About the Author:
Paul Casebourne has spent a life time in service to the Materials Handling Storage and Distribution Industry with over 50 years in materials handling experience from the shop floor to running and operating businesses. He has worked in over 7,000 locations and handled over 20,000 business enquiry problems. In this personal sharing of his experience with you he means you as part of us, the people who provide an amazing facility without which the modern world ceases to function and is held in fine and delicate balance as the events of the early parts of the 21st century have reminded us all only too well. Author, engineer, installer, designer and manufacturer these are some of the fundamentals he shares with you. Please feel free to use and enjoy the ‘takeaways” Sign up here to receive this series in monthly instalment building up into a set of usable, practical help for modern warehousing for businesses in all stages of development.

Chapter 5 : As you grow, investment ages and with new business size also matters, it really matters!

So you have no money and no space, Perfect!  Find a supplier who has! The more you use existing infrastructure the smaller your footprint is in business, the less exposure to risk you have and the more business you can theoretically carry out. Why? Because when you recruit companies instead of people you get all the people and all their gear and infrastructure. It’s a bit like calling out the breakdown truck for a nominal amount of money, complete with driver. Much cheaper than buying one. So let’s start from there.

Working from home, cheap space or is it?

Let’s be clear about one thing. If you start working from home the local authority or your landlord has the right to alter your rating band or evict you. If you use your home address for your business you will be trading at the mercy of those who have key financial interests in your property. As the law stands {2022 in the UK} if you even open your briefcase anywhere other than a work location you breach this condition and you are at His Majesty’s discretion since a business cannot be both residential and business at the same time. So working from home is not straight forward, is an issue and can get you into hot water well over your head. Think carefully and take advice first. One way round it is to appoint an accountant and use the practice address. It works really well and seems to be tolerated. Just don’t have a line of 45 footers queueing up down the street and you should be left alone. If you are a business reading this and carrying on with Covid fallout practices, aiding and abetting won’t get you off the hook and you are still responsible for employee working conditions even at home. Welfare and safety are not relaxed just because you are not at a work premises. If you are working from home, you are still at work.

Getting organised

When you examine how people get started one of the central cores which comes through time and time again is “organisation”. So we are back to what you do with what you have that matters.

Let’s look into that in more detail.

I often see people/businesses with great storage systems, the list of types are endless, but then as I look through, I start to see strange improvisations creeping in. I mean what are you supposed to do when it is a pallet racking system and you need a shelf and you don’t have one? The bottom line in a pallet racking system is, that it is for pallets. Why? Because that is what fits on lorries and into containers. It is the smallest basic unit of heavy volume transport and is known as intermodal transportation because it can transfer between ships, aircraft, trains and lorries and the mechanical devices developed to work with this infrastructure is simply awesome. Please stay with this thought of intermodal. The pallet engages with 4 main shipping mechanisms and one storage system, but the fun really starts when you get it off the pallet and into onward business mode, for which we have an array of systems and equipment from volume processing to last mile delivery and there are still constructors who will make exactly what you need to achieve your very own bespoke solution(s).   They are called materials handling engineers, we’re a bit like the A team, where “If there’s a problem…If no one else can help…And if you can find us” then you shouldn’t need a plan B!!

Understanding Transport

Intermodal transport has developed out of the need to transfer aggregates, powders, liquids and packages dating back to the days of the cannon ball. It’s not so much of a method (although it’s become one) as a thought process. Inter-modality is a chain of events without intervention, the minute you incur a size change there are new rules required and the onward journey changes shape. Let’s take a match stick for instance. It starts life as a tree and goes through about 20 processes, most of which are highly specialised, before being boxed, cartoned, outer boxed and finally palletised. It is the last few processes which ultimately make it cheap and safe to transport in bulk with last mile by cash and carry or by an online or delivery service supplier. It’s the last bit that gets tricky because that is where they come together with different sizes and shapes, all with their own sizes and rules that starts to test business resilience. It’s also when improvisation kicks in and that is when space becomes a problem.

