Copyright 2006, Traffic World, Inc.
Two university professors who developed warehouse layout designs they claim can improve pick efficiency 11 to 20 percent are trying to get major retailers to give their ideas a test drive. However, they''re finding innovation can be a hard sell on the warehouse floor.
Russell D. Meller, Hefley professor of logistics and entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas, said warehouses were regarded as a cost center rather than a potential source of profits and value-added services until third-party logistics providers started showing it could be done during the last 10 years.
Meller said he believes warehouse design and technology improvements will gain traction as more shippers and operators "think about how to make things happen rather than just reducing the cost of the box."
Meller and his research partner, Auburn University Professor of Industrial Engineering Kevin Gue, said they''re in ongoing discussions about implementing their designs for major retailers, including, Meller said, "certainly the usual suspects you''d think of from our region of the country."
Meller and Gue''s optimal cross aisle design, as viewed from above, inserts two diagonal cross aisles originating at the same pick up and deposit location over vertical parallel rack rows, giving workers a "straight-line advantage" when traveling to and from pick locations. The researchers said their tests indicate this design would reduce picking costs 11.2 percent compared with traditional parallel with perpendicular cross aisle designs.
A second layout, called "fishbone aisles," matches vertical picking aisles inside the "V" shape to horizontal aisles outside the "V". In tests, the "fishbone" design allowed a 20.4 percent improvement in a warehouse''s cost-to-pick over traditional designs, they said.
"We like the fact that we have restricted ourselves to existing equipment for the new designs," Meller said. Neither design should require additional investment in equipment, though he said the optimal design may be more appropriate for a warehouse retrofit, while the fishbone design might be better installed in a new facility.
Gue and Meller said they are also working on improved designs for order picking warehouses, where individual items rather than pallets are selected and assembled for delivery.
As in so many disciplines, form in the warehouse follows function. Warehouse management software continues to be a popular way to rationalize distribution center operations, and radio frequency identification technology is finding its niche on RFID reader-equipped forklifts. But design modifications rest atop technological innovations, and the warehouse-distribution center has been slow to adapt even to these advancements.
"I think it''s fair to say that we''re about as efficient as we can be right now" with warehouse design, said supply chain management consultant Ken Ackerman.
"You''d have to prove big savings" to successfully introduce a radical new warehouse layout, he said.
Ackerman said new warehouse layouts and designs don''t happen very often. Disruption to existing, usually-always-busy warehouse operations, is a major disincentive. The amount of time and labor required, even when no new fixed capital is called for, also discourages innovation.
But warehouse design innovations come and go.
In the 1970s, Ackerman said, facilities were built to support pallets guided by wire and later by automated vehicles. In the 1980s, rack supported buildings with stacker cranes became popular in real estate-starved Japan and Hong Kong; some were built with the help of tax credits in the United States. Neither novelty survived, Ackerman said.
The automated guided vehicle scheme was supplanted by laser guidance. Most rack support-stacker crane buildings went south with the 1986 tax reform, which removed the incentives that built them.
In each case, the cost per pallet of storage ultimately outpaced the innovations'' returns on investment. "The guys who make this equipment will be unhappy I said this," Ackerman said, "but it''s true."
Gue said, "I would choose to be more optimistic that that." Along with Meller, he said as shippers and warehouse operators turn their attention from tactical and strategic management of supply chains to an operational viewpoint, new opportunities for improved distribution center design should emerge.