This month we are looking into storage and handling systems and how they work well together. Apart from the obvious throw away HSE issues starting with the steps on the railings, cluttered aisles and lack of high level conveyor guarding, there is scope for better picking systems that could transform any business struggling with the issues we all face in this new world of pick, click and buy. But what does it all mean and how are we supposed to deal with it? Let’s start with mezzanine floors.

Mezzanine Floors and the Work Place

The floor in the picture above, which is serviced by conveyors, sits between two racking systems. Most factory-built floors today are inset so the deck sits on the big beams. This is important in cases where you have a headroom of less than 6m because it saves on the floor ‘thickness’ so it needs less height. The deck goes straight on to the beams, adding some rigidity so it’s a win-win. The floor in the picture would have benefited from the headroom below and the flanges on the top side of the beams add further load bearing. This can be used strategically for floor feeding areas as it is easier to construct reinforcing to the beams if the over sailed beams are not in the way. Bracing usually runs diagonally between columns and stabilises the structure, inset floors further aid this process so it reduces material content, which favourably affects the price.

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There is evidence of extensive activity on the deck, with a loaded pallet in the centre of the floor. This begs the question of pallet trucks being used, so even with a 38mm high density chipboard regular use will cause deck damage. Worth thinking about when you are buying a mezzanine floor!

There is no evidence of fire rating either, which makes me think this installation must either pre-date regulations or the application has changed. Don’t fall into this trap. It doesn’t matter how old you the floor is, it is your responsibility to make sure operators have adequate protection.

In this image conveyors are used to save legs, lifts up to 500kgs will set you back somewhere over £16,000 and more likely £25,000, they are not quick but they will do a dedicated job. A fit youngster could easily beat it to the exit station to give you an idea of lifting speed. You won’t get a wire winch operation for that price though, cable lifts are fast and will add around 50% to the bill for a basic goods lift. They are very fast and if you have large volumes then you need to consider the cost of this against overheating hydraulic systems. They can work hard but only for short periods without either fitting an oil cooler or giving it time to cool down, which may slow the productivity rate. Lifts can be a bit fraught especially with enclosures, fire regulations and multiple levels.

Other Loading Methods

Both forklifts and stackers will load floors quite happily, you may need licensed operators for stackers but at a bit over £2,000 they make an interesting and pretty cheap alternative and are more than twice as quick as dedicated goods  lifts, not to mention being eight times cheaper! The fork truck however is always going to be your best bet. Most of them have a 3m lift as standard so they will reach the floor, but if you want your truck to work under the floor, protect columns and make sure your truck’s mast can go under and it has a free lift. This is a classic blunder! (Free lift means your forks raise but the mast doesn’t.) Your best bet is a container truck, these are specially built to work inside containers.

Personally, I like a bit of kit with an act. A fork truck that takes attachments to do other jobs like empty bins, gather waste, load lorries, etc. A good lift just does that, but worth thinking through when you are doing your sums.

Conveyors are another leg saving possibility, but make sure you have nets to catch any mishaps. Conveyors can send goods in two directions  if you build them to be reversible. They are very speedy, stop when full, queue to the next process, aid pick and pack and make (un)loading more convenient and sympathetic to other processes. Entry level machines can still be found from £2,000 for mechanical and £8,000 to £15,000 for powered. A good electronically controlled conveyor for intensive mezzanine operations will require a budget  in the £20 – 30,000 price range. After that you are into the big stuff and that needs custom designs.

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Getting Your Ducks Lined Up

Obviously warehousing is not a one size fits all. Temperatures, speed, space and access are vital considerations and some massive holes are out there, which have swallowed up many businesses that were unable to react. So how has it all changed?

The first thing flagged up is the carnage in retail and, of course, media. No magazines means a gigantic knock on effect in the timber industry, printing machinery, printing works, precision engineering, taxation, employment, transport, ink production. Uhh?- do I hear you say, well just how many of us have printers and computers at home.

Colin Greaves who took Prontaprint out of administration and back into one of the toughest businesses in existence is the first to stand by diversity and spotting the realities of a fast moving electronics industry. Kodak wasn’t so lucky.

