Dynamic Solutions Beat Labor Challenges

Throughout the supply chain, businesses are experiencing labor challenges in various ways, and it has taken a toll on throughput and profitability for many.

First of all, labor availability is at an all-time low, and fulfillment centers are routinely operating at below capacity because of it. That puts undue pressure on the remaining workers, who are then overextended in attempting to meet consumers’ increasing expectations on quicker delivery for an ever-increasing share of e-commerce orders. In this environment, fulfillment centers are also adjusting to fewer shipments of full pallets and a more significant share of each or order picks, which are more expensive and lead to increased labor costs.

Plus, because labor availability is so low, companies are required to raise wages – and sometimes add bonuses – to attract new employees. That factor makes employee retention more difficult because now there is more competition for those higher-paying jobs, so workers are more apt to jump from one company to another. So, in changing careers and changing companies, quality control is affected as more employees need to be trained.

In short, the labor market is a mess right now. COVID-19 and other external factors have caused a dramatic shift in supply chain employment, and companies are feeling the pain of all these changes. Some have adopted dynamic strategies to reduce dependency on human labor for fulfilling orders, and some are in the process of investigating potential options for their operations.

In fact, one of the most common themes we hear from clients is that they may have waited too late, and now they need to play catch-up. We have found that clients are getting their biggest “bang for the buck” on integrating solutions around their picking, packing, and replenishment operations.

Below are a few dynamic solutions we design and provide that may help your business catch up to meet today’s challenges, but in reality, these solutions should also come with a roadmap to help your operations adapt to future challenges that may be unforeseen.

Adding Conveyor and Sortation Solutions

Conveyor and sortation solutions can be a solvent for labor challenges, primarily by reducing the amount of physical travel required by transporting products long distances within a facility. Through proper design, conveyors can dramatically improve fulfillment speeds, add quality control, and improve safety in a facility.

Even if you have a conveyor system currently running in your facility, it may be time to re-evaluate your design as demand and needs change. Retrofitting existing conveyors with new parts, sortation solutions, or new motors can also make a sizeable impact on your replenishment, picking, and packing efforts.

Condense Your Footprint with Vertical Lift Modules

While condensing your storage doesn’t always directly solve labor challenges, vertical lift modules (VLMs) offer various benefits to fulfillment operations, particularly when it comes to picking items to a cart. VLMs offer a fully-automated goods-to-person picking and storage solution that can be ideal when your process involves small-to-medium products.

Pick-to-light batching tables can be incorporated to allow for picking multiple orders to drive higher pick rates and eliminate guesswork from the batching process. With these high pick rates and additional throughput and accuracy, you can drive labor savings.

Introduce Automated Warehouse Robotics

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) are two typical warehouse solutions to labor challenges because of their fulfillment rates, operational costs, safety benefits, and order accuracy. Our partners at Fetch Robotics and inVia Robotics work with your labor force to support replenishment, picking, and transportation of products. These solutions can be installed as a subscription service, meaning you don’t have to invest in massive infrastructure at your facility.

These solutions integrate with your warehouse management systems (WMS) to optimize pick paths to support your pick process or do the picking entirely, depending on your needs. Ultimately, though, they remove the costliest aspect of fulfillment – humans walking through a warehouse.

Reduce Costs When You Automate Your Packaging

Especially as a greater share of orders are being shipped individually than by-the-pallet, automating your packaging process can support increased throughput and lower labor costs. From case sealers to auto-baggers to print-and-apply labeling systems, there are several solutions that can prevent you from paying someone to package individual or group orders.

These end-of-the-line solutions can automatically measure and add void-fill, reducing waste, freight costs, and can improve customer satisfaction along the way.

Invest in Automation with Goods-to-Person Picking Systems

Even if you have no level of automation in your operations, it may be worth investigating how to integrate automated goods-to-person picking systems in your facility. However, before diving in too deep, we recommend speaking with an expert that has conducted a data-driven analysis of your material flow to determine the right solution for your business goals.

Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) can come in cart-based solutions, crane-based solutions, cart-crane combinations, mini-load AS/RS, and more. They all drive extremely high pick rates, optimal storage design, ergonomic support and can scale as your business goals grow. However, because there are so many options out there, finding the right solution requires the design and expertise of a proper project partner. We’d be happy to discuss these options with you!

Need Some Advice? Contact an Expert

Our team of experts has experience with various solutions that can relieve the dependency on labor and drive an ROI by increasing your throughput. For us, solving labor challenges is less about eliminating workers but more about keeping your best employees around by making their jobs more accessible, more consistent and creating opportunities for less wear-and-tear per pick.

If you’re reacting to labor challenges, call us today to find which of these solutions is suitable for your operations.

SSI Difference - Size Scope Skill

With all the obstacles that can belie any project – from labor shortages to logistical challenges to project management issues – it pays to work with a company that can solve challenges. Especially in times like these, when it seems all of these challenges are happening simultaneously, it pays off to work with a partner that offers the size, scope, and skill to overcome those and get the job done on time and on budget.

As the most significant storage equipment integrator in North America, we have the capabilities to get projects done on a shorter timeline and with a lesser impact on your day-to-day operations that other companies do not have.

What does that mean? How does that benefit you? Let’s explain…

We Can Source Warehouse Storage Equipment When Others Can’t

When it comes to buying power, we are unmatched in our industry. We are a Top-5 purchaser of pallet racking from the Top-8 manufacturers in North America when most other integrators cannot boast that claim for one or two of them. This status means that we have buying power that allows us to source equipment that others cannot because of our size and scope.

That status also means that we can achieve quicker lead times than others. Because each project is unique, we can get things done faster than the competition. We have such good relationships with our partners that, in the rare instance where production space is open, our manufacturing partners will reach out to us to see if we are interested in their supply. Of course, we are!

