Rack, shelving and storage looks vertical

Focused on gaining efficiencies, maximizing available space and keeping workers safe while they’re up in the air, companies are integrating more rack, shelving and storage into their facilities.

To make better use of existing warehouse and DC space, accommodate the speed and velocity of omni-channel fulfillment, improve efficiencies, keep workers safe, and comply with seismic codes, companies are looking to their rack, shelving, and storage equipment manufacturers for help. And while this sector of the materials handling market is known for its slow, steady and predictable pace, some new innovations are emerging—all of which center on helping organizations gain efficiencies and operate smarter, faster and better warehouses.

Moving up, not out
Engineered systems that incorporate multi-level structures are the hot ticket item right now for Western Pacific Storage Solutions, where Mike Guerrero, vice president of engineering says his team is getting involved in more and more of these projects. “This is one of the most interesting trends I’ve seen in the last eight years,” says Guerrero. As companies incorporate these multi-level storage structures into their warehouses, he says most also want to go higher than ever—a goal that’s been enabled by the evolution of wire-guided, man-aboard orderpickers.

“We’re making systems that are 20- to 30-feet tall,” says Guerrero, who notes that man-aboard orderpickers are usually tailed for rack systems (i.e., with the worker picking full cases from a rack). With the rapid rise of omni-channel fulfillment, however, more firms want to be able to pick split cases or discrete components from tall/high-bay shelving.

“We’ve been seeing more and more of these applications over the last year or so,” he adds. To accommodate such requests, Western Pacific makes RiveTier Boltless Shelving (applicable for two-level systems) and Deluxe steel shelving options that can incorporate three- and four-level options.

The surge in e-commerce and omni-channel may be driving the need for better space utilization and organization in warehouses and DCs, but Guerrero says new construction as a whole is also supporting that movement. “We’re seeing more buildings that can accommodate three- and four-level systems,” he says, “and that’s making vertical storage easier than ever.”

From the engineering perspective, Guerrero says the storage manufacturing industry has “changed significantly” over the last few years due to changes in seismic code standards. “The days of throwing some shelving up and calling it a day are long gone,” says Guerrero. “Now, you really have to go through your due diligence and analysis—especially when you’re talking about tall shelving.”
Steve Rogers, executive vice president at Hannibal Industries, agrees, and adds that reality set in last year as more West Coast municipalities began adopting the latest ANSI standards. Due to changes in slab specifications, for example, companies must now look more carefully at depth ratios, loads and other factors relating to their existing building slabs.

“What they’re finding is that they either have to reduce their loads, which obviously impacts their throughput,” says Rogers, “or use mammoth foot plates in order to spread that uplift outward, a move that can impede forklift movement.” To help, Hannibal makes a TubeRack system that “solves the company’s storage issues without impacting their loads or requiring them to use huge foot plates,” says Rogers. “We’re at a point where everybody wants to get as much storage into their footprints as possible, but in the high-seismic areas, this is becoming almost impossible to do with standard rack design.”

Keeping workers safe
Whether they’re using racking, platforms, mezzanines—or a combination of all three—to maximize vertical space, companies need to ensure worker safety and comply with OSHA and ANSI fall prevention regulations. Anytime different “levels” come into play when loading, unloading, picking or moving pallets and totes, the likelihood of a potential accident increases exponentially. One particular ANSI rule (1910.23), for example, addresses walking and working surfaces and personal protective equipment/fall protection systems.

“Once you get up over 4 feet in the air, you have to protect people from falling,” says Jim Oates, vice president of aftermarket sales at Rite-Hite. “Lift gates, swing gates and sliding gates are no longer good enough.” Extend that potential 4-foot fall up into the air by 10, 15, or 20 feet, says Oates, and the drop-off quickly becomes downright dangerous for order pickers.

“People in the industry realize there’s a better way to secure [workers] who are loading and unloading at those various levels,” says Oates, “whether it be a pick module, a mezzanine or multi-level mezzanine/rack type applications. That’s what we’re running into.”
To meet those needs, Rite-Hite makes GateKeeper mezzanine safety gate barriers and RacKeeper safety gate barriers to help facilities maintain safe loading practices when using elevated platforms. “These products enable vertical space usage while also preventing users from getting to the ‘leading edge’ of the platform,” says Oates. “They can easily grab the product from a relatively high shelf or storage unit, with the actual access point being closed off.”

