Improved Warehouse Productivity
Staffing, delivery scheduling, dispatches, budgeting, equipment upkeep, floor safety, vendor relationships — the list runs on. Juggling the responsibilities of today’s plant and warehouse managers is a daily dance between exceeding productivity targets and directing practical, on-the-floor processes for real people in real time.
Warehouse managers shouldn’t have to pick sides. Increased productivity and efficiency in a warehouse aren’t at odds with realistic employee workloads. In fact, the two are improved simultaneously with tips for enhanced warehouse workflows, layouts, technology and equipment. Find out how below.
How to Improve Warehouse Efficiency
Make your warehouse work for you — not the other way around. Today’s top warehouse productivity strategies make this possible through the following measures:
1. Implement Cutting-Edge Technology to Increase Productivity
Warehouse management systems (WMS) are the norm, not the exception, in today’s most efficient warehouses.
That doesn’t mean WMS software is used to its fullest, though. Only 31 percent of software users felt confident their WMS is “fully utilized,” compared to 37 percent and 18 percent who reported “generally utilized” or “underutilized” software, respectively.
When over half of all warehouse managers report even marginal software underutilization, end-to-end operations suffer. Errors linger, costs-savings stagnate, supply chains run unfocused and time is wasted — not to mention everyone works harder, not smarter.
These figures highlight an opportunity gap in warehouse management. Plenty of warehouse managers use their WMS primarily to keep track of what’s being done. However, WMS software is more than an activity babysitter. These platforms shine brightest when analyzing overall data trends and pointing to unique, actionable operational enhancements, from inbound delivery reports and SKU analytics to picking rates, packing costs and shipment timetables.
What Technologies Make a Warehouse More Productive?
Warehouses can integrate the following technologies to satisfy quicker, simpler and more streamlined fulfillment chains:
- ERPs With Integrated Warehouse Management Systems (WMS): Cross-organizational access to the information in your WMS is easier when that WMS integrates into your company’s overall enterprise resource planning, or ERP. Departmental collaboration, document sharing, invoicing, budgeting and forecasting insights live under one “roof,” available around the clock. Think of ERP and WMS like two wheels on a bike. Sure, if one goes flat you can technically keep peddling — but it’ll take much more sweat. When ERP and WMS work in tangent, though, you’re in for a speedier, smoother ride.
- Wireless Radio Frequency Identification (RFID): The average organization maintains accurate inventory information for only 35 percent of stocked items. That means inventory inaccuracy impacts 65 percent of all other products and compounds issues like replenishment errors and delays in order fulfillment. RFID inventory systems, however, have been shown to reduce inventory misinformation by 13 percent while simultaneously increasing profit margins by 10 percent.
- Key Performance Indicator (KPI) Software: Do you know your warehouse’s cost on total shipped orders, or what you lose if an item is returned? What about receiving and put-away rates? Average packing speeds? Cost per box or cost per line shipped? These metrics (and more) are your warehouse’s KPIs. They must be measured to move in the right direction. Benchmarking software designed for warehousing operations and calculations do that for you without losing sight of the finish line: reduced costs and increase profitability.
- Other Essential Warehouse Technology: These items include pick-to-light systems, automated pallet dimensioning systems, intelligent character recognition (ICR) and optical character recognition (OCR) document data inputting, mobile label printers, wearable barcode scanners and remote-controlled or M2M-controlled equipment.
2. Update Warehouse Layout to Utilize All Available Space
Warehouse management systems can be set up to calculate exact ideal pallet configurations, down to bin locations, cubes and item cube information.
When programmed to include end-to-end receipt, storage and dispatch information, WMS then generate your warehouse’s theoretical storage capacity versus its working (also known as rated or effective) storage capacity.
These two metrics alone — theoretical versus working capacity — provide the foundation for increasing your warehouse’s spatial utilization. Knowing how much room your warehouse can play with is the foundation for updating its layout. After all, you can’t improve space if you don’t know how much there is to begin with.
How to Update Warehouse Layouts to Maximize Space
There are many strategies to improve your warehouse’s layout and maximize its working capacity:
- Selective Racking: Selective racking is the single-deep pallet storage method. Racks set up in this configuration contain — at the most — only two pallet racks set up back-to-back and aisle-to-aisle. Selective racking is the ideal configuration for high-turnover SKUs with high inventory differentiation since it provides direct access to all inventory at all times. However, it takes up the most space and could be unsuited to your actual SKU volumes, pallet or roll transport routes and your loading and unloading capacities.