So, when some manufacturers may be sitting on 24-week production schedules, we can fit orders into their existing schedule because they know we’re always looking to buy. These unique vendor relationships allow us to place orders on reserved production because we know we can connect our clients to new equipment faster than others.

Another differentiator we can boast of is our 330,000 square-foot warehouse, located in Central Indiana, just north of Indianapolis. We always have new and preowned equipment in stock, and our warehouse allows us to be aggressive in acquiring inventory, which means we can help fill orders quicker. Plus, when there is a delay on a project and equipment is in transit, there are times that we can use and hold those uprights, beams, wire decks, or other equipment in our facility until the project gets back on track.

We are Growing at a Record Pace, Adding More Strategic Partners & Staff Along the Way

As a team, we continue to grow in size and skill. We have added dozens of new talent in sales, engineering, project management, installation, and operations in the past few years, which means we can accommodate a higher volume of projects at any given time and handle a larger share of each clients’ challenges. We have always engaged in training and continuous improvement, but we’ve made a real effort to get our staff accredited and certified in their area of expertise, and it’s paying off for our team and our partners.

We have new strategic partnerships with industry leaders like Daifuku, MHS Global, inVia Robotics, OPEX, and more, which means we are more connected to the latest-and-greatest solutions that can genuinely drive ROI on our clients’ projects. These are new areas of specialization that we have never been able to offer before.

Our approach means we can put the processes and programs to our client’s success. By being proactive – instead of reactive – we can control a project that many others cannot. That pays off by creating long-term partnerships with our growing number of clients because they know we can help solve nearly any challenge that may lay ahead.

We Have the In-House Talent to Navigate Project Planning and Execution

Another one of our main differentiators is our ability to provide in-house Turnkey Services to accommodate project planning and execution. Not only can we assist in the engineering and permitting process, but we offer an unmatched, robust project management team dedicated to each project. That team provides oversight on each component of a project and is in constant communication regarding safety checkpoints, installation progress, permits, logistics, and all the elements required to ensure a project is executed at a top-of-class level.

We offer this as an in-house solution because we ultimately want to be a partner that makes the best use of our clients’ time. Instead of being stuck calling around trying to find answers – or finding out what questions you even need to ask – we already know whom to ask, what to ask, and how to navigate the challenges associated with planning and executing these projects.

Our logistics and installation teams are also held in-house to provide complete control over projects and to ensure that there are no “gaps” in relying on two third-party vendors to coordinate with each other.

Especially now, in late 2021, supply chain and labor markets are experiencing massive delays and challenges. Fewer trucks are available. Delivery times are all over the place. Labor shortages are nationwide. We are not immune from these challenges, but we experience them to lesser degrees than our competition because we can control more resources than others. In other words, just because there is a labor shortage or supply chain disruption, it doesn’t mean we can’t get the job done. Our team can.

When our internal resources are stretched, and we do need to reach out to a third-party vendor, we have built a massive nationwide network of vetted vendors that we can utilize when necessary, and we can leverage our relationships when essential for our clients to receive preferential treatments.

We’re Ready to Get Started!

If you’ve worked with us before, you know our agnostic approach to sourcing solutions means we can deliver your project with fewer challenges than any other partner. If you haven’t worked with us before, give us a call and share more about how we have the size, scope, and skill that positions us as a true industry leader. That position makes us an ideal partner, especially in the current environment of unforeseen challenges and obstacles.

Whether you are about to plan a significant project like designing a new distribution center, investigating whether or not to introduce automation to your operations, or are just exploring options for a project partner, give us a call. We have a team in-house that can help you at every stage of that project, from design through implementation and support.

 

Planning for Future Flexibility

Depending on your business cycle, planning comes at different times of the fiscal year. Typically, we see businesses planning for next year’s budget or big projects toward the second half of the year, especially in the third quarter (and sometimes, into the fourth).

However – as evidenced in almost every line of business – we are in a different world this year. Between the changing dynamics caused by COVID-19 and its variants, supply chain shortages, and fluctuating labor availability, planning for a flexible operational future has never been more critical.

Some of the common challenges that have affected the warehouse industry have been there for decades. Labor availability, rising prices, and material flow challenges have all been around for years. However, warehouses and distribution centers have been tasked with some unique challenges over the last two years, including the Amazon Effect’s dramatic rise, an incredibly volatile trade landscape, and unique labor challenges that started with the onset of COVID-19 in the United States.

At the core of finding solutions to these challenges is planning for flexibility in your operations. If there were a common thread among successful businesses amid the pandemic, it would be those who were dynamic, technologically adept, and those who maximized the value of their fulfillment operations. So, going into the next year or extensive set of projects, it stands to reason those companies will continue their success.

Steel prices are high, lead times are long, and that may not be changing soon.

According to Mining Technology, in July 2021, steel prices have been trading around 200% higher than during a pre-pandemic March 2020, and there isn’t any market movement to indicate price reductions until at least 2022. The report states, “Prices are expected to remain high due to the massive outstripping of demand vs. supply, and the time it will take for supply to catch up and replenish depleted steel stockpiles.”

So, not only is steel more expensive, but it is also more challenging for some companies to source materials; there is little inventory available. It helps to be a distributor of the size of Storage Solutions. Because we are the most significant storage equipment integrator in North America, we can leverage our unmatched partnerships with reserved production capacity programs for pallet racking, mezzanines, pick modules, and other equipment needs. However, just because we are more likely to source steel doesn’t necessarily mean it will be cheaper.

It is challenging to plan for a scenario like this. For example, let’s say you plan a project to start in a year, and the material price jumps 200% and cannot be guaranteed for delivery; what do you do? For us, it means our team of experts understands market forecasts like this, advises our partners on the best course of action early, and helps find the material they need to stick to their budget more closely. After all, when you’re building a three-level mezzanine with pick modules and vertical reciprocating conveyors and a 10% spike in pricing is coming, it is better to work with a partner who knows the market and can advocate action before that spike becomes 200%.

