Warehouses are required to store more products than ever, but with limited space, facilities cannot expand and go out much further – the only solution is to go up. Over time and through advancements in technology, the heights within reach are growing higher and higher. 15 years ago, the highest reach would have been 11.5 metres, but now it’s possible to store at 13 meters. Who knows what the future may bring in terms of developments. There’s a clear demand for this evolution to create better space optimisation, but balancing this with safety is crucial.
Moreover, warehouse operations are already being shaped by the current pandemic as businesses are under increasing pressure to operate faster and at higher capacity than ever before, even with a reduced workforce. Advances in automation technology can not only drive businesses through the tough times, but also provide a solid foundation to weather the storms of the future. But what must businesses consider in order to pinpoint the tools and technologies that can help them to optimise value and space most effectively within their organisations? Alexander Baal, Director of Sales Operations, Jungheinrich UK, explains.
For reach trucks and warehouses to go higher, there are a number of variables that must be assessed, for example, in order to maintain stability at height, the floor conditions must be to a good enough standard. The higher the lift height required, the greater the need for control over lift and reach functions to ensure stability and safety.
Typically, the operator wants the forks to reach the pick destination as quickly as possible, but with a load on, the movement needs to be controlled to reduce the amount of sway. Intuitive technology that recognises the weight of the load, the height of the mass, and knows when to move fast and when to slow down for the operation of the operator can not only address safety points, but also add speed, value and efficiency.
During mast manufacture, hot steel is rolled to form the sections of the mast for stability. There are extra steps however that can be ensured to achieve maximum safety, for instance Jungheinrich pioneered an additional process within the MHE industry called Cold Rolling, that is completed after the sections have cooled down. By rolling the sections again when cold, it increases the strength and reduces tolerances which create flex or movement when fitted to the truck. This results in less sway or movement and so forth contributes towards a greater stability at height.
Another consideration is the ratio between the length of time of each shift and how tight the aisle is. Typically, businesses have their warehouse already set up and know how wide or narrow their aisles are. A common mistake some organisations make is thinking that a bigger battery will solve their problems, but when adding a bigger battery in order to last the shift, the truck may not necessarily fit down the aisle. With organisations working longer and harder than ever before with 24×7 operations – particularly during peak Covid times – it’s important to be able to utilise trucks longer without the compromise being on battery replacements, aisle width or battery life. Organisations are under pressure to perform harder and faster than ever before so the tools they rely on need to be able to support these increasing pressures.
To combat this issue, the introduction of lithium-ion battery technology has helped to transform the warehouse and material-handling equipment (MHE) industry. With lithium-ion-powered reach trucks using the latest in battery technology, the battery size doesn’t change depending on the capacity – ensuring no restriction of movement down narrow aisles. Furthermore, users can ‘opportunity charge’, instead of relying on long charging times or a larger battery.
Covid-19 has brought new challenges to the table too, but has importantly highlighted the benefits of fully or partially automated processes and operations. With local lockdown restrictions in place, workers encouraged to work from home if they can, isolation where necessary and strict social distancing measures, the warehouse environment has changed significantly. Businesses are unable to rely as much on high levels of human resources, and the downturn in the economy has been an accelerator to the already escalating demand for automation.
This evolution has been especially prevalent in some of the key industries such as pharmaceuticals and logistics, ensuring continuity in aspects such as food supply chains so that retailers can continue to keep stocks at optimum levels. This was particularly challenging in the early stages of the pandemic when panic buying led to shortages of certain items but with automation creating efficiencies and speeding up processes, these challenges were quickly overcome.
Even for industries and environments where full automation isn’t possible or necessary, key aspects of processes can be automated for a hybrid approach – ensuring the most optimum levels of efficiency across every role and requirement. Furthermore, once lockdown measures are eased and human resources are employed in automated environments, productivity will become higher as humans take on more value adding roles and automation takes on the repetitive functions within the warehouse environment. This will remove the element of human error from many processes and ultimately mean that operations can continue with much-increased productivity, resulting in lean and efficient logistic processes and supply chains.
The future holds the next steps for automation too, with innovations already providing warehouse environments with self driving trucks, for example, which are growing massively in popularity. For those businesses that already operate a ‘conventional’ truck, the adaptation to automation is relatively straightforward. The technology can be integrated into existing applications, so there isn’t necessarily the perceived need to rip and replace the current setup, and means there is a high level of acceptance from users. As the technology has developed, the relative price point has reduced too, meaning that a rapid ROI can be achieved. With lithium-ion batteries too the full benefits can be achieved by enabling operations to capitalise on the opportunity charging function during short, scheduled breaks, rather than waiting extended periods of time for the battery to charge. This allows for operators to deploy round the clock operations – an essential component for modern industry during and post-Covid.
Innovations to maximise safety and extend the reach height and operations of warehouses are critical in unlocking value and space optimisation. By extending safely up, warehouse managers can see a better return on their available storage and efficiency can be maximised to help businesses make as many marginal gains as possible. Automation continues to grow and provide companies with a competitive advantage, and all these factors combined mean that if, or when, another unprecedented event comes along that impacts business on a level such as this, businesses will already have the most efficient and safest technology in place to eliminate risk for the future.