Mistake #1. Planning without involving a material handling systems integrator early enough in the process. Since a distribution center's primary function involves material storage, picking and handling processes and systems, the overall planning for a new facility should include and incorporate these functions from the start.
While this may seem obvious, it doesn't occur as frequently as might be expected. Rather than a deliberate oversight, it often results from focusing on getting the project underway -- permitting for the building, obtaining construction bids and starting to show physical evidence the project is underway (turning the dirt).
However, there's a major benefit to concurrent planning and careful coordination between the design of the facility and the material handling system requirements. The key is making certain every aspect of the facility is laid out and engineered properly from the start, so that all functions integrate seamlessly with the building design and fit like a round peg in a round hole, as opposed to trying to force the proverbial square peg in the round hole. While it can sometimes be done, it's never the right solution.
By not involving the systems integrator with the architect and the contractor with the layout design for the facility, the integrator can often be faced with problems such as insufficient turning radii for lift vehicles, travel aisles that are either too narrow or too wide, building column placement that results in less than optimal layout of pallet racks and space utilization, misplaced power sources, improperly sized roof joists (needed to support overhead conveyor), slab designs that do not account for required mezzanine footers, ceiling heights that are either a hair too low to get an additional pallet position, or a hair too high such that an additional pallet position could not be accessed by the forklifts. This leaves management suddenly realizing, "we're stuck." Additionally, another critical element in the design of the building and the material handling equipment inside it is the satisfaction of emergency egress codes. The location of conveyor paths, multi-story pick modules and pallet rack aisles all affect the location of the personnel exit doors. If the design of the material handling system and the building are done independently, then the operational flow of the material inside the building might be sacrificed due to last minute changes needed to satisfy emergency egress requirements.
“As part of the manufacturing and distribution supply chain, we see projects of all shapes and sizes, but the most successful of those projects occur when a material handling systems integrator is involved from the beginning,” shares Phillip Poston of Hytrol. “The use of an automated conveyor system gives the client the ability to decrease labor and foot traffic throughout their facility. These benefits can be seen both in the company’s safety standards as well as their ROI.”
One architect points out that the focus is often on the building itself and everything involved with getting into the ground; while the material handling providers may not be called in until after the plans have been approved and the contracts are signed. Once those are out of the way, then the owner's attention moves to material handling considerations.
At that point, the placement of columns, footers, joist spans, clear heights and utilities may need to be re-engineered to accommodate the material handling equipment, creating undesirable delays and costly change orders. The preferred practice is to have the material handling provider onboard at the start of the project, along with the architects.
But it's not just architects. The contractor is also an equally important factor in the overall equation. Cameron Pinzke, Vice President of St. Louis, Mo.-based ARCO National Construction Company, has overseen the construction of a substantial number of distribution centers and warehouse facilities. "Having the systems integrator phased into the construction process is a positive move since it only helps in coordinating such tasks as power location, lighting layout, and the placement of the fire suppression system," says Pinzke.
"It's also to the owner's advantage because it can be helpful when choosing the overall shape of the building, whether it should be rectangular, or square, where the pick area should be, and so forth," he adds.
Pinzke says of all the projects he has worked on, only about half of his customers have involved a systems integrator in the earliest stages. And some have paid the penalty. "If a problem arises it could easily delay when they can start shipping product out," offers Pinzke. "You might have to start making adjustments to the building, like moving power sources, cutting the floor, all of which can be very costly."
Upon completion of a multi-million dollar distribution project, our client shared his sentiment on involving TriFactor from the beginning. The Vice President shared, “In fact, if I were to do the project all over again, I would involve TriFactor even earlier than we did when we were establishing concepts, budgets and timelines. Your engineering group has dedicated professionals whose experience should be leveraged from the first moment a complex project such as ours is conceived.”
Having the integrator involved early can result in improved space utilization and storage efficiencies, which result in productivity and throughput benefits.