Labor challenges are real, expanding, and causing chaos in nearly every industry.

Suppose there is one common challenge among most companies in North America – if not the world – is the ever-evolving labor market. At the same time, labor challenges have been common in the warehousing industry for decades. However, during the same period in which warehouse managers are battling a volatile steel market and long lead times, they are also fighting “The Great Resignation.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.7% of the entire U.S. workforce quit their jobs in July 2021, and a majority of these resignations took place in retail, professional services, transportation, warehousing, and utilities. The hope is that July 2021 was the peak of “The Great Resignation,” the term that refers to a rising turnover trend that arose in March 2020 with the start of COVID-19 spread in the U.S.

Some of the variables behind these trends are in a company’s control. There are elements like workplace conditions, benefits, flexibility, and more that can be managed to some degree. However, what happens when the competitor down the road can offer slightly better conditions or pay? What happens if another “Act of God” causes significant supply chain disruptions and strained conditions? How do you keep your business running if your employees can’t go to work?

At the same time, costs are also rising – not only with the actual labor rates and what is needed to complete order fulfillment. The operational costs go into recruiting, hosting job fairs, hiring, training (and then repeated if that process when the employee leaves). When those “soft” labor costs get added into the complete picture, then the situation becomes clear: you need to find a fix.

In terms of labor, planning for flexibility could mean a higher reliance on warehouse robotics and technology to solve these challenges. Solutions exist that can dramatically improve fulfillment rates while reducing dependence on human labor and lower costs. This environment doesn’t mean replacing your workers, only reducing your turnover. You can keep your best employees participating in higher-level tasks than walking around. For instance, inVia’s PickMate solution assists employees who are picking products by calculating the most efficient and accurate path to get products from storage to pack-out. This solution does not require an investment in infrastructure and can deliver an ROI on day one of implementation.

PickMate is just one example of the countless options that can improve aspects of your operation and better your bottom line. There are certainly systems out there that can enhance your operations. The best way to start is to work with an industry leader like Storage Solutions that takes an agnostic approach to find the best solution for you based on your operational needs and business goals.

So, what can you do to plan for flexibility in the future?

If you need some help determining how to move forward, give us a call. With our robust project management, creative design engineers, and network of manufacturing partners, we take most of the burden off of the planning process because we know all aspects of the project, from design to installation, through implementation and support.

Whether your challenges are sourcing material, designing material flow, labor challenges, or meet changing customer expectations, we can be there to assist in building out a roadmap that helps you reach your goals, both short-and-long-term. We’ve worked with companies along the distribution chain to develop simple, smart, and strategic solutions to their storage, picking & operational challenges.

While some of those challenges can be solved with active project management and responding reactively to problems, we take the correct approach – a proactive one – in recommending flexibility in developing your plans. Let’s get started today!

Productive Budget Uses

As we enter the fourth fiscal quarter of the year, we are often talking with clients about quick, simple additions, products, and new initiatives to try with the remainder of their annual budget. As operations managers look toward 2022, there are typically several options that can increase productivity, keep employees safe, or offer new benefits to your operations.

Whether you are sitting on $3,000 or $300,000, closing out the year on a productive note is a pivotal way to build momentum to start next year on a positive note. After a tumultuous year like 2020 – one that offered (and still offers) a high degree of uncertainty, this may be an excellent time to see a return on a relatively minor investment.

Below are four of the most common suggestions we offer our clients when they talk to us about the challenges they see in today’s environment with an eye on utilizing the remainder of their allocated budgetary funds.

Rack Additions to Support Facility Volume

Carton Flow FlextrakAmong the most common challenges we see from our clients is finding new and creative ways to increase storage volume and quicken the fulfillment process without expanding the facility’s footprint. Adding rack additions that can support a more efficient pick process is an easy way to see a return on investment without breaking the bank. One example of this would be adding carton flow systems or replacing full-width roller tracks with polycarbonate skate wheel tracks. Why? The beds formed with the latter option creates a full flow bed, adding flexibility without needing to reconfigure your racking. You can learn more about the pros and cons of different carton flow systems here.

Safety Products Focused on Employee Protection

driver-cagesWe have recently highlighted a group of warehouse safety products that assist facilities in adjusting to “the new normal” we are all experiencing. From building access cages to automated smart disinfection solutions, there are various products available to keep your employees safe. In a world where operations managers are looking to reduce labor costs and labor uncertainty, these products can offer a quick return by keeping your associates active and productive.

Safety Products Focused on Rack Protection

Safety Equipment and ProductsThe old phrase, “prevention is better than the cure,” certainly pertains to warehouse management. By installing warehouse safety products like building protector columns, end-of-aisle protectors, safety guard rails, or upright protection, you can prevent damage to your equipment that may arise from forklift accidents or improper storage methods. Our design consultants have decades of experience in seeing what products are ideal for any distribution center, and we’ve worked with businesses across North America as a trusted ally in their safety efforts.

Damaged Rack Repairs and Replacements

Damaged RackBy following the Rack Manufacturers Institute’s guidelines, rack safety surveys should be conducted annually at the very minimum. However, in warehouses with high traffic areas, narrow aisles, transfer aisles, or cold environments, the RMI suggests performing these surveys as frequently as once per month. If you have damaged equipment, we can recommend both pre-owned or new equipment, based on your needs. The preowned equipment we store in our 330,000 square-foot warehouse is protected from the elements and has all passed our Certified Pre-Owned standards, offering additional savings to the distribution centers looking to save on their replacement costs.

Let’s Talk!

Wherever you are in your project planning stage, we are here to offer advice and solutions to suit your needs. We are always looking for new ways to support our partners and clients, and whether you are planning that major project in 2021 or just looking to end 2020 on a positive note, we are ready to get started. Give us a call today!

