Selecting the right storage system

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Looking to add storage racking or replace aging, outdated racks in your warehouse? Or maybe your company is building a warehouse and you need to install an entirely new system for the pallets, cases, and individual items you keep in stock. Before you dive in and purchase what you think you’ll need, storage rack experts say it’s best to press pause, take stock of your space and product mix, and consider your company’s growth plans in order to create a system that both maximizes your space and makes the best use of the racking.

“In general, there are many options available for companies to consider,” says Diane Domingues, vice president of marketing and customer service for pallet rack manufacturer Frazier Industrial Co. Options include everything from conventional pallet racking to rack-supported structures for automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS). “The key thing is partnering with companies that are able to work with you on what your goals are—for today and tomorrow.”

Here are three things to keep in mind on your journey to finding the best storage system for your needs.

1. CONSIDER YOUR SPACE

One of the first things to think about is the space you’re working with—particularly, whether you’re outfitting an existing space or creating a storage system for a brand-new building. Existing structures limit you to a set footprint and design, and you’ll have to consider factors such as ceiling height and column spacing throughout the building. Lower ceilings will limit your ability to maximize vertical storage, for instance, and those columns—which support the building—will determine how you can lay out your warehouse aisles. 

“In an existing [warehouse] or in a building that’s sitting there empty, you’re dealing with existing column bays,” explains Norm Saenz, partner and managing director at supply chain consulting firm St. Onge Co., which designs, sources, and manages the installation of warehousing and material handling solutions.

Bay areas in a building are the spaces between the columns; designers have to work within that framework to develop a system of racks and aisles—and it’s rarely a perfect fit.

“You may have to bury a column in a bay, or you may have some odd aisles” or inconsistent sizing throughout the building, he says. “And you have to work around existing clear height.”

New construction is a different story.

“If you have a new building, what’s nice is you can dictate the column spacing, which gives you more flexibility to accommodate the rack types you’re going to use,” Saenz says. “And you can also determine how tall you can go.”

Domingues agrees.

“The nice thing about greenfield buildings is that it gives that person or that account or that customer a lot more flexibility and options in terms of design,” she says. “It allows them to think not only [about the best solution] for what footprint they have today, but also [what they may need] in the future.” 

Whether new or existing, most warehouses have more than one type of racking—sometimes as many as three or four. A typical mix could include any of the following: 

  • Selective racking, which is used to store pallets in either single- or double-deep modes.
  • Case- or carton-flow racking, which consists of shelves equipped with rollers or wheels that allow cases or cartons of product to flow forward as the ones in front are picked. 
  • Pallet-flow racking, which allows for higher-density storage and works much like case-flow racking does. 
  • Drive-in racks, which are free-standing, self-supporting racks that allow drive-in access for forklifts.
  • Push-back racking, which is a high-density storage option similar to drive-in racking; it allows customers to store pallets up to five deep.
  • Cantilever rack, which is used to store long products, such as pipes or lumber. 

And then there’s automation. Automated storage solutions can include traditional AS/RS or pallet shuttle systems—which move product in and out of a rack-supported or standalone structure. AS/RS and pallet shuttle systems can help maximize storage density, allowing companies to get more out of a smaller building. A typical, crane-based AS/RS can reach more than 100 feet, while pallet shuttle systems are generally installed in facilities with lower ceilings—say, 32 to 50 feet, according to Saenz. 

2. KNOW YOUR PRODUCT MIX

You also need detailed information on the type and variety of products you are storing.

“When customers start to evaluate [their needs], they should really consider these criteria: What are they storing? How much are they storing? What does it weigh? And what’s the movement of it?” Domingues says, adding that seasonality also plays a role. “If you’re storing turkeys, for example, you’re going store them differently in the months and weeks before Thanksgiving than you do in the spring.”

Companies should also consider the type of equipment they’re using to move the product as well as the labor component. Saenz offers an example to illustrate the point.

“Labor efficiency is a common factor in making [warehouse] storage-area design decisions. The time it takes to navigate the travel aisles and put away or retrieve inventory is different when interacting with the various types of storage equipment and related layout configurations. For example, reaching the back pallet in a double-deep rack setup takes longer than grabbing a pallet from a single-deep pallet rack system,” he explains. “And aligning and moving into drive-in rack takes longer than interacting with single- or double-deep rack. The trade-offs between [capacity], labor efficiency, and capital costs are intermingled in these tough decisions, and it sometimes comes down to what issue is the most important to solve.”

Considered alongside your space constraints, these criteria help form a “unit, method, area” approach to evaluating your storage needs, Domingues says. Unit refers to the product load or loads being stored; method is the type of equipment being used to handle the products; and area refers to the space available in your warehouse for storage racking. 

3. PLAN FOR GROWTH

A final rule of thumb is to consider your company’s growth trajectory and how it may affect your storage needs. 

“It can be difficult to know how your business is going to change 10 [or more] years into the future, but with the right team members included, good decisions can be made,” Saenz says. “This team may include business leaders [as well as] marketing and merchandising people who can offer insight into growth projections, product changes, and future potential acquisitions.”

Companies also have to consider the unknown—which is why it’s important to factor in flexibility when designing a storage system. For that reason, many facilities rely heavily on single-deep pallet racking, which Saenz says is the most flexible and affordable storage medium available. Customers can add decking to single-deep rack to allow for case storage, for example. They can also add or remove beams to create smaller or larger storage positions. 

“When we do projects, we look at inventory-level history and growth projections—for example, what is your SKU [stock-keeping unit] count going to be in the next seven years?” he says. “We look at that to determine the rack mix. We’ll determine what’s ideal, and then we might back off and be more flexible.”

The need for planning makes what many may consider a simple product not so simple.

“It’s rack, but there are nuances to all of this,” Saenz adds. “It’s the cost, the density, the utilization factor, the equipment being used … it all comes into play.”



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