Fruit and veg has a radically different packaging type and requirement from match sticks, it is easier to handle at the point of pick and pack, temperature control is an issue and storage methods vary. Whilst these are well documented procedures and go back many hundreds of years, they are obvious starting points because they were not always as easy or fast to handle as they are today. They have been frog-marched into boxes and loading systems headed into lorries and disembarked to grocery with military efficiency and are easily sorted into very fast secondary picking methods which themselves have very carefully devised intermodal systemisation which finally finish up as standard stock keeping units or SKU’s as we prefer to call them.

Extra Space

Where is all this extra space I hear you say? Glad you asked. I have fitted new operational space into roof space full of trusses, converted double deep racks into organised zone picks to save the cost of ripping out sprinkler systems and building new warehouse space, found ways to store duvets and pillows loose and palletised to create more space for production, increased palletised warehousing space by over 50 % for a distributor in the licensed wholesale sector, engineered client space into a nightclub and bar in a state of the arts leisure complex, turned a carpark into an engineering works with over 50 tonnes of lifting equipment, loading bays and in floor machinery wiring and doubled sales floor space in fast pick applications, to name a few. The trick is not to mix goods that fight!!   You can’t mix pallets with loose bananas and pick from both efficiently. You can’t quickly pick at 12m high with a forklift and yard trucks are not designed for warehousing operations. Pallets come in different sizes and heights and breaking bulk is always going to waste space.

First run is a line of pallets at high level in a 2 faced double deep system

The second illustration is how it should be used for pallet

The third illustration is what happens if you try to use it as a shelving system

 Fourth is how many pallet positions are lost by shelved small parts stock being introduced

Fifth is the overall effect on stock availability at higher level

What is shown above is what happens when zone picking makes use of high density storage and mixes palletised stock and small parts. The net effect is a 50% stock loss and vast productivity losses.

Out of the dozen or so different types they all boil down to high mass or selective mass systems, the latter allowing you individual access and the former depending upon well organised stock planning or in fact the opposite (which is much rarer).

When it comes to shelving, I am going to say just one type. The human arm is going to really struggle to get into anything more than 700mm deep so that rules out pallet racking unless you pick from both sides of it, thus halving the depth, but it’s overkill for weight.   You can only do that if you operate single runs. We can make these shelves to feed product at an angle to the operator or picker, put the shelves on wheels to let you close them up, or install walkways in them overhead, but essentially it’s simply a shelf. By definition it defines very selective picking and for the most part is in much smaller units than pallet racking because mechanisation tends to be either very expensive or very expensive, depending on whether you do it by human or by machine. So small and high value tend to go together. That is an over simplification, but when you have moved away from intermodal systems you move away from the fast machinery that supports them. There are exceptions as with all these things, but we are moving out of normal SME systems and into the premiere division of industry.

So all this is the first place to look to find space you didn’t realise was there. 

Take Aways

  • Look not at the products you are storing, look at the space around them.
  • If you have products and space with dust, you have a storage problem.
  • If you have products and space with dust, you have purchasing issues.
  • If you have products and space with dust, you need to profit average goodwill stock.
  • If you have products and space with dust, you have supply problems.
  • If you have products and space with dust, you have mountains of wasted space.
  • If you have stock in your aisles, you are inefficient and need to re-organise.
  • If you have 5m or more headroom and you are only using 50% of it, your warehouse is expensive.
  • Make sure your access aisles are exactly the right width and no more or less.
  • The right sized trucks and picking equipment will halve your warehouse footprint.
  • The correctly sized warehouse utilising headroom will slash energy and operating costs.
  • Don’t mix small parts with pallet stock unless you are a cash and carry.
  • Think of the ratios between the smallest workspace you need and what you might save by subcontracting your operation to a professional expeditor or 3PL operators which could be your existing supply chain.
  • Look at the storage heights you allocate, a little reorganisation can easily squeeze in another lorry load of equipment.
  • Most modern systems have rapid height adjustment – use it.
  • If you have back to back pallet racking which you are using as face pick small parts you will waste 4 shelves and 4 pallet locations for every level deployed. You might as well burn money, see the illustration above.
  • 3PL does the whole job, offsite warehousing only holds product for you, remember the cost of transport between sites, it’s never cheap.