Increased Volume of E-Commerce Orders

According to Digital Commerce 360, e-commerce, as a portion of total retail sales, rose 44% in 2020, triple the rate increase of sales over the prior year. While the result has been increased convenience for consumers, warehouses, fulfillment centers, and distribution centers are looking to overcome challenges associated with that dramatic shift in consumer behavior.

Some are looking at building new facilities dedicated to fulfilling these types of orders. Others are looking to design and technology solutions that can help them meet the unique demands of their current facilities. Either way, they are seeking to resolve fulfillment challenges that are resulting from the rise of e-commerce.

With massive change in consumer behavior underway – and more change to come down the road – let us take a closer look at each of the significant pain points caused by the rapid increase of e-commerce on the supply chain.

The most accessible place to start in examining common challenges to facilitate more e-commerce orders is in the facility’s design. Warehouses are reaching storage capacity for their original intended design and function. After all, many warehouses were built to sustain and maximize full pallet orders. Now, there is a requirement to facilitate a more significant share of e-commerce orders, which means they need to react to higher order volume and store a wider variety of SKUs.

There are also inherent design hurdles to overcome regarding where – and how – the products are stored and retrieved. For instance, the warehouse goes from storing pallets and cases in static racking, where employees are driving powered equipment to travel to a location, pick a pallet or case, take it to a shipping area, and send it out the door. Now, they need to make individual products accessible, typically available at the floor level, and make it easy for someone to pick either a unit or multiple SKUs for an order.

They need to mold their processes to move from case-or-pallet picking to include the each picking required by e-commerce. In that transition, they are learning that it is very different to pick individual products.

With each picking, the process for fulfillment is nearly double the number of steps compared to case-or-pallet selection. Forklift retrieval for full pallet or case picking, where a high volume of a single product can be moved and shipped – process warehouses have made efficient for decades.

For a higher percentage of orders, workers must now pick, consolidate, pack, and then ship orders, all while customers are demanding their products be delivered more quickly than ever. Now operations will need to establish a consolidation process, packing process, and shipping process.

After all, e-commerce orders are requiring these businesses to double their processes. Are those processes optimized? How are they integrated with the full pallet orders? What tools are available to help with the transition?

Those are all reasons why the operational cost of fulfilling a single order for e-commerce is higher than that of a pallet or case order. Distribution centers and warehouses are already under increased wage pressure, and now they need to integrate these new, increased operational expenses that chip away at their bottom line.

In addition, the costs for labor rising are not only the costs for labor, but the availability of reliable labor is a real challenge that warehouses, fulfillment centers, and distribution centers are all facing. Whether it is due to the COVID-19 pandemic or other external forces, absenteeism is growing in this sector.

Combine all the above, then also factor that we are amid a labor shortage in the supply chain industry, which in part arose due to a sharp rise in demand for trained workers, among other external factors.

What Challenges Are You Experiencing?

What other challenges are you experiencing as a result of the rise of e-commerce? There are emerging trends that dynamic operations respond to, but we understand that each fulfillment center has its unique challenges, and we are here to help.

To adjust to the challenges caused by a rising share of e-commerce orders, a similarly increasing share of distribution and fulfillment centers are investigating adding automation, technology, and dense storage solutions. Autonomous mobile robots, automated packing solutions, and goods-to-person picking solutions all have applications to combat the challenges caused by the higher order volume and can be implemented without requiring an investment in costly infrastructure. These solutions also help relieve high labor costs and labor reliance while helping drive throughput and speed in the fulfillment process.

Whether you are experiencing labor challenges, seeking alternatives to manual fulfillment, or investigating long-term ROI strategies, give us a call. We have multiple partners who can provide solutions to these challenges in introduce increased labor efficiency into your operations. Our team has years of experience designing an ideal solution based on your data and our years of expertise.

AMRs & Shuttle Systems in Picking and Replenishment

It is no secret that e-commerce continues to take a larger and larger share of total retail sales. Throw in a pandemic that forced millions of people and businesses to shop from home, and you will find that fulfillment centers, distribution centers, and warehouses are increasingly searching for methods to optimize fulfillment while minimizing how expensive that process can be.

For operations designed for more traditional case-or-pallet distribution, that process can be costly.

For instance, let us say a facility was outfitted with a large, three-story pick module with a 100,000 sq. ft. footprint. They formerly relied on forklifts to move a whole pallet of products from storage to shipping. Now, they see an increasing share of orders requiring just one or two items from that pallet, requiring a human to physically travel, find the item, and bring it back to packing, where it will be packaged and shipped. All of those new processes add up in terms of labor costs, packing, and shipping costs. Plus, order accuracy and fulfillment times are now in question. How does a company react?

After all, let us say in this example, the business is just emerging from a disruptive year and have this significant, fixed pick module asset that they are a little unsure of how to optimize their picking and replenishment processes, which are getting more expensive by the day. They see growth in e-commerce orders, but is it here to stay? Is making an investment in a fully automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) worth it? Are there alternatives?

Not many businesses can avoid facilitating e-commerce orders. Maybe the order volume or SKU variance is not as high in their warehouses as the nation’s biggest retailers. However, they still see an increase in fulfilling these orders. The answer may rest with a strategic investment in automated mobile robots (AMRs) and top-of-the-line software.

How AMRs Optimize Picking and Replenishment in E-Commerce Operations

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are becoming a popular solution to challenges stemming from the sudden explosion of e-commerce demand, primarily because they can move products within a facility without substantial infrastructure investments.

AMRs can travel, pick, transfer, and replenish warehouses across a nearly infinite number of SKUs with fantastic accuracy. With their diverse set of applications, they help reduce reliance on human labor and allow your associates to remain in critical locations and be dedicated to higher importance tasks than walking around a facility.

Some AMRs even bill as a monthly cost, so you can begin implementing them without affecting as much cash flow as a pick module would. Then they offer the flexibility to scale up with additional robots as your business needs change.