Bringing it all together
Talking about the efficient use of vertical height in a warehouse or DC is one thing, but actually taking the time to incorporate the right blend of rack, shelving and storage products to maximize this height requires a special engineering and design approach. A few years ago, while working with an HVAC manufacturer-customer, Kenco was tasked with transforming an existing, floor-storage DC into one that made better use of the entire available space. “In any warehouse, there are always space constraints,” explains Jason Minghini, vice president of engineering. “This warehouse wasn’t any different.”

One of the HVAC company’s biggest challenges was the large quantity of very small service parts that it shipped and received. According to Minghini, the company wanted to squeeze a “substantially significant” number of additional parts into its current building. Prior to undertaking this project, many of the parts were four-stacked to maximize the existing space. Rather than purchase a new building to accommodate its expanding inventory levels, the company called on Kenco to help develop a more innovative and efficient storage strategy.

“We knew that going ‘up’ was an option,” says Minghini, who points out that most vertical warehouse and DC space is under-utilized. “You can walk the floor of any facility—whether it’s a 200,000-square-foot DC or a 1.5 million-square-foot warehouse—and the amount of under-utilized space is pretty eye-opening.” Most times, he adds, every bit of available floor space is taken up. On the other hand, usually just 10- to 15-feet of the average 32-feet of available height is used. That equates to 50% of under-utilized space, on average.

“That’s what we were dealing with for this particular project, so our minds immediately went to going ‘up’ instead of going ‘out,’” says Minghini, whose team began exploring various rack methodologies—from small-part racks to aisle-width options. Digging deeper, Kenco looked at adding small-part bins, small-part racking, very narrow aisles, and torque-type/wire-guided trucks. Ultimately, he says the goal was to squeeze a lot more into the existing space when that space was already at capacity. “Really the only way to do that was by thinking outside of the box,” says Minghini, “so that’s what we did.” 

Using detailed engineering analysis, and CAD and simulation software, Kenco went through four different design options virtually before making any physical changes. It then selected the option that presented the least number of constraints while maximizing storage density and available space. The end result was what Minghini calls “a hodgepodge of different storage mechanisms” that included traditional rack to hold pallets and small parts and narrow-aisle rack with wire guidance (for lift trucks).

Minghini, who estimates the customer gained 30% to 40% in efficiency by transforming the space, plus the cost savings associated with not having to open a new facility, says Kenco is now repeating this exercise in another warehouse situated across the street from the one that was transformed. He sees the strategy as universally applicable for companies that want to gain efficiencies, use vertical space, and reduce the number of product “touches” that take place on the warehouse floor.

“The three main warehouse ‘sins’ are travel distance, touches and paper,” Minghini says. “The latter usually depends on your warehouse management system (WMS), but the right racking and storage strategies can definitely have a positive impact on the travel distance per order and the total number of touches.”

What’s next?
An important part of any warehouse or DC operation, rack, shelving and storage will continue to play a big role in helping companies achieve space utilization, efficiency and cost-containment goals. “You can do this with structural or speed racking and/or by using platforms and mezzanines,” says Oates. “By combining these structures with pick- or flow-type modules that utilize warehouse automation, you can make some definite strides in these areas.”

Rogers foresees a healthy year ahead for equipment makers that specialize in rack, shelving and storage equipment. “On a macroeconomic level, the food, beverage, and retail industries are all doing well this year, and they are all heavy users of our equipment,” says Rogers. “This should help lay the groundwork for another strong year in our industry and for material handling in general.” 

Companies mentioned in this article
• Hannibal Industries
• Kenco
• Rite-Hite
• Western Pacific Storage Solutions

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About the Author

Bridget McCrea's avatar
Bridget McCrea
Bridget McCrea is an Editor at Large for Modern Materials Handling and a Contributing Editor for Logistics Management based in Clearwater, Fla. She has covered the transportation and supply chain space since 1996 and has covered all aspects of the industry for Modern Materials Handling, Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review. She can be reached at [email protected] , or on Twitter @BridgetMcCrea
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