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Warehouse 4.0 – Design for Productivity

By Jasmeet Bakshi, Group Director of Other Services, Messe Frankfurt Middle East


The Materials Handling industry is fast-moving and getting swifter by the day with automation, AI and digitalisation taking hold. Yet the advanced technologies that now inform the sector’s operations in its pursuit of greater productivity are not a silver bullet if considered in isolation of facilities design.


There’s an indisputable correlation between warehouse design and productivity. The warehouse is the backbone of efficient supply chains and it needs to be a slick operation. The cost of warehousing facilities represents a significant capital investment and prices are volatile. In Saudi Arabia costs are rising as the warehousing market witnesses 9 percent compound annual growth and is expected to do so until 2020 end. In Dubai’s Umm Ramool area – home to the emirate’s new e-commerce free zone Dubai CommerCity – costs are being driven by heavy demand. Optimisation of space utilisation is key – and that’s where design comes into its own. But when planning design, whether for new build or retrofit, a company needs to consider not just its immediate needs, but to forecast requirements for the next decade and a half. Thinking of design as planning a ‘forever’ business home makes a good starting point. Design aligned to a business strategy will result in optimum space utilisation, so operational objectives need to be clearly defined.


Today’s modern warehouse operations are designed ‘inside-out’ this is when the operational storage and materials handling system is designed first, and the building then designed around the system to ensure operational capacity and flexibility. Current and project data will be the greatest aid informing how the design takes shape. Issues to be assessed include goods receipt, shipping, assembly and special handling zones, quality inspection, reverse storage, forward picking, cross docking and the type of inventory handled.


Other issues impacting the design will include the labour force size and time and motion performance considerations. In-depth thought must be given to housing of technology hardware – not just that currently employed, but the software and hardware likely to be deployed in the future. There’s also a need to factor in the type, size and variety of materials to be housed in and transiting through the warehouse over time and any likely operational process changes which could drastically impact space requirements.


Research into the latest industry trends is a must, such as just-in-time cross docking – a technique where fresh inventory is unloaded directly from inbound vehicles then immediately re-loaded onto outbound vehicles making inventory storage redundant.  Additional space may be needed for multiple docks without creating choke points that impede flow.


The most successful warehouses operate as micro-communities that can be easily and quickly navigated. This means having a grid network of aisles that provide the quickest routes to inventory. The ‘most picked’ zone at the front of the warehouse can minimise travel time for material handlers as can ‘bundled zones’ – items that often need to be picked together.


Choosing the right racking system is a design essential and there are many different options – automatic storage and retrieval systems, drive-in rack and conveyors – to select from. Gravity feed racks are great for inventory with expiration dates as they store goods in first-in-first-out order. Multiple-deep and drive-in racks boost storage space requiring fewer or narrower aisles, while still allowing accessibility. Vertical space can be a game-changer vastly increasing storage capacity.


Investment in a robust warehouse management system (WMS) that utilises barcode or RFID readers to generate automated pick lists for devices will deliver significant operational ROI. Warehouses that have implemented RFID tracking have been shown to boost inventory accuracy by 27 percent within three months of activation.


And, not to forget to factor in staff facilities – great working conditions lead to workforce retention and aid productivity. Features which can help ensure your warehouse is a great place to work are air conditioning, soft flooring, rest areas and kitchens but ensuring that your warehouse is safe is perhaps paramount to employees.  A safe warehouse means less time lost to accidents so endeavour to ensure the design means staff don’t have to bend, stretch or twist too much to avoid injury risks.

Get the design right, and increased productivity follows, and you are fit for business now, and for the decade ahead.


Materials Handling Middle East runs from 3-5 September at Dubai World Trade Centre.

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