For those who have installed multi-level pick modules and boast small-to-mid-sized e-commerce operations, AMRs solutions can be a cost-effective solution to lower labor costs and increase throughput on e-commerce orders. With these solutions, businesses are not required to reconfigure their operations while running.

These solutions also remove the most significant obstacle facing the adoption of automation – that initial investment – by retrofitting into existing structures like pallet racks or pick modules. Because they can be integrated into your currently-existing facility, they can offer a return-on-investment on day one through cost savings and labor throughput.

How Shuttle Systems Optimize Picking and Replenishment in E-Commerce Operations

Around the middle of the 2010’s, shuttle systems – also henceforth referred to as automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) – began to be refined in European supply chains and have since made their way to the United States. According to the Material Handling Industry glossary, AS/RS is a generic term that “refers to a variety of means under computer control for automatically depositing and retrieving loads from defined storage locations.”

They are essentially bi-directional shuttles that are programmed to be packed with a product on a tote or cart, travel along a designated path, and then place the product into a high-density storage unit. When that product is ordered, the cart will automatically retrieve it and deliver it back to a packer, who then prepares the product for shipping.

These goods-to-person systems eliminate the need for massive pick modules and the manual process of your labor force walking and storing, then walking and picking, then walking the product back to a pack station.

By utilizing an AS/RS, companies can save a tremendous amount of time and resources involved with placing products into storage and then retrieving those items once ordered. Instead of having that worker physically travel to locations along a path, the worker can stay in one place while the machines do the intensive labor.

There are also crane-based and cart-crane-based AS/RS solutions, which you can read about here.

Which Set of Solutions is Right for You?

Both shuttle systems and AMRs significantly reduce the highest variable expense in the fulfillment process: labor time spent on walking. Both answers will ultimately deliver their ROI by reducing labor costs and increasing labor productivity, perhaps faster than you may think. The right solution for your operation will depend on how you go about bringing your goods to your people in the most efficient way possible.

Determining the proper course of action in adopting new technology and equipment should start with defining a strategy to get your business to its next stage. Taking a piecemeal approach can leave you with a suboptimal workflow, slower fulfillment times, and higher operational costs.

Our team of experts has decades of experience finding the proper storage and fulfillment solutions installed and integrated with a short-term ROI in mind and an eye on long-term growth for the business.

Give us a call and let us uncover your challenges and provide insight into solutions to help your operations adapt to the ever-increasing role that e-commerce has with your business.

Packing and Shipping Solutions for ECommerce

As e-commerce orders continue to comprise an increasingly more significant share of orders in fulfillment centers nationwide, warehouse managers continually evaluate practices to keep the costs associated with fulfilling these smaller, less profitable orders down.

The overall costs associated with packing and shipping e-commerce orders formerly were not a major concern because they made up a small percentage of total shipments. After all, many fulfillment operations have built their processes around shipping out full pallets or cases of products down the supply chain. However, as the rise of e-commerce continues to take over a more significant share of orders, it becomes critical to examine solutions that can not only lower labor costs but also increase fulfillment accuracy and speed while reducing shipping costs.

In taking a closer look at the packing and shipping elements of fulfilling e-commerce orders, there are efficiencies to be found. Look at the process of boxing, for instance. It is easily the most expensive part of packing because it is the most time-consuming and uses the most materials. Also, put yourself in the shoes of a packer; you are tasked with packing as quickly as possible. You have a product in hand. Are you going to try and fit that product snugly into an appropriately sized box, or are you going to select the larger box by default and move on to the next pack?

From a management standpoint, that means wasted time and materials, and now you will need to order more of the larger, more expensive boxes more often. This also translates to higher shipping costs due to parcel carriers’ DIM weight pricing strategies. Multiply that out by hundreds or thousands of packages a day, multiplied by the number of packers who are all making those same decisions, and you can begin to see why you should start evaluating how best to automate this process.

Automated Packing Solution – Sealed Air iPack

Think about all the additional waste that comes from a packing process, especially in a peak season with sub-optimally trained workers who are not as familiar or capable of maximizing an efficient technique. You’re looking at tape guns (which cause a lot of waste) or messy glue getting onto packaging. You’re looking at those larger boxes, which require additional void-fill (even more costs).

With an automated packing solution like Sealed Air’s iPack, you have a standard tray holding the product, which slides into the iPack machine. The machine then adjusts the box’s height based on its size and folds around the product. This automated process removes the need for dunnage or air pillows and eliminates the labor required to fold and shut the box.

By removing the folding, taping, and void-fill, you can already see tripled increase in throughput. There are also ancillary benefits like reducing the corrugate, tighter inventory of packing materials, less supply of packing materials, and ultimately less labor.

Plus, once the package is on the iPack machine’s line, no one must touch the box again physically. That means less room for error and more time for your people to work on higher-level tasks. Other automated packing solutions are available in the industry that may make more customized-sized boxes, but they require additional human touches. iPack is the only automated packing solution that does not require the extra touch. If you are looking at an automated packing solution for e-commerce, we recommend this solution.

AutoBagger Technology – Sealed Air Autobagger

All things being equal, packing and shipping with bags is a significantly less expensive process than packing with boxes or other containers – at roughly 25% the price. However, operational and labor costs add up over time by keeping this a manual process. There’s opening the bag, closing and sealing the bag, handling the load after it has been packed, and more.

Each of those steps may not look significant for one pack, but the typical manual bagging process is 75-100 bags per hour. With an automated autobagging solution, packing and shipping rates can increase to 150-200 bags per hour, meaning more throughput with significantly reduced costs.

For instance, with Sealed Air’s Autobagger, an operator scans an order, and the WMS recognizes the product, adds the label, and opens the bag. The packer then drops the product in the bag when the Autobagger seals the product in the bag. Then, the product is taken away for shipping. Automated bagging removes up to five steps per bag when compared to the manual process.