Without further ado here is the promised blunder list rules to avoid ‘trouble at mill’.

Rule 1.  Temperatures

Yes temperatures! Most youngsters today can control temperatures at home from their mobile phones. Electronics can control your freezers and chillers down with accuracy that really stacks up to fuel savings of serious proportions. Just half a degree can be a life altering sum along with smart tariff options, solar panels and wind energy. It’s big! If you keep cultures, paper or cardboard, medicines, samples or running the staff canteen this all adds up to a boat load of money.Then you can review your office and general building temperature management costs. 

What are your alternatives? Well, in today’s guerrilla tactical business society plenty of us work from home or use home as an office. Reduced travel and heating costs or better still no office at all is a powerful money saving tool and if you are using it to your advantage and your competitors are not that ramps up your game and suddenly you can start to understand the magnitude of the prospective cost reductions that can transform your balance sheet. It is an interesting subject and I am sure I will be back on it again.

So, Rule 1 – keep an eye on establishment costs, they are the hardest to change.

Rule 2. Speed

The theory of relativity springs to mind here, but at 15,5 rotations a day to our worldly one it doesn’t mean we get 23 birthdays a year. It does however mean you get 15 weather progress reports, which might be very useful to boots on the ground. So thinking processes and data usage start to take on new meanings. Enter ‘click, buy and deliver’, just 20 years ago same day was being done by bikers and lawyers exchanging legal documentation, now you can expect home deliveries just about anywhere, look at DPD, Stuart and Ocado. The pedigree of those operations is incredible in stark contrast to our own lamentable Royal Mail and Post Office disasters. The point is that these companies saw speed and instant access as being key to the future. So what benefits can your business have?

What about reduced stock levels, drop shipping, decentralisation, quieter deliveries, traffic beaters? In your business you have huge choice of how you receive and access products in the process. Manual handling still plays a big role in this and it is well worth seeking advice on how and what you might do better to organise your business for a faster turnaround of daily events.

Rule 2 – Speed = Cash.  It covers the minute you order your raw goods or stock to when the money hits your bank. The internet is the biggest improvement to cash flow in the last 200 years. Are you getting the benefits?

Rule  3. Space

We talked about working from home, but take a look at your inventory of vehicles, including fork trucks. The single biggest cost to industry today in controllable costs is damage by poor training or operator carelessness. If you size your operation correctly you will have worked out that a pivot truck may cost you nearly double what your yard truck costs. But have you spotted that your equipment choice means you need a building double the size it needs to be? Less stock per square meter, the heating bills from hell and a consequential loss of impetus or speed that turns you into an unproductive snail. Equipping correctly minimises space. So suddenly the extra money pales into insignificance next to the cost of owning the wrong underperforming equipment.

Rule 3 – Space is not the final frontier of your choices because they govern your establishment costs. Less is more!

Rule 4. Access

Access is a vast subject, in materials handling terms it covers doors, stores, production and their combined progression. It is governed only by people, equipment and money and should you be fortunate enough to have all three under control you are indeed a very special person. Here’s why:

  1. Access impacts every other issue raised here, you can’t have lorries queuing and blocking main arterial routes, nor can you have them standing around whilst you unload someone else.
  2. Work in progress is just that, the longer it is hanging around, the less money it makes.
  3. Stock gathering dust or the stock on the wrong place e.g. Rotherham when it’s needed in Paris, isn’t doing you or the customer any financial favours.
  4. Access also needs space to marshall, store, process, despatch and handle. There is always more than one way to do something. Take trouble to find out what your best way is. Most businesses have a big show every 10 to 15 years. It is your chance to re-think and re-structure. Keep up benchmarking!

Rule 4 Access – Benchmark your business at least once a year, your best source of information could well be the materials handling industry, without us you get nowt as we say in the North.  We cover all industry sectors and keep things moving. We are the eyes, ears and all the access you need. Use us, we are here to help you!

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Written by the Material Handling Hub correspondent Paul Casebourne.