If any of this is you, call in the TOADs (see chapter 4) we can turn your warehouse into a palace.

Getting it Right

In earlier chapters I talked about joining up the dots. Here is a great example of dots which don’t obviously join up. Building frames for large warehouses and some manufacturing blocks are set at about 6m, protrude into operating space and in short are as much of a nuisance as they are essential but we are addicted to it as engineers because of the strength of steel and its evolution, which produces a chasm between dots that is very expensive to fix and one for which the steel industry is not yet geared up. My boss of the 90’s, who could bring the dead back to life, turn round any situation and didn’t suffer fools at all, used to say:

”There are always 3 things” he could write a book on a thousand more, but 3 was where he started with me. He was always right, but he was in his 70’s before I worked with him on a turnaround in Northumberland, which was my second and just another day in the office for him. He he fast tracked me 25 years in 3. ‘Getting it right’ definitely fits this dynamic.

    In an industrial building the 3 things are space, construction and equipment. If you go in with a one thing approach you are guaranteed to miss out, because working with what is there came about through limitations in financial wisdom born out by a one size fits all approach or A to B costing practices so you are already starting with an improvisation.   This is why intermodal transport works on 1000 mm x 1200 mm or 3 feet x 4 feet. The Ford Transit for example was designed around 8 feet x 4 feet, about half of a lorry bed and as you look at pack sizes these numbers keep cropping up but it doesn’t fit easily with buildings, here’s why.

    6m frames allow standard adjustable pallet racking bays which don’t fit exactly between the columns

    Using structural systems to cantilever the pallet locations provides plenty of open space enough to fit another 25% to 30% of stock in the same space.

    Vertical panorama of a high bay warehouse under construction

    There is a lot of wasted space in the first illustration and over a building length times 4 or more pallets high, starts to add up.   If you have a warehouse with two building frames you can multiply that by 3, that soon adds up to 3 lorry fulls of stock or you bought the wrong sized warehouse. Either way its expensive.

    In the second illustration it is exactly the same frame but this time there is no lost space. If you think structural racking is expensive, wait until you get the bill for an oversized industrial building. I see this basic oversight everywhere. That really is space you didn’t know you had!

    It can be set double sided between double columns to avoid lost space down the building valleys simply by adding a line of arms to the rear face, and since it is structural it has other creative uses too. Mixing pallets with long loads such as steel, timber or plastics is no problem and with the right truck doubling your stock or halving your footprint is on the menu for you.   It obviously depends on how you are currently set up, but these are simple ideas with real measurable paybacks.

    Another way of gaining space is to change floor based, non stackable operations for stackable systems which can be easily moved by hand or conveyed providing 4 times the space at quarter of the footprint and no operator down time. To do this you need only carton flow storage, a conveyor and a suitably sized box for better stack control and higher productivity because the operator can stay on station.

    Coming Out

    If you have space outside, options open up for you. At the marquee end of things you can erect a tent almost anywhere and tents are cheap. Industrial tents not so much because usually it has little to do with the the tent, more how it fixes to the ground and stays there.

    If you ever sailed a boat, you will have an understanding of the forces at work and protecting installations is not as easy as it looks.

    Let me say straight off, ex rental stock is likely to be the cheapest, because the company has probably had its money back, so if you strike a good deal you have a bargain. Next job is putting it up. Often the limitations of these structures come down to span, so the more engineering you need into your “tent”, the more engineering you are going to need. Thankfully we are reassuringly expensive because our bills in we the engineers, is nothing next to a failed structure.

