Bendi to Australia, because of the abundance of space. “What hadn’t been thought through was the cost of building and running a 50 per cent bigger building, which far outweighed the few thousand dollars differential between a Bendi and a counterbalance.”
But the decision to move to narrow aisle is not without cost. As well as the trucks themselves, there will be considerable outlay for converting a warehouse. Steve Richmond, general manager of Jungheinrich UK’s systems and projects division, points out that reconfiguring the racking will impact on factors such as heating, lighting and fire protection. Most VNA systems will also require high grade flooring and guidance systems.
And it’s not for everybody. By nature the narrow aisles only allow for one truck per aisle, which makes it unsuited to multiple high volume picks, such as grocery distribution. Depending on the application, drive in, double deep and pallet live storage can generate more pallet storage locations than narrow aisle.
“The system is under pressure,” says Atlet’s Chris Bates. “The system therefore needs to be tailored around more considerations than simply pallet storage to avoid bottlenecks and increased manpower… It is the application and operational requirement that drives the storage solution.”
To this end most manufacturers offer a consultation service to help ascertain what materials handling solution will work best, depending on the distribution model and type of products involved.
Linde offers a warehouse planning and simulation service with its Stratos software. Toyota’s Virtual Warehouse uses real performance data with a virtual floor plan to find the optimum system. Aisle-Master offers 3-D mapping, which shows the various potential layouts and storage density calculations, as well as how a fleet would work in the given space, from every angle.
Narrow aisle can often be the best solution for operations that can take advantage of quicker access to more types of goods.
Mike Hawkins of Linde UK points out that narrow aisle is coming into its own for e-retail: “As more customers buy products over the internet the need for single item pick locations has increased.”
Narrow aisle also typically yields operational savings, such as faster access and retrieval, and better working practices. Flexi estimates its articulated forklifts save operators 30 per cent on storage costs and 50 per cent on handling costs.
As well as consolidating warehouse space, and efficiency, additional savings can be made in unexpected areas such as staffing, parts and servicing. McVicar says that all Aisle-Master and Combilift trucks are designed to be maintained by any engineer – without any brand specific knowledge, thereby minimising down time.
But savings are not the only source of value. “Productivity is the biggest ROI factor,” says Chris Smith, UK systems division manager for Still. “When changing from drive in racking to VNA, productivity and availability of goods increases dramatically.”
This can also mitigate the initial outlay, as such efficient running often calls for downsizing of the fleet, so the cost of materials handling equipment itself may be less than you’d think.
As technology progresses the productivity of trucks is pushed even further. Linde is offering access to stock as high as 17,250 mm, and Bendi recommends its trucks for use in aisles as narrow as 1.5m. Hyster reckons it has the fastest fork carriage movements on the market, while Toyota’s BT Veflex man-down truck has the option of rotating forks which access either side of the aisle, or shuttle forks for even narrower aisles.
Supporting these statistics is a considerable challenge. Most very narrow aisle systems require rail or wire guidance. The Hyster C range VNA truck has pioneered a quadform rigid mast to cut deflection at its maximum heights.
Richmond suggests that forklifts could be “approaching the point where they cannot be safely made to travel any faster or lift the load any more quickly without contravening health and safety requirements.”
Manufacturers are looking to automation for further efficiencies and safety features. Jungheinrich’s Series 2 and 3 VNA order pickers, EKS 210 and EKS 312, can be guided via RFID so that optimum picking schedules and routes can be set remotely. Its tests record productivity is boosted by some 25 per cent with this system.
So the potential of narrow aisle operation is being pushed ever further by each new innovation. But this won’t make the decision to invest any easier. If the key to understanding the value of narrow aisle is in assessing how it will work for your particular business, it seems that analysis will get even more complex in future, weighing relative costs against potential savings, and new realms of productivity.
Case Study: Critical speed at WH Bowker
Transport group WH Bowker has taken on a fleet of 12 Flexi articulated forklift trucks from Flexi Narrow Aisle, and re-racked its entire operation across three facilities in Preston, Leyland and Hull.