Plus, but using the one-size-fits-all bags, you don’t have to worry about ordering different sizes, keeping those stocked with proper levels of inventory, and you don’t deal with as much void fill or dunnage as you would by packing with boxes—your return-on-investment results from the increase in productivity and a reduction in labor costs.

Autobagger Technology – Sealed Air FlowWrap

Additional automated bagging solutions can quickly and efficiently pack more delicate products like pillows, rugs, or clothing, such as Sealed Air’s FlowWrap machine. This solution created ready-to-ship, custom-sized polybag packages, which can bag up to 1,800 parcels an hour. It is another solution that right-sizes the bags to closely fit the materials within, which similarly creates savings on throughput at material optimization.

The advantage of a FlowWrap solution comes to fulfillment centers that need to pack and ship a wide range of products and may only see one or two units per order. In this scenario, we estimate that a FlowWrap machine can perform at nearly twice the Autobagger solution rate, making it an excellent alternative for high-demand e-commerce fulfillment.

Automated Packing Solution – Sealed Air PriorityPak

If your fulfillment center packs and ships small cube products like electronics, books, or printed materials, a solution like Sealed Air’s PriorityPak may be an ideal automated packing solution for your operations. This system is a high-speed product containment and protective packaging solution that uses advanced sensor technology to create compact, custom packaging for varying packaging requirements.

Like the other products, this system is designed to reduce labor costs, improve order accuracy, and increase fulfillment volume. In most scenarios, the PriorityPak solution can create up to ten packages per minute, compared to traditional manual rates of packing one to three containers per minute. The result is as compact of a shipping package as possible, which reduces postage costs.

One unique advantage this solution offers is the additional protection that is inherent to the packaging system. The PriorityPak will encapsulate your products in a Cold Seal® cohesive protective packages that locks and seals products in place, which is ideal if you need your products to be secure or wear and tear from shipping the product could cause damage.

What Next? 

Integrating automated solutions into your operations does not need to be a complicated process, but it helps if you have an expert by your side to guide you through the process. If you are struggling to find, maintain, or lower your overall labor cost, one of the best places to look at is automated packaging equipment.

Our team of experts knows the ins and outs of these products and can connect you with the best solution for your business, depending on the unique challenges you face. With automated packing and shipping solutions, we can help you reduce labor and waste while increasing throughput at the same time. Give us a call today!

Food and Beverage Industry Storage

The food and beverage industry is a segment of our economy that nearly all Americans interact with daily. This industry is comprised of “all companies involved in processing raw food materials, packaging, and distributing them, including fresh, prepared foods, as well as packaged foods, and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages,” per Global EDGE.

It is a unique sector in that, to truly maximize profits from their efforts, firms need to be operating in a way that maximizes the volume of throughput. Traditionally, these facilities are working on relatively thin profit margins – some even as low as 2% — so they are required to find fulfillment solutions that allow them to pack and ship their products as quickly as possible.

However, as labor unreliability grows and pick accuracy requirements increase, many of these companies are at a crossroads when it comes to optimizing their fulfillment operations. They are evaluating the question: “Is it time to introduce automation?”

Currently, they may be utilizing a less expensive storage system, choosing to instead rely on human labor for their fulfillment needs. However, they may be evaluating mini-load automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) or pallet shuttle technology to help keep their costs-per-pick at a manageable level. However, automation can be expensive. Alternatively, some can look to goods-to-person fulfillment options that do not require infrastructure investment. The goal for these fulfillment centers is simple: maximize throughput and minimize labor costs to help increase their profit margins.

While the industry continues to evolve to keep up with ever-increasing expectations on faster fulfillment and order accuracy, some common storage types still emerge among the top food and beverage distribution centers across the United States.

Common Storage Solutions for the Food & Beverage Industry

Selective Rack

Selective pallet racking is by far the most common style of storage within food and beverage distribution facilities. Typically, in this industry, decisions are made quickly, and there is not much lead time on projects. Selective racking tends to be quicker to install than other racking styles, and it offers a more durable option, which is ideal in an industry that relies on forklifts to the degree that the food and beverage sector does.

While other integrators never change their specifications regarding their racking configuration, we have found a creative solution that offers some cost savings to our food and beverage partners. In storage racks that are several levels high, we often suggest that companies in the food and beverage industry use structural racking for the uprights and the bottom few beam levels – the ones used the most and most susceptible to forklift impact – and then switch to a roll-formed option for the remainder of the beam levels. Though roll-formed racking is less durable, it is also less expensive and thus can provide cost savings with little impact to functionality in this design.

Drive-In / Drive-Thru Racking

Drive-in and drive-thru racking are common in food and beverage storage environments because it adds a denser storage option than traditional selective pallet rack configurations. These racking systems allow companies to increase storage density by storing more pallets in a smaller area because they require fewer aisles from which to pick. Typically, that means up to 75% more space dedicated for pallets than a traditional selective rack. They are relatively less expensive on a per-pallet-position basis and are ideal for companies that rely on LIFO (last-in, first-out) inventory practices.

While this type of storage medium has been popular in this setting for years, we are noticing that fewer facilities utilize this style of racking as its primary storage means. As orders contain a smaller number of products-per-order, SKUs become smaller, and fulfillment times shrink because of quicker end-user expectations, facilities rely less on the drive-in and drive-thru racking as dense storage mediums.

Pushback Rack

Also designed primarily for LIFO inventory management, pushback rack is a dense storage system that allows materials to be stored within a lane, with pallets being pushed back as new inventory is added. Pallets are stored on a slight grade, so when a front pallet is picked, the design of the storage configuration allows rear pallets to gravity flow down the lane to be selected.

In food & beverage, when FIFO is managed using lot codes or date codes, pushback can be a solution to provide more density of storage while allowing for the maintenance of FIFO. Operating rules must be in place to support this approach, but it is often done successfully.

