The growth of e-commerce is driving warehouse, distribution, and fulfilment centres to utilise larger structures, automated systems, and engineered elevated work platforms that can deliver faster logistics and shipping.
To accommodate the growing size and complexity of such systems, industry innovators are now expediting the process of quoting, designing, manufacturing and installing the systems. They are utilising 3D modelling and data extraction from the modelling, as well as Design for Manufacturability (DFM) techniques that simplify construction and installation while still allowing for necessary customisation.
As a case in point, Steel King Industries, a leading manufacturer of material handling products and systems for improving operational efficiency in manufacturing, assembly, distribution centres, storage facilities and warehousing, has created a new independently operated business unit, called NexCaliber Structures, focused solely on supplying turnkey solutions for engineered elevated work platforms.
The enhanced flexibility and capability of such work platforms will enable more seamless integration and scale up to increase production capacity. The approach will accommodate increasingly important new technology such as automated picking systems, robotic Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS), and massive e-commerce fulfilment centres.
Warehouse Platform Structures: from Bottleneck to Expedited Project
Traditionally, warehouse inventory management was labor intensive. Today, the product picking process is much faster and increasingly utilizes automation, whether through robots or conveyors.
However, on larger projects, platform structures are crucial. The platform structures are the first product to the jobsite and serve as the foundational, multi-level structures upon which all other products – from racking and robots to conveyors – are built and integrated. So, if platform structures are not designed, constructed, and installed correctly, lengthy project delays and complications are virtually inevitable.
“Because warehouse equipment OEMs and contractors integrate other product on, in, around, and on top of elevated structures, nothing else can happen until the platforms are in place and operational,” says Brian Pfannes, VP of Supply Chain at Steel King.
While platform products are not new, next level custom yet scalable, turnkey solutions that utilize 3D modeling, data extraction, and DFM can now minimize complications, compress project timelines, and improve reliability.
According to Pfannes, in the market, the time between purchase order, installation, and required start-up is always decreasing so warehouse equipment OEMs and integrators and are always looking for a quicker, more efficient process.
He notes that advances in parametric estimating – the ability to project cost and duration based on predefined algorithms such as materials and square footage – can help to expedite the process from the start.
“With parametric estimating technology (PET), we create a 3D model of the platform with a CAD program. Then from the model we extract data, such as material, weight, and paint coverage. This is passed into a database and paired with costs, and the result becomes the estimate,” he says.
Pfannes says that this approach can provide more accurate quotes on large, complex platforms in as little as one hour, when traditionally it might take a day. It also enables OEMs and integrators to seamlessly interface their product with the structures. “This helps to expedite the entire process from design engineering and drafting to production, installation, and start-up,” he explains.
Chris Pahls, Steel King Product Manager overseeing the NexCaliber Structures business unit in Cincinnati, OH notes that the industry has traditionally used 2D drawings, passed back and forth during the approval process.
However, he explains that today multiple layouts can be overlaid to quickly identify any problem areas. This usually starts with an existing drawing of the building, followed by a 3D model of the platform inside the building, and then the OEM’s warehouse equipment (i.e. conveyor or rack intertwined with the platform and building).
“Being able to overlay models in layers helps compare them more efficiently, so options can be chosen faster and more judiciously up front with fewer complications,” says Pahls.
He points out, “As warehouse and fulfilment projects have become larger as well as more complex and automated, so have the structures that support the equipment. That means more coordination and detail are needed more often.”
While these structures are installed inside both new and existing buildings, within existing buildings, anything already in place such as building columns and electrical panels could interfere with the design. The new approach minimises such problems.
“3D modeling enables OEMs and integrators to overlay their models onto the platform structures. So, for example, they can quickly see if they have enough clearance for a conveyor that may dip below the structure in certain areas, etc.,” says Pahls.
He adds, “In the past, CNC punching for the beam lines would have been figured out in a separate program or calculated by hand. Now, engineers can extract data from the 3D model in a more accurate, immediately usable form.”
According to Pahls, the use of Design for Manufacturability (DFM) to devise parts or products that ease manufacturing and improve quality at lower cost is achieved by simplifying, optimising and refining product design. The process incorporates input from design engineers, production staff, and field installers.
To understand the benefits of DFM, Pahls points to the example of two structural members of an elevated platform that need to be bolted together.
“In the past, seven different types of clips were typically needed based on the circumstances of the connection. Today, [via the DFM process] a single clip can do the work of seven clips, which speeds manufacturing and installation,” he says.
As another example, he explains that an improved design eases the installation and reliability of platform guardrail by enabling technicians to get it perfectly positioned and plumb right out of the shipping crate.
When it comes to customization, 3D modelling and the DFM process offer warehouse equipment OEMs and integrators needed flexibility.
“No platform structure is ever the same in terms of levels, deck heights, capacities, configurations and seismic considerations. Every project has to be customized to some degree, particularly if it is installed inside an existing facility,” says Pahls.
While the warehouse storage and logistics industry has long focused on racking and labour-intensive forms of material handling, the rise of e-commerce has made larger automated systems, integrated with work platforms and the building, more critical than ever.
To speed the process of successfully implementing such systems from concept to installation and start-up, the sooner warehouse equipment OEMs and integrators look into advanced platforms using 3D modelling design, data extraction and DFM, the greater their advantage over the competition.