Back to basics

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Racking and shelving plays a crucial role in the warehouse, it houses and protects stock, enables space to be used so a warehouse can run at maximum capacity. Maria Highland considers the challenges of ensuring racking and shelving is doing what it should…

Racking acts as a warehouse’s skeletal system, making up the internal support structure and preforming vital functions like mobility and protecting organs, which in this case is valuable stock. It is therefore imperative that the support and flexibility which your racking and shelving offers does what it is supposed to (and more) for today’s warehouses need to be working at full capacity round the clock with no room for error.

And this means selecting racking that provides full stock visibility, protection and can cater to seasonal peaks.

“Companies want solutions that will help them to ensure that when items leave their warehouses and distribution centres, they are in the best condition, they have been accurately picked, they are well packed and the customer gets exactly what they want on the day they want it,” explains BITO Storage Systems managing director Edward Hutchison.

“They want a storage system that meets their requirements precisely and is designed to gain maximum productivity. It needs to be competitively priced and delivered on a short lead-time. They need storage density, because optimising space is critical in any logistics operation.”

However, it hasn’t always been like this. “Expectations have changed,” says PALLITE chief executive Iain Hulmes, “and it’s linked with the demand changes from consumers.” He explains that before goods would be supplied to retailers in larger units and, correspondingly, the racking and shelving installed in warehouses suited that requirement.

“While this regularly still takes place, consumers have a stronger voice where they demand smaller units and a more personalised service, as well as a quicker one and the pressure is on warehouses to fulfil these orders while staying efficient,” says Hulmes. “Single item picks are now commonplace which means the types of racking and shelving required have changes. There’s greater demand for smaller and flexible pick-faces in their racking and shelving solutions.”

SSI Schaefer business development and marketing manager Mike Alibone agrees. He believes that configurational versatility and flexibility are key customer requirements, and in terms of accessibility, space economy and high storage capacity are key. “I fully believe the single biggest issue to be addressed by users is the efficient use of available space within a warehouse or distribution centre, most specifically the use of the vertical space between the floor and the roof. In this respect, many are still not using the full volume of their facilities,” he says.

Using maximum warehouse space is key when it comes to catering to consumer demands for fast order fulfilment – warehouses must be fully stocked and said stock easily accessed, with fully visibility at all times. “The warehouse must fulfil next day, or in some cases same day, orders coming from more and more customers. To make that challenge even harder, those orders are often single picks that require someone walking, searching, picking then returning to the packing area, putting new pressures on efficiencies,” reflects Hulmes.

Therefore, “the warehouse is now at the core of a company’s drive to ensure complete customer satisfaction,” says Hutchison. “Within the warehouse, racking and shelving plays a vital role in maintaining the flow for highly accurate order picking and can generate cost savings by eliminating the need for outside storage, handling and transport. The right design will also improve productivity,” he says.

So, how can businesses get the most out of their racking and shelving to cater to changing market condition and consumer expectations? Hulmes suggests that “smart shelving that can flex around that warehouse’s requirements is something that can prove vital when it comes to driving efficiencies,” especially when a shortage of space is a source of frustration for warehouse operators.

Warehouses “are running short of space because they are being asked to carry more SKUs all no doubt needing 100 per cent availability to avoid failures,” says Hulmes. “With pick locations varying (because space utilisation is a challenge), pickers are walking further and further to find and fulfil orders.”

Racking and shelving can help to fill any unused pick location space. “It’s just dead space,” states Hulmes. “Sometimes that space can be above the product, or sometimes next to it, but there are better ways to segregate and display single-item picks in a cost-efficient manner.”

And thus many warehouse operations can be transformed through extra capacity and a more efficient picking operation through greater density of storage.

Such “developments in storage tend to evolve from customers requesting bespoke solutions,” notes Hutchison. He explains that “adaptable solutions are required, and this starts with the basic racking components: the uprights and beams. Bolted frame components will allow a fast exchange of damaged components. Uprights need to be available in a range of widths and different material thicknesses to allow an ideal upright geometry for frame heights of over 20 metres and bay loads as heavy as 40 tonnes.