We have found that pushback rack systems are often designed for 2-deep or 3-deep storage for food and beverage storage and fulfillment centers. That makes the putting and retrieval faster and easier than in deeper 5-deep or 6-deep systems, which is critical in hastening the fulfillment process. Remember, companies within the food and beverage industry rely on throughput to maximize profits. So, as order profiles continue to get smaller with a wider variety of SKUs, this configuration supports optimizing the throughput of stored products.

Pallet Flow

Pallet flow racking offers additional storage density and labor savings when installed within a food and beverage distribution facility’s selective racking. Pallet flow consists of a back-to-back selective rack with lightly graded conveyor wheeled flow lanes installed on rails within the racking. This configuration allows back-loaded pallets to flow toward a pick face with the help of gravity to move the pallets from the loading side to the pick side.

Ideal for FIFO inventory management, this system ensures that picking aisles are always stocked, which means faster pick and load times for the facility. While other types of racking can hold between two and five pallets per racking configuration, pallet flow can facilitate between as many as twelve to fifteen pallets racks, depending on the system. Facilities can also customize the racks for optimal flow by designing the structure to the size and weights of their pallets, meaning pallet flow can be among the most efficient storage systems available for food and beverage distribution facilities.

It is also common in the food & beverage industry to see a combination of pallet flow on the ground level of the pallet rack with pushback on the upper levels. This approach allows for alternating pick aisles & replenishment aisles throughout the facility to maximize throughput from a picking perspective.

Mezzanines

Mezzanines are great additions to any warehouse or fulfillment setting because they are designed to create additional storage locations at both the floor and mezzanine levels. They can be designed to include multiple levels, adding additional pick locations with each pick level. Mezzanines are typically free-standing, rack-supported, or bin-supported, giving warehouses and fulfillment centers a durable solution to increase storage capacity without expanding their facilities’ footprint.

Platforms can be designed and installed at a fraction of the cost of expanding the facility, which is crucial to a business operating on already thin margins. They are custom-built to support the exact type of products stored within the facility and can genuinely increase fulfillment speeds when combined with a conveyor system that gives those who are not at ground level the ability to transfer their pick loads without traveling up and down stairs or an elevator.

Carton Flow

Carton flow systems have two significant benefits to food and beverage companies: improved picking speeds and increased storage capacities. Carton flow systems use gravity to push products through a pallet rack on roller tracks, meaning as an item is picked from the pick face, the entity behind it (usually the same SKU) is fed to the front, ready to be selected. These systems are often installed within standard pallet racks, with tracks installed on the beams with the assistance of hangers. They can be customized to fit multiple sizes, so different SKUs (and their respective packaging) can be accommodated, whether stored in cartons, bins, or boxes.

In the food and beverage industry, these systems are ideal for each picking, as it makes the picking process easier and quicker for pickers. Instead of searching a pallet for a particular product, carton flow can be installed on floor level with selective or pushback lanes above, giving better access to the quick-moving products while maximizing storage space & minimizing the amount of travel required to pick an order.

Pallet Shuttle Systems

In the food & beverage industry, it is common to have many pallets worth of inventory on hand in the distribution center for the fastest-moving items. It is also common to have a need for expensive temperature-controlled storage – typically cooler or freezer space. Pallet shuttle systems can be a great way to provide very dense storage while still accommodating fast fulfillment speeds. A pallet shuttle system utilizes a deep rack structure (often 25-30 pallets deep, or more) and semi-automated shuttles (or carts) to move pallets into the dense storage.

The shuttles can be easily moved from lane to lane or level to level within the storage system by forklift operators. The same shuttles are used to retrieve pallets and move them to the front position in the deep lane system to allow for efficient picking.

What Storage-Type Combination is Best for Your Food & Beverage Distribution Center?

As is typical with most distribution centers and fulfillment centers, the optimal storage configuration for your facility will be determined by your products, your order profiles, and your fulfillment strategy. If you are beginning to assess your facility layout, the best place is to evaluate your system and design your storage configuration around a dynamic fulfillment process. If you have a facility in place and are looking to optimize your capacity or improve your operations, you may need to establish your opportunities for improvement.

Either way, we’re here to help. Give us a call, and our team of storage and fulfillment experts can talk through your business goals and challenges, perhaps even touring the facilities to determine the optimal course of action. Our team has decades of combined experience in determining storage solutions that can relieve the challenges caused by labor shortages, suboptimal storage, and poor facility design.

Let’s get the conversation started today!

Implement Forward Pick Area

For the uninitiated, forward pick areas can be among the most impactful storage solutions for warehouses and fulfillment centers stuck in what we call “day one” simple pick processes. These warehouses have products in static storage configurations throughout the warehouse and an area for packing and shipping. When an order comes in, a worker physically walks to select the products and walks them over to the shipping or packing area.

It sounds simplistic, but this is an inefficient process for most operations and is the lowest level of picking that one could execute. When we hear companies say they are picking from floor-level positions to pallets or carts, we tell them they are probably going about their processes incorrectly.

Why? Because in an environment rife with labor challenges, an increasing volume of orders, and increasing operational costs, forward pick areas can offer solutions to the challenges warehouses are facing today. Without a forward pick area, workers must pick each product from the main storage area, and transporting it to packing is an inherently expensive process.

Instead, by using a forward pick area, popular products are temporarily stored in a storage medium like shelving bins or on carton flow, located closer to the shipping area. Then, the forward pick area is restocked in bulk with the products with a high order volume. The idea is twofold: by shortening the travel distance required for popular products, you can reduce costs and hasten the fulfillment time for the most significant number of orders possible.

You also benefit from a streamlined restocking process, with separate, dedicated lanes for replenishment of faster-moving SKUs and your traditional picks outside the forward pick area for slower-moving items. This configuration allows you to assign efficient pick processes for your new, fast picks, while traditional picking can continue for slower moving items stored in reserve storage.
Within the forward pick area, products are stored so that they can be easily picked and sorted using carton flow or pallet flow, depending on the order rates and the size of the products.

