Warehouse organization isn’t just about making your operational environment appealing to look at. It’s one of the more unheralded productivity secrets in modern manufacturing and material handling. Taking time with setup initially, and gathering ongoing feedback from stakeholders, can help and business operate more efficiently and profitably.
There’s little need to remind you how much of an investment your warehouse is for your company. Maybe it’s your single distribution hub or one of several facilities you rely on to stay productive and profitable. In any event, it’s home base for much of your equipment and labor — and that makes its internal organization one of the most important things you can spend time thinking about and tinkering with.
The Risks of Poor Warehouse Organization
One of the top risks you face when you don’t invest in wise warehouse organization is compounding your expenses over a period of time. For example, if you find yourself moving into a facility that doesn’t quite suit your needs and workflows, but you “make do” anyway, you’ll probably find yourself reshuffling equipment, fixtures and personnel multiple times in the coming months and years.
That’s a big drain on productivity and operating capital. Wouldn’t you prefer to get it right the first time? This is especially true of startups or businesses that are growing and expanding rapidly. Leave yourself breathing room for additions and reorganization efforts later on, but also make sure the facility meets your present needs.
One of the phrases you’ll hear among warehouse owners and operators is “fit for purpose.” This means no two facilities will look quite the same so long as different people work there and the facilities serve different purposes. Given that plenty can go wrong in manufacturing, shipping, warehousing and material handling even at the best of times, it doesn’t make sense for your warehouse to be a lingering source of frustration or problems on its own.
Your warehouse is a tool — and there’s a right and a wrong way to use most tools. Moreover, if any other tool you rely on wasn’t working as intended or desired, you’d probably make a change. So let’s look at what might be worth changing when it comes to your warehouse layout.
Advantages of (And Ideas For) Thoughtful Warehouse Organization
Maybe you’re tired of hearing about how useful data is for industry — or maybe you’re excited about the prospect and just getting started leveraging your own operational data. Looking over data about your workflows and the general cycles of activity in your warehouse can go a long way toward helping you fine-tune your design.
What kind of data? It’s things like:
- The volume of materials requiring storage and movement in an average business day and over time.
- The “velocity” of sales to customers and vendors, freight transfers, incoming product returns and more.
- The “rhythm” and rise-and-fall of seasonal demand over an average operational year.
- The specific requirements for individual items, including bulk materials on skids or in racks, in addition to merchandise requiring single-item picking, special handling or unique packing or storage.
You likely have access to much of this data already. But analyzing and organizing it means looking at it in increments that make sense for your operation. Dive back through the years and look at long-term trends. This branch of analytics has been a huge boon to lean manufacturing and warehousing productivity in general, and it can also help you design a warehouse that meets your current and future needs based on historical and ongoing trends.
In addition to leveraging your most useful data to inform your warehouse design, you have another trove of insight: your stakeholders and employees. The people with “boots on the ground” in your warehouse can make suggestions you hadn’t considered if you’re not involved in the nitty-gritty of the daily workflow.
Here are some examples:
- Do truck drivers pulling up to and leaving your facility have room to maneuver and approach loading bay doors? Is there a safe and convenient place to swap empty trailers for full ones? Does the layout of your employee parking area cause safety concerns or conflicts with heavier vehicles coming and going?
- How many employee “touches” are required to move incoming freight to the outbound section of your warehouse? Poor organization can multiply the effort and personnel required for even the simplest tasks and artifically inflate labor costs relative to your earnings on the products being moved.
- Are tools and equipment easy to find when needed and stow again afterward? Some of the biggest work slowdowns in warehouses comes down to how readily available materials are, including skids and pallets for product stowage and carts and totes for item sorting or multi-pick shipments.
Another feature of your warehouse worth attention is the length of your aisles. Looking at your building from above, it shouldn’t look like an interstate — it should look like a city with neatly ordered blocks. Taking travel distance and maneuverability into consideration reduces time spent picking and reduces the likelihood of collisions with machines, personnel and racking.
Productivity and Profitability Are at Stake — And So Is Safety
The advantages of taking warehouse layout and design seriously go beyond productivity. It’s about safety, too. Duplicating effort or forcing employees to make their way through or around areas where vehicles or heavy equipment are in motion is one of the quickest routes to injuries and worker’s comp claims.
Get it right the first time by engaging your employees on the ground and asking what they’d look for in a refreshed warehouse layout. Sometimes the required changes could be dramatic, while at other times they’re as simple as repositioning a conveyor belt or a storage area for frequently used tools. But you won’t know until you ask.
Megan Ray Nichols
Freelance Science Writer
Megan Ray Nichols is a STEM writer and the editor of Schooled By Science. She regularly writes for IMPO Magazine and American Machinist. For more from Megan, follow her on Twitter, @nicholsrmegan, or subscribe to her blog.