Top 10 tips for warehouse design
Each crop of warehouses rising in the Middle East brings a fresh wave of evolution in terms of standard and design. Arabian Supply Chain looks at the leading techniques and practices revolutionising warehouse design across the region.
A set of typical drivers commonly affects the construction of a warehouse - the height of the building, its plot size, service requirements and structural complexity. It may be a surprise to learn aspects such as height not also affect concrete slab specifications but determine the fire fighting system required as well.
"The type of fire fighting systems installed determines the cost of the project and the construction time required. For instance, in-rack sprinklers can only be installed once the racking installation is complete. This would usually delay the occupancy of the building for at least 2 months, compared to a conventional system," states Jihad Bsaibes, general manager of Dubai branch, Amana Contracting & Steel Building.
The use of VNA (Very Narrow Aisle) racking has a likewise effect on the slab - which must comply with TR-35 specifications to create 'super flat slabs'. "At Amana, we use laser screed technology which speeds the slab laying process and increases its tolerance," says Bsaibes.
Assessment of the site is required in order to ensure flatness in respect to adjacent roads, otherwise plot levelling and soil improvement could prove to be costly and time consuming. "At Amana, we have our own inhouse design capabilities that are continuously fed with site experiences. In addition, involving the construction team early on with the designers provides added value through lessons learnt on previous jobs," highlights Bsaibes.
The construction process itself should not exceed 10 months for a medium size project (below 30,000m2). Independent of the construction period, the developer must budget approximately 3 months in order to have the scope of work defined, shortlist appropriate contractors, receive prices for the scope of work, analyse prices, award the job, prepare the detail design and finally obtain the building permit.
"Nevertheless, contractors can fast-track the above process. At Amana, we have completed jobs in five months, from the point we were awarded the project to the point we obtain the construction completion certificate from the authorities. Such fast-track work requires a great deal of planning and coordination," concludes Bsaibes.
Selecting a location is of course fundamentally subject to where a company's main source of business lies. Yet a number of general requirements must be kept in mind.
Access to roads, ports, airports or even dry ports must play heavy on a potential warehouse operator's mind. Growth possibilities, costs, rules and regulations share similar importance.
"The first step for a company deciding to design a logistics facility is to intensively deal with the question: what is the objective of the new facility and for what purpose do I build it?," says Andreas Dur, branch manager of Xvise Innovative Logistics. "Will the locations support the growth strategy of the company, improve the quality level of the company, and give full transparency of material flow are all key considerations."
A choice of two primary methods for facility planning is available to those in the design process. The first of these is entitled 'static facility planning', whereby a company purchases a plot of land and builds a maximum sized facility upon it. The next step is to develop the operational processes within the existing facility. "The result is what you often see in Dubai - you have facilities that do not match the business," warns Dur. "You are left with processes that don't run efficiently and a company unable to provide service quality."
The second, 'dynamic facility design' unsurprisingly is more of the modern choice. As the name implies, it is not planning, instead it is a flexible design of a terminal. First an analysis of requirements is needed, which then results in a design of the operational processes. The layout plans and dimensions therefore develop as a result of these.
"The advantage is a facility which really fits the business. Not only does an analysis of the processes inside a terminal occur but the environment outside the building is considered. Factors such as ample parking space for trucks and correct number of docking bays are covered, companies using static facility planning often forget or underestimate this," he concludes.
A concern ranking high for any new warehouse is that of racking. Whilst many might not think the building structure and racking design are so intricately linked, all factors of the building will affect the design of the racking system, which will in turn have a direct effect on operational criteria such as picking efficiency, cross docking and container handling.
This has led to the modern method of designing warehouses 'inside out'. "That is to say the operational storage and material handling system is designed first and then the building is designed around the system," identifies Geoff Wheatley, regional director Middle East, SSI Schaefer. "Only by doing this can the client be sure of both operational capacity and flexibility."
Optimising capacity within a racking system itself is again riddled with variables. Reliant on the facets of a distribution centre, such as hardware, software, handling equipment, budget, market requirement and customer base, all of which must be thoroughly thought out. As such, full concept design discussions should involve the racking provider, a fact not lost on SSI Schaefer.
"SSI Schaefer provides complete evaluation services and consultancy services both paid and unpaid - these would generally incorporate product and site surveys, data evaluation, concept design and on many occasions simulation," says Wheatley.