In certain situations where the cube of the SKU is appropriately sized, you can increase the number of pick faces per bay, which can drive pick efficiency with denser storage compared to configurations of static racking that may hold a pallet worth of product when you are only picking the equivalent of a few boxes worth of product per week. The ideal forward pick area should have a week’s worth of product available to meet forecasted demand. The higher volume of product needed, the more likely you will need to utilize pallet flow or another larger storage medium.

There is also an added ergonomic benefit that can come with a properly designed forward pick area. Instead of having pickers bend, reach, and try to select a product that may be in the back of a static rack. By using carton flow or pallet flow, products are ready to be selected easily at the front of the pick position, expediting the pick, and providing an element of safety and comfort for workers.

While some warehouses may have investigated forward pick areas and scoffed at the initial investment in racking, they may not be looking at the long-term financial outlook of their operations. The savings on labor and operational costs can provide a return-on-investment (ROI) more quickly than you may realize, especially when you consider the increased throughput that comes with reconfiguring your facility and operations to include a forward pick area.

If you are looking at increasing costs-per-pick, increasing order volume, or even labor challenges, give us a call, and we can talk about forward pick areas as a solution for your facility. We can look at the throughput of your operations and your facility design to build a quick roadmap to an ROI that showcases why you should consider this solution. We know there is an initial cost that can be a hurdle for some operations, but by reducing labor costs associated with expensive picks, we can help you determine how best to move forward.

Rising Share of E-Commerce Orders

In 2017, e-commerce orders represented about 10.4% of total retail sales, according to a study conducted by eMarketer. In 2021, that number jumped to 18.1%. That same study estimates that by 2023, more than 22% of total retail sales are facilitated online. With that massive jump in a relatively short amount of time, warehouses, distribution centers, and fulfillment centers across the supply chain are reacting and adapting their practices to accommodate this rising share of e-commerce orders.

Traditionally, warehouses have long been configured for pallet-in and pallet-out for shipping orders. However, both e-commerce orders and direct-to-consumer fulfillment require a completely different picking and packing process. These processes are more expensive for fulfillment centers that don’t have systems to handle e-commerce orders because they need a lot more human capital and labor cost.

While facilities are making changes to adapt to the e-commerce and direct-to-consumer explosion, some are left behind, wondering what the best course of action is for their operations. While each operation is unique, businesses can take a few actionable steps to adapt their existing facility to accommodate an increased level of e-commerce.

Tactic 1: Create a Forward Pick Area

According to Warehouse Science, a forward pick (or fast-pick) area is “[an area] from which it is most efficient to pick, but which must be restocked from a reserve or overflow or bulk storage area.” Essentially, you treat your static storage media as “reserve storage” and move specific products to a storage area, from which most of your orders are picked. This forward pick area needs more frequent replenishment than the reserve storage, but the flip side is that orders can be fulfilled more quickly.

The products stored in this area need to be the appropriate SKUs & stored in the proper storage medium based on the cubic movement of the SKU. If you decide to use the most ordered SKUs, they need to be stored in a larger storage medium to avoid excessive restocking of the forward pick area which could cost some of the efficiency you gained by creating this dedicated storage area.

Typically, the best practice is to use a warehouse execution system (WES) or workflow optimization software to determine the best SKUs to minimize your labor costs. Our team of experts has decades of experience matching the right software for your unique needs with our agnostic approach to vendors and partners for our clients.

Tactic 2: Evaluate New Storage and Picking Methods

Another way to adapt to changes caused by an increased level of e-commerce orders is to add systems and capabilities that allow for batch and zone picking. Vertical lift modules are a goods-to-person solution that can take small-sized products, store them in a high-density, low-footprint storage system and deliver them to pickers, who then assemble orders on a cart or take them to a shipping area.

Zone picking is good for multi-line orders because it reduces travel time for pickers, and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are another goods-to-person solution to assist in these efforts. At a high level, AMRs can take the walking/travel element out of the picking process by moving the products from storage to a given location, be it a packing station, a conveyor system, or just to an employee, who can then pick the items & package them together.

To a more considerable degree, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) or other automation solutions that support goods to person picking can also reduce travel time and create more dense storage. However, these will generally come in at a higher initial cost than the AMR solution, which can be integrated without affecting your existing infrastructure.

Tactic 3: Automate Packing Processes

E-commerce and direct-to-consumer orders usually are not pallet-sized orders; they are parcel-sized orders. So, when a facility is accustomed to shipping pallets, how do you adopt best practices for these smaller orders? If the order is a single-line order, you could probably have the shipping team place a label on the item & ship it. However, what happens with multi-line orders?

Automated packaging solutions exist that can accommodate a wide variety of consolidating and shipping multi-line orders. They can also accommodate potential requirements like polybags, dunnage, airbags, Styrofoam peanuts, and various other materials to keep packages safe from damage. By automating these processes – from right-sizing packages to physically loading trucks – you save a sizeable amount of labor costs that were not needed in a pre-e-commerce world.

Where Do You Go From Here?

If you have seen an increase in each or case picking, then give us a call. Whether you are adapting your current facility to account for increased levels of e-commerce or your manufacturing partners are considering a more direct-to-consumer strategy, having the capability to meet your customers’ expectations on fulfillment time and accuracy is essential. We would recommend starting at the design stage and finding a partner that understands how to optimize material flow and storage media. Of course, Storage Solutions has a team of experts on staff that can assist with these challenges.

Contact us today, and we can talk through your challenges, identify some quick wins, and formulate a plan of action. We may suggest dense storage, automation, or some other process-related plan built for your business. Depending on your needs, we may help without a site visit, but we may suggest one as well.

Either way, we should talk. Give us a call today!