Bowker provides contract distribution, dedicated and shared-user warehousing services for clients dealing in anything from hazardous chemicals to foods and FMCGs.
It converted its facilities to narrow aisle widths to make better use of its space. However, it decided on an aisle width on 2m, rather than the minimum possible 1.8m, to allow extra room for faster throughput.
Warehouse manager Stuart Greenwood says: “A significant part of our business is about achieving a quick turnaround. In applications where high throughputs need to be achieved and faster travel speeds are required, the speed at which the truck can be safely operated will be reduced if there is insufficient clearance in the aisle way.”
John Maguire of Flexi Narrow Aisle says: “I recently visited a site where the wide chassis articulated trucks specified in the operation have no choice but to travel at less than half their top speed within the aisles because clearance each side was too small.”
Bowker’s Flexis are the G4 models, with a twin load wheel drive which give safe traction on multiple surfaces. This allows Bowker to use the Flexis for unloading at all its facilities at goods-in areas off the main warehouse floor. Greenwood says: “The Flexis and the new warehouse layout introduced across our sites have made a big difference to our operation.”
Case Study: Bendis for B+M Bargains
B+M Bargains, a retailer that specialises in selling value-for-money goods from warehouse stores, reckons that it has saved thousands of pounds by awarding Translift Bendi the contract to supply articulated trucks for its main warehouse in Speke, Liverpool.
The retailer has 230 stores, and some 700 staff. It sells branded FMCG products as well as home wares, beauty products, toys and foods.
Around 30 per cent of its purchases are clearance buys.
It occupies over one million square feet of warehousing, which enables it to buy in bulk, and offer a single delivery point to suppliers. It’s 625,000 sq ft site at Speke has 80,000 pallet positions, and offers bulk storage as well as order picking for its stores.
B+M Bargains had considered a mixture of VNA and reach trucks, which would have required a Cat1 floor for optimum performance and safety.
But Translift Bendi suggested its B420HL truck, which performs well at up to 12m from a Cat2 floor, immediately offering a cut to B+M’s expected outlay.
The free ranging articulated Bendi trucks don’t need rail or wire guidance either, which offered another saving compared to B+M’s original plan, and also allows more flexible use of materials handling equipment.
Case Study: Relentless and robust VNA
GB eye is one of the first UK companies to take delivery of the new very narrow chassis 15E Aisle-Master model, which has replaced two other forklifts to streamline its operations.
The firm supplies posters, prints, and frames which it also manufactures to 200 retail and wholesale customers in over 60 countries. It recently extended its distribution facility in Sheffield to increase throughput, and to improve handling across its storage space.
The previous combination of a man down rail-guided VNA forklift and a reach truck had proved cumbersome and restrictive, particularly as the VNA truck could not be used for outdoor work. Operations manager John Scally required a more versatile vehicle but with the proviso that it could also work in the existing very narrow aisles and tight turning circles.
The 15E has an integrated side shift and gives the operator a full view of the forks and the load. Manoeuvrability is also boosted by its slim 1,030mm chassis width. Aisle-Master’s large “super elastic” tyres allow it to work in the yard as well as in the racking, and cover the various delivery patterns GB eye deals with.
Scally said: “As with our other Aisle-Master it doubles up as a reach and counterbalance truck… We also need a very reliable vehicle as the workload is constant and at certain times of the year such as the run up to Christmas it can be relentless.”
Materials for constructing frames are particularly heavy, but the 1.5-tonne capacity of the truck manages lifting pallets of posters, display equipment, and packs of cardboard up to the top beam height of 5.5m.
The 15E is the electric version of the truck, which Aisle-Master supplies with AC traction motors to reduce maintenance costs compared to DC. GB eye said that cleaner running is an advantage for the products being handled, but dependability is crucial.
“The e-commerce side of the business has grown recently by 300 per cent, and the downtime we experienced with the old trucks would now have a serious impact on our productivity… that is no longer an issue,” says Scally.
Logistics Manager, December 2011