- Bulk Storage: Bulk storage provides the alternative to selective racking. Rather than warehouse aisles stacked single-pallet deep, bulk storage can compile lanes anywhere from two to eight pallets deep. When working with slower inbound-outbound volume streams, bulk storage utilizes more space at a more cost-effective price. However, initial lane organization, restocking lanes and accessing secondary (and beyond) rows of pallets is much more difficult since you must first empty or move the first pallet row.
- Taller Storage Units: As some in the industry put it, warehouse managers need to “fight for their air rights.” Maximizing existing vertical space is more possible than ever, especially when tied with new racking layouts. Trimming aisle dimensions, reducing the space between shelf rungs and adopting tiered pallet shelving over storage bins are also great methods to build up, not out.
- Vertical Lifting Equipment: With taller storage units comes higher lifting and retrieving needs. Vertical material handling equipment provides a safe, streamlined solution, ergonomically assisting employees to work with the new, higher shelving.
- Diverse Storage Units: Consider your inventory’s specific characteristics — product sizes, shapes, volumes, inbound and outbound order rates. Then, align inventory characteristics with their ideal storage solution rather than employ a one-size-fits-all shelving style, literally. For example, high-turnover small parcels pair better with front-and-center-located bins than large, more cumbersome freight inventory. Just because others in the industry use pallets or bins predominantly doesn’t mean you are required to.
- Re-Strategized Aisles and Lanes: Warehouse floor plans themselves can be adjusted to maximize square footage. Narrowed aisles, shortened or elongated rows and fresh shelving configurations can all increase the activity rates of tasks like order picking, inventory restocking and shelving returned items. Updated traffic routes revamp how your employees and equipment move on the actual floor while completing these tasks, ideally with safer and more direct routes.
3. Employ Stronger Inventory Management
Real-time inventory control sets the pace for the entire warehouse. Managers have deeper oversight into the tasks and activities fueling the entire fulfillment supply chain, from initial inventory ordering and receipts to SKU itemizing, transport and shelving all the way down to order picking and outbound shipments.
In other words, inventory management ensures you know what’s coming in, what’s going out, when, where and how much — down to the minute. Inventory management resources make sure you’re never under or over-ordering stock. Organizations save on inventory costs as a total percentage of logistics due to more strategic inventory forecasting. Other benefits to stronger inventory management include:
- Decreasing the tax and holding costs of accumulated inventory
- Better understanding your buffer stock ratios
- Reducing acquisition lead times
- Lessening order transaction costs, to name just a few.
How to Adopt Stronger Warehouse Inventory Controls
Top-tier inventory management practices today include the following:
- ABC Analysis: An ABC analysis calculates your highest dollar-value stock items from your least valuable. As an inventory categorization strategy, ABC calculations help distinguish where your ordering and stocking priorities should go, allowing you to funnel your time and resources into managing products with the highest ROI.
- Full Pallet Inbound and Outbound Loads: Inbound and outbound operations should be adjusted for full-pallet-in and full-pallet-out performance. This adjustment reduces transportation variability, speeds up stock-shuttling tasks and allows warehouse employees to more effectively move pallets of inventory from Point A to Point B. In-warehouse transportation, operating below full-pallet loads should be considered underperforming.
- Just-In-Time Orders: Vendor delivery dates may not be entirely in your control, but they’re negotiable. Just-in-time orders are a leading inventory control strategy that adjusts supplier and vendor deliveries to come more frequently but in smaller batches. This reduces holding costs associated with safety stock. It also shakes up things like purchasing minimums, which — after accounting for stocks’ entire cost of ownership — may not be saving you much.
- Strategically Organized Inventory Shelving: It’s an industry adage to keep high-volume, high-value stock together, at waist-level, placed near the front of the warehouse. Yet you’d be surprised how many operations still haven’t fully mastered this shelving formula, missing out on this layout’s reduced stocking and picking travel times.
- Traffic Control and Flow Lanes: Review designated traffic lanes and routes that both manual workers and those operating equipment use. Lane configurations should match insights from ABC analyses and the SKU data housed in your WMS, creating the clearest, quickest access to high-volume items.
