Technology is quickly removing any excuse for doing business out of a disorganized warehouse. However, it can be difficult to know where to start and to judge which changes are worth your time. Consider the following suggestions as you take a hard look at your warehouse optimization — or lack of it — and start drawing up plans for a smoother and more logical workflow for everybody under your roof.
Modern warehouse management software can help you assign identification to each of the racks, bins, columns and rows in your warehouse. You can tell at a glance where each of your recent shipments was stowed.
Another angle to consider is the physical requirements of the products you handle. It’s important to make the dimensions of your warehouse storage space a key part of your identification paradigm. Bulky, heavy or irregularly shaped items have requirements of their own to avoid mishandling and damage. When you come up with a storage system for your warehouse, it’s important to emphasize the following:
- Whenever appropriate, your system should make it easy for employees to practice “FIFO,” or first in, first out. Even freight that isn’t perishable should be prioritized by how long it’s been sitting in your warehouse.
- The physical qualities of your bins can make or break productivity. Long and slender products should be stowed appropriately, such as in cantilevered racks rather than standard ones. This minimizes employee effort in retrieving them and lessens the chances that products are stowed among dissimilar items or in a way that invites damage.
Coming up with a storage and labeling system or using a third-party solution is your chance to build something as future-proof as you can manage. Consider traffic requirements. Think about the nature of the products you’ll be handling. Put yourself in the shoes of your pickers and stowers. When employees at any given step in a multi-partner enterprise enjoy straightforward workflows and easy warehouse navigation, the benefits for morale and productivity can be felt throughout the supply chain.
Asset and Freight Tracking
Do you worry about keeping track of tools, equipment and other assets? It’s possible your shipments require special shipping containers, such as refrigerated cartons or hypoallergenic plastic pallets. These are items you want to be able to recover easily without replacing more often than is necessary.
Then, think of the vehicles — order pickers, forklifts, electric pallet jacks — that move throughout your facility. With all these things in motion, it’s clear that misplacing just one of them could slow you down or stop your operation in its tracks.
With asset tracking, thanks to RFID, GPS, near-field communication and other increasingly cost-effective tools, it can be easy for your process managers to keep an eye on every important asset and ensure nothing goes missing at a critical moment. It’s even possible to track individual items — especially those SKUs that are most easily misplaced or prone to mishandling or theft — with RFID chips in packaging or on warehouse shelves for just pennies at a time.
Analytics and Forecasting
As a warehouse manager, you’ve never had more tools at your disposal for diving deep into the ebb and flow of your operation. We collect data from every corner of the enterprise — but do we know which data is most important? Are we putting all this analytical potential to good use?
Analytics platforms for warehouses can help business owners forecast customer demand over time. In turn, this can help optimize the allocation of labor over an operational period and avoid over- or under-purchasing key merchandise or materials.
Making changes to the layout of your warehouse can feel daunting. You’re rightly concerned about disrupting workflows that your employees are already used to. This might also be a chance to introduce meaningful changes that improve confidence and accuracy in their work, today and into the future. There are several hallmarks of thoughtful warehouse layout:
- Prioritize racking space according to sales volume.
- Ensure traffic patterns are clearly marked in a way that separates vehicular from on-foot traffic.
- Find balance between length and maneuverability for aisles in stowing areas. Long, uninterrupted aisles might seem like a more efficient use of space, but they add travel time for order pickers.
After that, there’s the question of specialty items in your warehouse that might require bespoke racking or cold storage. You might also carry potentially hazardous, flammable or explosive materials. In cases like that, there are likely guidelines and regulations to consider from organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association.
Industry bodies like these furnish requirements for storage protocols, spill containment and explosion mitigation. Even something apparently benign, like paints, require protection against forces up to 20 psi. Benchmarks like this are vital reminders that warehouse optimization isn’t just about streamlining workflows or making life easier — it’s also about maintaining a safe work environment.
Warehouses have, historically, been places where assets, equipment and shipments were managed manually. That doesn’t have to be the case any longer with automation.
Human error is one of the largest sources of waste in warehouses — of money, time and effort. The problem of mis-stowing incoming freight vastly increases the likelihood of delays, or even repurchasing items you already own. Coupled with the robust tracking systems we discussed earlier, the automation of material-handling in your warehouse should be another priority.
It’s possible to take the human element out of coming up with a location for storing incoming freight. With the right warehouse management software, materials and products can be automatically grouped by type and storage requirements. Area managers can trust that stowers will be directed to an appropriate location in the warehouse for a particular shipment, based on the velocity of sales for SKUs and the physical requirements of the products.
Automating much of the stowing and picking process means a greatly reduced likelihood of pallets and cartons going missing because of misplacement or mishandling. In other words, automation can, and should, become a vital part of your comprehensive inventory management system.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Even a little bit of foresight when designing or redesigning your warehouse can go a long way. Don’t worry about being a trailblazer, though. Your primary concern is ensuring the needs of your products are met and that the workflows your employees carry out are straightforward, scalable, repeatable and reduce errors. Above all, they should be as safe as you can make them.
What tips do you have for optimizing warehouse operations?
Guest Blogger – Megan Ray Nichols
Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance technical writer. She also runs her own blog, Schooled By Science, a blog dedicated to making complicated scientific topics easier to understand. You can follow Megan on Twitter @nicholsrmegan to keep up with the latest news.
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