    Going back to basics, my advice is start with a survey.   At the preliminary stage you will get good advice and find out where the “edge is” but in case you don’t this is it. It is irrelevant what your “tent” costs, it’s what it has to do that is important. So measure that first. The cheapest, best value structure is still a single skin, steel framed building. Believe me, if tents were the answer, farmers would be buying them! Most farmers have tele-handlers and can dig out foundations in a few days, a week later they are in their barn. DIY, cheap and cheerful. If you can do that and meet building regulations go for it! However for the vast majority of industrial installations it is not that simple. Don’t trust anyone who says you don’t need planning permission. You do. You must check the law. If you expect the structure to be there for more than two weeks you need permission. There are one or two exceptions but you are unlikely to qualify.

    So you have some Land

    The main benefit of a tent is it is light and fast. That’s it.   The main benefit of a steel building is it is cheap if you put it up in a field with good ground conditions.

    The problems all start when things are not level, need drains, require doors, are next to other installations, house susceptible goods, require firm ground for access, need level approaches, have to go on the deck of an aircraft carrier, need to house ships, have to be secure, need to accept road traffic, carry out accessible warehouse operations and so on. Then you need a TOAD, if you haven’t read that chapter you will find us in chapter 4. Meantime, I will croak on, since TOADS seem to be a symbol of change!

    If you put rack on unlevel ground it can impair the performance or even safety of mechanical handling systems. The vast majority of them are designed for level systems. There are ways around this, modification to forklifts for example, special rack levelling systems or simply levelling the ground, but standard tents will struggle to keep the ground dry and tarmac is not load bearing for warehousing equipment applications. So other than leaving pallets in it it’s not going to be much use as high volume space. That said, I have erected combined warehouse workshops on unlevel ground with great success, with specially designed, adjustable height and retractable canopies which secure the installation without affecting parent buildings and are easily warm enough to work in throughout winter. It’s sort of what I do. Turning redundant loading bay into productive space, creating warehouses on open yard space, making loading bays clean, dry environments, protecting fresh produce and wading through tall waves of regulations and engineering complications to deliver an orderly cost effective result on otherwise useless outside space. The budget usually hinges round “cheaper than” and rapid solution outcomes, obviates the need to relocate or outsource and adds facility. All good reasons for extra covered yard space deployment.

    Not everything needs to be covered and for that there are outside yard storage facilities starting from simple cages to galvanised outdoor storage facilities for produce that doesn’t mind weather.

    The main cost of any structure is largely invisible.   This is what you need to know because within in this can be a huge amount of surprises:

    • The above groundworks are calculated to variable environmental conditions. These are not limitless.
    • The specification of above ground structure will depend upon other structures within the proximity.
    • You can simply pin the above ground structure to the ground provided that you can obtain pull test results which keep the structure in place subject to the aforementioned.
    • The activities within the structure must not pollute water courses
    • If the positioning of the structure is within a designated flood zone seek advice immediately
    • If you need a slab, you need soil tests and a geotechnical survey.
    • The slab will need designing for the application.
    • If you have above ground services feeding into the site, the foundation design will need to accommodate this. The building does not have to be mounted directly to the ground.
    • Retractable buildings have tracks and level surfaces work best, they may also be powered.
    • Retracting roof applications are an alternative
    • Tent space may be divided by inner tent space, I once designed such an arrangement for sorting nuclear waste.
    • All groundworks must have calculations which may also be demanded by your insurance company and the local authority.
    • All buildings must comply with fire regulations.
    • All of these costs can double the above groundworks. You won’t necessarily get them from the building supplier.
    • Irrespective of the outcome, if it fails the client will aways bear some, if not all, the responsibility.


    • Simple places to start are by creatively using design to overcome space issues caused by building design limitations.
    • There is always more than one way to do something. Boxes, conveyors, carton flow etc.
    • Look for ways to overcome problems rather than simply accept a fait accompli, one design does not have to limit another
    • If you have yard or outside space try to add it constructively to your balance sheet rather than just write it off. It’s more likely to perform better and longer.
    • Finding extra space may have hidden costs.