4. Track End-To-End Inventory Lifecycles
From manufacturer or vendor delivery and item storage to point-of-sale delivery, inventory lifecycles are resource-intensive and multifaceted. They’re a subcategory — but an essential one — of inventory management that focuses specifically on item-by-item operations, rather than accounting for the macro operational concerns like warehouse layout, material handling equipment, traffic routes and more.
There’s a reason inventory lifecycles earn their own nod on ways to improve overall warehouse productivity. Understanding the exact steps, touchpoints and procedures it takes for one single item to travel from the inbounding loading dock to its eventual customer’s hands is imperative to run a more cost-effective warehouse. In other words, if there’s one way to propel more efficient warehousing practices, it lies in putting numbers on how inventory is handled from start to finish.
Ways to Better Monitor Inventory Lifecycles
Improve end-to-end inventory operations by developing the following:
- Updated Picking and Put-Away Routes: Consider more contemporary, tech-enhanced picking and packing methodologies, such as pick-to-light and put-to-light systems. Both increase the speeds and rates of packing and picking, especially in bulk storage configurations, while allowing enhanced real-time order sorting and picking error reduction.
- Customized Kits: Custom kitting strategies group customer segment-relevant SKUs or frequently purchased products together. Warehouse bins and shelving are organized according to these complementary groups of items, maximizing your current warehouse storage space as well as decreasing inventory handling times.
- Standardized Vendor Inbounding Appointments: Coordinate better loading dock schedules as well as loading dock staffing with standardized delivery appointments. Vendor inbounding appointments require vendors to deliver their products at a set time or within a set window of time. Warehouses can also set up recurring daily, weekly or even monthly vendor inbound appointments for less frequently ordered goods. Standardizing deliveries is critical if you share loading docks or have only one dock handling both inbound and outbound shipments.
- Cross-Docking: Cross-docking is a delivery coordination strategy that transfers goods immediately from inbound delivery vehicles to outbound shipment vehicles. It involves minimal-to-no warehousing sorting, storage or SKU itemization. Cross-docking has traditionally been used for perishable items and in certain warehousing segments, such as limited-space cold storage or produce distribution centers. However, other warehouse niches today are looking its way for productivity and capacity improvements.
5. Utilize Ergonomic Material Handling
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, back injuries accounted for nearly 40 percent of all musculoskeletal disorders in 2016. There were over 10,000 reported back injuries among hand material movers and laborers alone.
Maintaining a high-functioning, versatile suite of material handling tools and equipment should be a warehouse manager’s primary concern — even above fulfillment efficiency. Warehouses can’t reach full productivity potential if employees work under strained or non-compliant conditions. After all, what good are productivity improvements if warehouse workers’ health and safety are left behind?
While OSHA outlines recommendations for safe load bearing and material transportation in warehouses, repetitive lifting and carrying take an inevitable toll. Those same recommendations advise that material handling equipment be easy to move with handles the operator can grab and operate while standing upright. This can help to minimize the strains, range of motions and frequency of manual lifting activities.
Material Handling Equipment That Increases Warehouse Efficiency
There are a number of key pieces of machinery to secure when improving warehouse productivity:
- Tip Lifts: Tilting rolls and loads manually can damage inventory as well as put workers at risk. Using tip lifts minimizes these hazards, allowing operators to adjust and maneuver rolls at rates nearly double manual handling. Plus, operators can manage larger or heavier roll loads in less time — up to 2,000 pounds with some tip lift models. Loads stay locked securely through mechanical teeth and a stability rod positioned within the center of a roll.
- Vertical Roll Lifters: Vertical roll lifts work as a link between a lifting device and its load. Lowering rolls can be tilted and maneuvered into appropriate positions without manual intervention plus in safer and more controlled increments.
- Mobile Carts: Mobile carts bring mobility and flexibility to inventory management. Transporting items between warehouse stations and designated areas is quicker and less strenuous, requiring fewer hands and less haul. Mobile carts are also one of the most cost-effective equipment additions to improve overall warehouse efficiency.
- Portable Roll Handling Equipment: Fork truck-mounted tip lifters, electric cart attachments and hydraulic cart attachments each provide on-the-spot load tipping, raising and transporting assistance for horizontal and vertical applications. Using these dynamic mobile handling machines manipulates rolls 10 to 60 inches wide and 250 to 2,000 pounds into place.
Looking for Ways to Improve Warehouse Productivity? Start With Your Material Handling Equipment
Nothing grinds productivity to a halt faster than impractical or outdated warehouse equipment.