ANALYSIS: Storage & Racking
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To make better use of existing warehouse and DC space, accommodate the speed and velocity of omni-channel fulﬁlment, improve eﬃciencies, and keep workers safe, companies are looking to their rack, shelving, and storage equipment manufacturers for help. In other cases, as with AWOK.com, they’re doing it themselves.
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 centre on helping organizations gain eﬃciencies and operate smarter, faster and better warehouses. Engineered systems that incorporate multi-level structures are increasingly popular in the Middle East market.
“The recent surge of articulated material handling equipment with higher stacking capacity, economical tall steel structure solutions, and improvement in fire safety modules are paving opportunities for warehouse operators to go higher in storage systems, and counter the trend of increasing commercial property values,” says Syed Mohiuddin, sales manager, Eonmetall MENA.
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. “Rail guided turret trucks, and man lifters have been a proven solution of the last decade, and are now reaching saturation. Shuttle racking and automation is the next point of interest, to increase efficiency and cut short margin of error in logistic operations. With improvement in durability and battery life, shuttle system will gain more confidence among warehouse operators,” he says.
Walid Daniel, managing director, SPAN, which is a storage and racking and material handling provider in Dubai, adds that the problem with man-aboard equipment is safety. 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 local regulations.
“Warehouse operators are going higher, up to around 17 metres last level height (thus 18 to 19 metres useful height),” he explains. “It faces two constraints though, first, the availability of trucks reaching that level and at what load capacity loss, second it becomes much less humane to ask operators to go that high.”
Daniel adds that another consideration with going higher is efficiency of picking versus efficiency of volume. “Operators dislike heights. For man down machines the speed of picking or retrieval decreases exponentially with height,” he says. “For example, the time needed to handle a pallet at 6 metres is 4 times the time required if it was at 3 metres. Moreover, one of the first rules of warehousing is to start from ground up in the filling process and from up down the retrieval process so it is normal to see vacant slots at upper levels.”
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In the Middle East, where the warehousing and DC sector is dominated by cold chain and FMCG operations, efficient through flow tends to trump efficient storage (except in cold chain, where the operating costs demand the use of shuttle racking).
The surge in e-commerce and omni-channel distribution is also driving the need for better space utilization and organization in warehouses and DCs in the region.
For Ulugbek Yuldashev, the founder and CEO of the UAE e-commerce platform Awok.com, the focus in the design of his fulfilment centre has been on finding a way to reconcile these two contradictory needs. “We’ve gone higher to maximise volume in the fulfilment centre, we’re using multilevel racking because we want to use as much of the space as possible,” he says.
“But, we’ve also designed the racking so that every level is walkable using a PDA, with each item being picked manually. We do this because each order contains multiple products from different locations within the centre.”
“We see a major trend shift to multi-level racking, and automation in Middle East market,” Syed Mohiuddin, sales manager, Eonmetall MENA agrees. “It comes with new challenges of flooring for multi-level racking, battery capacity and durability in automation, and a stronger bond in logistic related software system with racking system.”
The problem Yuldashev faces is that any other system that maximised density over walkability would not meet the needs of his operation. “The first problem with a robotic system for example is that it would maximise density, using every square centimetre of volume, but they can’t handle the huge number of SKUs that we’re dealing with. So in this sense there’s a handicap on the part of the technology, which means that we have to use humans, and they need safe routes to walk around the warehouse, which means that less volume is being used for storage.”
To get around this, AWOK.com has designed 90% of its storage and racking systems itself, to meet its specific needs, cutting down picking time to just a few minutes. “Awok.com has 60,000 SKUs, which means that there are around 30,000 positions needed in the fulfilment centre and without the right racking system it would be a mess, we wouldn’t know where everything was and we wouldn’t be able to access it easily. So selling a product on the website, getting a customer to make an order, that’s just one part, after that the real work begins. Our backend team needs to be able to rapidly get that product out to the customer,” he says.
“We deliver everything within 12 to 24 hours of the order being placed, so our WMS system will immediately tell our picker exactly where the item is located so they can go and get it. Our racking system is one of the most important, integrated parts of the business. We use different types of racking, 90% of what we’re using has been designed in-house to meet our specific needs,” Yuldashev adds.
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.
Syed Mohiuddin, sales manager, Eonmetall MENA, says each racking system produced for a client is like a fingerprint. “The speed of logistics operations and the growing multiple product volume is the DNA of e-commerce, and it has ripped apart conventional warehouse logistic system logic,” he says. “To overcome such a challenge, we are witnessing a close bond of IT software and racking system, such as ERP and ASRS.”
“Every racking solution is different from one another, like fingerprints, therefore it must hold three principals; innovation, improvisation and pedigree,” he adds. “We started off with a simple selective racking design 60 years ago, and ever since our racking design solutions have gone denser, deeper, higher, and more efficient.
“Out of the box thinking must precede every project and a combination of solutions is often offered to fully utilize space. In the midst of ever changing design and solution, it is the physics that never changed. Structural strength and integrity is the backbone of every racking solution, which never changes and is never compromised.”