When everyone is busy with normal day to day operations it is easy to become too focused on the here and now. Reacting to current challenges may be comforting in the short-term but ignoring long-term underlying changes in the market will eventually catch up with complacent businesses. Mindsets locked in ‘legacy’ approaches and systems are not good for business. As in other fields, it is essential to keep up with current trends that are influencing the future of competitive warehousing operations. Productivity, performance and availability of labour are key considerations when choosing future warehousing locations alongside determining the right level of mechanisation and automation.
Social trends and end user behaviours are now driving the future shape of warehousing. Successful and sustainable solutions for warehouse design require the appropriate mix of mechanisation, automation and robotics. Virtually all automated warehousing installations are bespoke to the business, the building and the operation. “Cut and paste” solutions come with a very high risk of failure! Modern warehouse designs are complex and require very close coordination between the building, the mechanical and electrical (M&E) and the materials handling equipment (MHE) at all stages from design to installation. It is critical that the “business need” is accurately and fully established prior to any design, procurement and implementation process is commenced.
External influences driving changes
The face of retail continues to evolve, exacerbated by Covid, and it will never return to how it was. Internet ordering is continuing to grow and move outside of the B2C into B2B.
Customer experience expectations from retail are migrating into the wholesale arena. More and more organisations are aiming to have a more direct engagement with the end user customer. Response time expectations are becoming shorter and shorter (the ‘Amazon effect’) and there is a growing requirement for customisation and personalisation of product for consumers.
The customer experience continues to evolve – expectations of an urgent response are now the norm.
Changes in consumers purchasing habits
Customer orders patterns are changing for both consumer and business. Customers are placing more orders but in smaller quantities and expect faster delivery. All this leads to the need for higher density storage, increasing speedy presentation of stock to pick and extra operating space. Warehousing solutions that are extremely flexible and scalable are needed to deal with vagaries of peak demands and growth.
With technology progressing fast, it is critical to have a robust and scalable IT infrastructure taking into account the internet of things, 5G, big data etc
Businesses and suppliers need to rationalise their product range and minimise inventory holdings, shorten lead times and reduce minimum order quantities. In the current environment, businesses demand improved levels of energy efficiency and improvements in their carbon footprint and require better information and control of the energy performance of infrastructure and equipment in the supply chain.
The availability of labour must be considered when choosing a warehouse site. Many direct employees in warehouses are paid the minimum wage and the pool of semi-skilled labour prepared to work for this wage is shrinking markedly. There are a reduced number of migrant workers from Eastern Europe as their potential for earnings are improving in their own countries and of course Brexit will have an effect too. Providing attractive amenities and working environment is becoming more influential on the ability to both recruit and retain people. In warehouse “Hot-spots” employers are forced to pay substantially more to recruit and retain sufficient labour.
Businesses need to be ethical and show responsibility to the environment in terms of carbon footprint reduction, use of plastics, energy efficient, impact on wildlife and water conservation to name but a few to be considered. They have to plan for the future changes in vehicles, for example phasing out diesel engines and catering for electric vehicles.
There has been an increase in building footprint/height due to availability of warehouses and high cost of land. High density storage systems increase the requirement for higher buildings in order to achieve operational and financial efficiency and viability. The ratio of building to yard has changed – traditionally 48% yard now squeezed to around 40%. Also staff car parking has been moving towards multi-storey to optimise space.
With the continuing trend towards smaller order sizes and a higher frequency of order processing, automated MHE has to carry out tasks at increasing speeds whilst handling smaller items. This rarely requires significant headroom but is space hungry in terms of the operational footprint required. This is usually accommodated using multi-level mezzanine floors.
The number of levels and height of mezzanine has been increasing to make more operating space in buildings. This has design implications, for example the floor has to have greater load bearing, more sophisticated IT systems, lighting and increased levels of fire detection.
Fire protection strategies have changed significantly (driven by insurers’ requirements and recent events in the industry) and the standards continue to evolve. The increasing size and number of levels in warehouses has created challenges around escape distances and the need for “safe refuge”. Fire loading as a result of the increased use of plastic storage media requires enhanced sprinkler capacity/coverage. Greater use of foam fire suppression require penstocks, automated bunds and other containment arrangements.
The advance of automation and robotics
Automated technologies are now in the 4th generation of development. However, many automation manufacturers are focused on selling existing technology “sweating their assets”. There are 3 primary areas of warehousing automation; mechanised moving, automated handling and robotic handling. Automated installations are bespoke and the secret to successful solutions is the appropriate mix of the technologies and complete design coordination.
The next technology developments in order picking are perfecting smaller robotic arm units, referred to as “Co-Bots” – robots working in collaboration with humans and with a degree of “self-learning” AI. These developments are at an early stage and yet to be fully proven. Warehouse designs need to accommodate these future developments.
The emergence of new technology means that floor conditions are more critical than they have been previously. Key factors include differential settlement, flatness and load bearing (both compressive and uplift) capability. Alternative floor finishes are required to accommodate stresses imposed by robots on mezzanine levels. Increased levels of mechanisation/ automation, coupled with the demand created by electric vehicle charging is putting higher and higher demands on power supplies, localised power generation and power storage.
Summary of what the future holds
With the increase of ecommerce, higher buildings, greater storage density, automation, electric vehicles and an increase in final mile hubs, planning a warehouse is complex and getting it right is crucial for the business now and in the future.
Successful projects are not delivered in isolation – it takes very detailed cross departmental planning and coordination to turn vision into practice.