“Detailed planning will maximise the efficiency of racking and shelving. Sometimes this will require multiple drawings until the right solution is determined,” he continues. “A ‘one stop shop’ supplier that can provide the bins and containers to be used in the racking and shelving will be a boon. Providing containers that are compatible with the racking and shelving will eliminate problems such as bins rolling properly in the carton live lanes. It also makes it easier to achieve the maximum density of stock – designed correctly, containers and racking can combine to generate considerable space savings.”

And for SSI Schaefer, the answer lies with shelving. It “cannot stress enough the concept of a pick tower, among other storage media, to address the problem of how to store more product in an extendable system, which also allows rapid access and the flexibility to accommodate an ever-changing stock profile,” says Alibone.

“While operators have traditionally turned to mezzanines to increase their storage capacities and to use the void so often to be found above packing and marshalling areas, a shelving-based pick tower is the obvious alternative solution.” He highlights some of the advantages of using a shelving structure instead of racking or a mezzanine. He points out that mezzanines are heavier than shelving with self-supporting walkways and will require a denser column grid. This means that more steel is required in their construction, leading to higher material cost and longer installation times.

“The resultant grid configuration can also mean reduced storage space and more obstruction to the operation below the mezzanine,” adds Alibone. “Conversely, multi tier shelving typically features low leg loads, can be constructed more rapidly, needs less head room and typically results in a saving of 30 per cent over a mezzanine-based system offering the same storage capacity,” he says.

“Flexibility in the multi tier shelving design also enables it to be tailored to meet floor slab capacities in existing buildings.

“These same design features mean that a pure shelving system is also more flexible than a racking-based multi tier – not only in terms of aspects relating to loadings but also from the point of facilitating fast, manual adjustment of shelf height, depth and location size,” continues Alibone.

“In most instances, slim, 30 mm uprights and shelves allow the ‘best use of cube’ enabling higher densities and greater storage capacities to be achieved, while the lightweight shelves make it easy to rapidly adapt the storage location to changes in stock profile.”

Whether it is shelving or racking that is the best fit for a particular warehouse and operation, the idea that you cannot build on a weak foundation rings true: Get the foundations of the warehouse right and the rest will follow. You can then build on your solution and begin to introduce additional technologies to improve warehouse operations.

“There are incredible investment opportunities for companies to improve their warehouse with racking and shelving – whether it’s a small, medium or large facility,” confirms Hutchison. “Operations can take a stepped approach towards automated systems by adopting lower cost, ‘mechanised’ systems. Developments are likely to evolve from solutions that address a specific customer need.”

For example, SSI Schaefer has provided automotive component supplier Brose Group with a fully automated high bay warehouse, supported by a SAP Extended Warehouse Management (EWM) system. The outcome is five-aisle high bay warehouse with 9,750 pallet spaces for single-depth storage.

The warehouse consists of the incoming goods area, the conveyor technology, and processing work spaces as well as a seven-aisle automated miniload system. The latter features a capacity of 23,520 bins for one-deep and two-deep storage.

Five Exyz single mast storage and retrieval machines with telescopic load handling attachments enable a total handling capacity of 200 double cycles per hour.

To equip the automated miniload system, the pallets are dispatched along a bridge and with a lift, then delivered to a transfer trolley. SAP EWM calculates the need based on inventory data and consumption using the most recent periods as the basis. The replenishment pallets are distributed to different packing stations according to SAP EWM specifications and supplied there to a robot cell.

The depalletising process is fully automatic with robotic applications transferring each bin onto the bin conveyor system, which then are transported to the automated miniload system.

Also located upstream are four train stations where the bins for production supply are pre-sequenced. The bins are transferred automatically to four tugger trains. Each of the train stations consists of a shelving system with four racking levels and a total of 32 bin channels. The channels are equipped with gravity roller conveyors and are operated from the rear by a Schäfer Miniload Crane.

“The new solution allows for minimal manual handling, direct, optimised material provision, reduced effort by staff, and improved ergonomics. We have simplified and streamlined work flows, made processes more transparent, and increased throughput with system automation, material flow conversion, and a consistent SAP solution,” said Brose project coordinator Claudia Vogel-Daniel.




This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, May 2019.

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