Involved with planning from day one, Wheatley identifies the need to design the 'shell' of the warehouse and the system concepts before the next stage - discussions with architects, developers and building contractors. "On several occasions of late we have been graced with the contract for the provision of the storage system before the client has placed the building contract. We then ensure we attend all site meetings and become part of the overall 'build team' even though we have a separate contract with the owner," he exemplifies.
Most racking systems are conceptualised, designed and proposed within one week to a month, with factors such as size of facility and picking requirements affecting this length.
"Having been in the industry for 40 years next year and seen an awful lot of building and rack design mistakes in many different countries, the best advice I could give is - please do not attempt it yourself as the services of any good storage equipment provider are usually free of charge or obligation," summarises Wheatley.
A door seems a simple thought compared to the complexity of say automation or racking, but it is nevertheless a worthy consideration when designing a warehouse. Before selecting a door type, thought must be given to how much operation per day or even per hour it will function.
"Factors such as whether the door is for external or internal purposes, requires insulation, must allow for heavy traffic from fork lifts and has safety and emergency features must be kept in mind, alongside the availability of maintenance, service or spare parts from a local dealer," says Lawrence Miranda, regional sales manager, GCC States, Efaflex.
The choice of door model is dependent on budget and usage with models on the market ranging from normal steel, aluminium, rolling shutters, insulated/un-insulated sectional warehouse doors, crash doors and high speed doors. The type, volume and intensity of traffic going through the doors likewise will have an effect on maintenance costs, energy loss and ultimately time consumption.
"A warehouse door is now synonymous with docking bays which need access without climatic loss or dust and water penetration during the loading and unloading process and security when not in use," identifies Miranda.
Door suppliers are normally included in the design stage by the architect, but in certain instances a client or cost consultant will specify the type of door in the initial tender description. "A door that requires minimum maintenance and has a higher life span would help in paying for itself much sooner. Efaflex doors installed more than 20 years ago are still in operation after periodic maintenance," adds Miranda.
Health and safety
Like many aspects of warehouse design, health and safety considerations need to be integrated right from the start of the planning process. Safety factors initially focus on the location, anticipated function, occupancy, processes and potential hazards of a proposed warehouse.
"Site selection and assessment of requirements will include location, environmental issues and waste disposal, neighbours and site drainage factors," says Aziz Zerban, Dubai representative from the Institute of Health and Safety.
By gaining an early understanding of the planned operation, fire protection, fire compartments and smoke ventilation systems will gain a stronger influence in the construction phase. This could ultimately prove cost beneficial as specific protection is offered to key areas, this could include segregated storage of flammable liquids, toxins or reactives. "Balancing safe and secure design requirements should include building materials selection for the frame or shell of the structure, cladding, floors with slip reduction properties and roof," exemplifies Zerban.
Seemingly smaller considerations such as walkway barriers, handrails, racking protection and other safety structure should also not be overlooked in the design stage. The use of racking is another point of careful consideration - does it block potential emergency evacuation points or are in-rack sprinklers a necessity?
"Current standards of safety in Middle East warehouses vary greatly, as generally safety standards are stipulated and driven by the client," notes Zerban.
Two pivotal moments have influenced the design of the warehouses in the Middle East. The first occurred during the mid 90s with the introduction of Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) and the opening of the market to European practices, the second was the boom in the logistics market in Dubai between 2002 and 2003. These facts alone confirm the importance of a WMS in a modern warehouse design.
"We both consult and implement supply chain solutions. We began selling the WMS in 1996 and have introduced other solutions since," identifies Kamel El-Ghossaini, business development manager of supply chain solutions, SPAN Group.
A useful indicator of the need for a WMS within a warehouse operation is the volume of goods entering and leaving the premises as well as the complexity of the business - the higher the turnover the greater the need for a WMS.
"Each case requires its own examination, but there are some similarities. It is the product and operation that are the key questions, once this has been determined then the additional features of a WMS can be formulated," says El-Ghossaini.
A consultancy period is required, which should reflect dedication from a customer towards the project. An exchange of the correct data, brainstorming and fine tuning is a must. "A lot of fine tune is required to work out the precise details. An average consultancy period can take up to three months, and includes project initiation, data gathering analysis and generation of the concept," illustrates El-Ghossaini. "Some clients also wish for additional services, such as generation of standard operating procedures, facility design, as well as extending visibility across the supply chain."
Whilst many warehouses in the Middle East are yet to take full advantage of automation, if implementation is opted it must be involved in the design process. Like many aspects of warehouse design, optimising space is key. The column layout and height of the facility are in particular paramount to an automation solution. "It also might be that flooring needs to be built in different levels," says Reinhard Wind, general manager of USP. "Therefore it makes a lot of sense that a competent provider for automation solutions is consulted before or when beginning the design of a warehouse."
