With retailers keeping less inventory in store, the amount of break-bulk and ground level picking of items into economic order quantities within distribution centres is growing fast. This means warehouse designers are under increasing pressure to devise storage systems that allow forklifts and order pickers to work alongside each other efficiently and safely, says John Maguire, sales and marketing director of Narrow Aisle Ltd
Operator safety is a key consideration within any materials handling operation and with forklift trucks implicated in around one-quarter of all serious workplace transport-related injuries and some ten fatalities a year, its easy to understand why.
Successful warehousing is always a balance of productivity and safety, but safety has to be the foremost consideration. Of course, forklift truck design has an important role to play in safety, but so too does the design and layout of the warehouse or distribution centre itself.
For example, of all the processes involved in modern warehousing, order picking tends to be the focus of most attention when it comes to creating a new storage system. This is understandable as most warehouse or distribution centre operations process many more outgoing orders than incoming loads and, of course, the ability to quickly and accurately collate picked goods is rightly regarded as having a direct link to efficiency, costs and, in the retail sector, customer satisfaction,
The order picking method used at any given site will depend on a number of factors such as the characteristics of the product being handled, total number of transactions, total number of orders, picks per order, quantity per pick, etc etc, but, in simple terms, the vast majority of customer order picking especially in the grocery, retail and consumer sectors is undertaken from palletized loads placed at ground level within the pallet racking with the reserve or bulk stock stored above.
With rental rates for warehouse property in prime locations throughout the UK at a near all-time high, designers of internal logistics systems are under pressure to make maximum use of all available storage space within the warehouse facility. But, while it is essential to keep aisle widths to a minimum, at sites where a high degree of ground level order picking is required, it is important that aisles are wide enough for forklifts and order pickers to be able to work alongside each other not only efficiently but also safely.
From the feedback we have had from warehouse operators, there is growing concern that the use of traditional guided products such as Man-Up Combis and VNA Turret trucks can compromise order picking efficiency and health and safety within warehouses where there is a high degree of low level order picking.
For example, Narrow Aisle recently installed Flexi G4 Hi-Max articulated trucks at Natco Foods Ltd, a leading wholesaler of Asian foods and part of the highly successful Choithram Group of Companies. When considering the most suitable handling system for its new distribution centre Natco had planned to use guided VNA Turret trucks. However, because a high degree of ground level order picking would take place at the site, Natco decided that Turret trucks were not the ideal choice as it can be difficult for low level order picking tasks to be carried out in narrow warehouse aisles while such machines are also operating.
Man-up Combi trucks were another option but were also considered a potential risk because, in its elevated position a Man-up Combi VNA truck might lift the operator 10 metres in the air, but if you have someone in the same aisle order picking at ground level there is always the risk of the Combi operator not seeing the order picker below.
Natco eventually chose Flexi G4 HiMax trucks which, because of their design, are perfectly suited to working in narrower aisles alongside order picking staff without creating a health and safety issue. With clear aisle widths of 2000mm within Natcos distribution centre, the Flexis can work in the same aisle as low level order pickers safely and efficiently.
There is a discernible trend in the mechanics of customer order picking with more demand for smaller volumes of outers per SKU picked more frequently. Everyone particularly first and second tier retailers wants less inventory in store so the amount of break-bulk and ground level picking of single items within RDCs is growing fast. When the number of SKUs increases the warehouse operator needs more of those valuable ground level picking locations to maintain efficiency and, at the same time, maximize the use of expensive warehouse space. Because of its design, the articulated truck is perfectly suited to working in narrower aisles alongside order picking staff without creating a health and safety issue. Furthermore, by using articulated forklifts, warehouse operators obtain more ground level picking locations and increase their overall warehouse capacity by up to 30 per cent.