Editor’s note: The following column by James Beale, operations manager at Invicta Pallet Racking, is part of Modern’sOther Voices column, a series featuring ideas, opinions and insights from end-users, analysts, systems integrators and OEMs. Click here to learn about submitting a column for consideration.
From the outside, warehouse storage and logistics may seem like a staid and passive industry, performing much the same role that it ever has. Those of us on the inside know that nothing could be further from the truth. Like the trucks, people and products they house, nothing ever stops moving – and the design of modern warehouses is no exception.
The rise of eCommerce has created unprecedented demand for storage and logistics services, with people ordering all sorts of products at all hours, and expecting faster and more efficient service than ever. Inevitably, the warehouse spaces themselves have had to change to accommodate this, both in their physical construction and the ways in which they are used. Here then are just six examples of how modern warehouse design has changed to meet the needs of modern society.
1. Size As technology has allowed us to better catalog and locate items – and eCommerce has increased the simple demand for storage space – the size of warehouses has naturally increased. Today’s storage spaces are bigger not only in terms of their basic floor plan, but also in terms of the levels across which they operate. Many warehouses now contain multiple levels of mezzanine floors, with multiple lifts and even external access points to maximize the amount of navigable space for ingress and egress.
Complex inventory management software can coalesce with other systems to track how these spaces are used, ensuring that items can be located instantly even in a million square feet of storage space, and ferried to exactly where they need to go. Modern warehouses are also optimized to the nth degree, cramming more storage into the same floor plan and using specialized vehicles to pick from narrow or ultra-dense shelving.
2. Technology The constant tracking of deliveries and items now means there are thousands or even millions of different data points tracked by a centralized system. From wireless RFID chips to barcodes and Internet of Things sensors, an array of new technologies ensure total efficiency and precision from increasingly complex operations.
The idea of a warehouse being a place where goods are simply stacked on available shelves or in clear floor space by forklifts is dying off, at least for businesses who can afford to optimize. The modern warehouse now relies on extremely careful inventory management, and the simultaneous management of internal and external resources, tracking the intricate movements of an item through the supply chain, from arrival to storage to departure.
3. Urbanization As the demand for last-mile, instantaneous delivery intensifies, warehouses are beginning to collide with towns and cities. There’s already a race for space on the outskirts of major population centers due to the demand for same-day deliveries, and this will only intensify as other businesses look to compete with Amazon Prime.
The limited available space and rising cost of land may appear to limit the possibilities, but it’s likely this will instead create further ingenuity with the design of urban warehouses. Modern warehouses are already building upwards as well as outwards, and this could lead to further developments in warehouse design in the near future. Don’t be surprised if urban warehouses take inspiration from city centers, and begin to scrape the sky.
4. Cold storage Once the preserve of supermarkets and wholesalers, online grocery shopping and meal delivery services such as Hello Fresh have seen a rapid, colossal increase in demand for localized cold storage services. This is only likely to intensify with forces like Amazon Pantry entering the market, and the escalating battle between traditional supermarkets and newer upstarts (Waitrose, Lidl, Aldi).
This is coupled with increasing demand for organic goods, which due to the limited use of pesticides and lack of genetic modification, often have shorter shelf lives. Cold storage will also inevitably come under intense scrutiny in terms of the energy used for climate control, and designers will have to be ever more canny in how they optimize and shield these spaces. Speaking of which….
5. Eco-friendliness As warehouse sizes have increased in all three dimensions, so too has the cost of building and heating (or cooling) them. The energy requirements of many warehouses are now so intensive – and environmentalism so in the zeitgeist – that eco-friendliness is baked into most modern warehouse designs.
Walls and ceilings are thicker, sturdier and better insulated, waste products are recycled, and many warehouses are being built with solar panels and other forms of alternative energy. The increasing proximity of warehouses to urban areas is also leading to some partnerships where food or other goods damaged in transit are distributed to local charities rather than being wasted.
6. Sprawling sites While the warehouses themselves have increased exponentially in size, so have the sites that surround them. The need for multiple points of entry and egress (allowing delivery vehicles to enter and exit in parallel), innumerable loading bays, onsite security and firefighting services, fleet and warehouse management services, technical support teams, refueling areas and more besides has increased as operations have become more complex.
All of these services require more space than that occupied by the warehouse itself, not to mention recreational spaces for the employees, whose welfare is increasingly seen as vital to the successful functioning of the business. And all of this often has to run at all times of day, with the demands of online shopping not always adhering to the strict, regular deadlines of 9-to-5 retail shopping.
It’s possible that warehouse design will change even more drastically as the promises of automation, drones and other technologies are realized. If the example of Ocado’s warehouses is anything to go by, many warehouses in future may only have a handful of people on site to watch over a fleet of agile robots, all delivering, picking and shipping out orders by themselves. Whatever happens, there can be no doubt that the industry is one that’s rapidly moving forwards – and has never been more critical to our daily lives.
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