A thorough understanding of the warehouse purpose is essential before embarking with automation - particularly evaluating whether it is primarily a place of storage or one where a high throughput is of major importance. The stored article structure and load carriers are to be analysed, complete with all operational issues and performances, for example different picking operations, packing, consolidating, assembling and production.
"It is of major importance that a supplier of automation solutions really understands the nature of the business of the client and the needs of the clients' clients," highlights Wind.
Following this, a suitable automation solution can be selected, engineered and the first layout created. After confirming with client and readjusting the automation design, the project is ready to begin. "Every client has to get familiar with the automation solution, seeing all the benefits and knowing about the financial investment. In this phase it is important that the supplier has a lot of understanding with the client and gives his best to give the client the complete picture," says Wind.
The emphasis on warehouse flooring has undeniably increased due to modern building techniques. The quality and durability of a floor slab can affect, for good or bad, all elements of the process in a warehouse. "With many warehouse and logistics operators now taking full advantage of new technology that often requires bigger and taller buildings, the demand for a flatter floor is significantly higher," exemplifies Darryl Eddy, director of Twintec Industrial Flooring.
The pressure on flooring has also been magnified by the massive throughput of goods and 24/7 nature of a modern logistics operations. A floor slab must therefore offer a minimum maintenance period whilst providing flexibility and performance.
"Traditional ground-bearing floor slab construction uses concrete nominally reinforced with fairly light mesh and then incorporates saw-cuts to induce shrinkage cracks to a pre-planned grid," says Eddy. "Floors with such joints are prone to curl, and are very bumpy for forklifts, eventually leading to breakdown and ongoing maintenance for both floor and machines."
In order to design and build a floor for a warehouse, it is necessary to understand the properties of the floor constituent materials. By examining concrete mix, fibre type and fibre dosage, a warehouse operator can evaluate which floor will best match the demands of the warehouse in question. "Steel Fibre Reinforced Concrete (SFRC) is a composite material and can be used to produce reinforced floors that do not require joints, therefore reducing maintenance of forklift and floor," says Eddy.
Although very rarely would a warehouse be designed around the forklift model, a potential customer should bear in mind a number of factors that will ultimately mould the forklift selection. Aspects such as the minimum space required between aisles and turning aisles in order to accommodate for forklifts has a direct effect on racking layout.
"There is a need for precise calculation," says Pietro Ricca, territory warehouse equipment manager, Eastern Europe and Middle East, Yale. "The width and height of doors throughout the operational area must be considered, even possible ceiling obstacles must be included, for example an air conditioning over hang could cause possible hazards with the forklift function."
Delving deeper, functions such as cold storage and range of goods in the warehouse need to be made clear to a forklift distributor. In the case of cold storage, special forklift models are required that are adapted to cope with the lower temperature and probable smaller framed entrance. In regards to dangerous goods, protection or limitation is required on the fuel qualities of the forklift truck.
"This applies further, as gas or fuel emissions from forklift trucks means considerations must be made when handling food products. Likewise if the model is electrical, a charging area is required in the warehouse, which may have to be segregated depending on what goods are present in the area," says Ricca.
Finally, a thorough study of the Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) is a must. The SKU type, measurement and weight should be shared with the forklift provider, alongside possible pallet movement systems and picking options.
The need for cold storage or temperature controlled options in Middle East warehouses is undoubtedly on the rise. An increasing amount of products on the market, such as chemicals and Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), often require some form of cold storage that perhaps would not necessarily be a requirement in other climates. "Companies come from Europe where products would be fine without cold storage during the summer, here this is often not the case," says Fredrik Lindblad, business manager, GAC Dubai.
If the decision has been made to install temperature controlled options, the layout of the warehouse must adapt accordingly. It is vital to consider the cold chain as a whole, examining the direction of throughput and the location of the loading bay in relation to where the cold storage facilities will be placed. "If a product is stored in cold storage, it may also need to be placed in a marshalling area with temperature controlled options in order to sustain itself during the picking period," identifies Lindblad.
The choice of which temperature controlled option to select is of course fundamental to the product involved. Some work on specific temperature intervals, for example pharmaceutical products require a temperature of between four to eight degrees, whilst a more common system is to set a fixed temperature restriction for an area.
"Ultimately it must be decided where the market is heading and whether cold storage is a requirement. In the case of the Middle East, I would say many companies are searching for such options," Linblad adds.