As anyone who’s ever been involved in organizing warehouse space knows, it’s a complicated business. It doesn’t matter if these storage spaces are for an ecommerce company, a manufacturing one, or a brick-and-mortar store, when it comes to making decisions about where to put everything, there’s a lot to consider. What items should be most accessible and which ones can be put in the back? Do any of the goods need special care, like refrigeration? And then there’s the packing and shipping areas. Where should they be in relation to the stored goods? Should they be next to each other? Should they be near receiving? All these questions and more have to be asked and resolved. It’s all part of making sure a warehouse has the best overall design for the business it’s serving, a layout that ensures operations run smoothly.
Size matters, of course. If a storage space is small, there isn’t that much organization needed. It’s when a facility is large that you can run into trouble. It’s these large warehouse spaces that we’re going to be looking at in this article. More specifically, we’re going to focus on managing them, which means overseeing their organization and making sure the whole operation runs as efficiently and problem-free as it possibly can. To do this, we’re going to break down warehouse management into its component parts, look at the challenges each presents, and offer ways to overcome them.
What are the roadblocks to efficient warehouse management?
On the surface, it seems easy enough: goods are stored until needed, at which time, they’re retrieved and either used in a manufacturing operation or packed up and shipped off. However, the larger the warehouse and the more goods it stores, the more things can go wrong. Let’s look at these areas where pain points can occur.
Warehouse layout — without a good one, the warehouse won’t function well
Getting the right organization for a warehouse space is essential. We’re talking about floor plans and layout. When this overall design is worked out, consideration has to be given to movement flow – how employees get around the facility to do their jobs and whether the storage aisles are wide enough for machines to get down and work in. There’s also the best storage areas for different items to be taken into account, and the ease of getting goods in and out of the warehouse. If these sectors aren’t adequately thought through with the needs of the business top of mind, there will be glitches all through the process. Employees could be tripping over each other, repeating tasks unnecessarily, and everything will take much longer than it needs to. Plus, the extra time staff take to do things will come out of the bottom line.
The main purpose of any warehouse layout plan, then, is to ensure the free flow of goods in, out, and around the building, while making sure that the best use of the shape and size of the space is being made. In general, there are three basic floor designs warehouses adopt:
- U-shaped: A U-shaped warehouse has the receiving and loading docks at each end of the warehouse building and the products are stored in between.
- I-shaped: The loading docks and the receiving areas on either side of the warehouse and the products are stored in the middle.
- L-shaped: The L-shaped warehouse stores products on one side of the warehouse and the loading and unloading is on the other.
The first is the most commonly used. In this model, the ends of the U are where shipping and receiving are located, leaving the rest for actual storage.
Once the general layout of the storage area has been worked out, a system of individual identification has to be established, like giving each its own SKU. This is how inventory is tracked through the system.
Expansion — plan for business growth
What if you have a great layout for your warehouse, but business grows? It’s a good idea to keep the possibility of expansion in mind when working out your design. It could be that coping with extra business might just be a matter of turning over more of the warehouse process to automation.
Weather extremes — they could be an issue
It doesn’t matter if there’s a heat wave or a deep freeze, a warehouse has to be able to overcome weather conditions that could damage the goods stored inside it. It’s not just the protection of the stored goods that are of concern, extreme weather of any kind can prevent the workforce from carrying out their jobs. Thus, equipping a warehouse with heating and cooling capabilities is cost-effective all round.
Demand — can you cope with it?
Nothing remains static. Sometimes demand for goods rises and sometimes it falls – Christmas goods at the end of the year, for instance – and sometimes items that were once in fashion go out of it. Keeping on top this comes under warehouse management. Part of it is ensuring there’s enough storage space for seasonal items, like Christmas decorations, and keeping an eye on customer demand to know when an item is popular and when that popularity is waning. Getting these things right improves both turnover and profit.
Quality control — without it, there could be issues
We all know that goods can get damaged. The thing is to spot them and remove them as quickly as possible. This is best done by the picker, who will notice breakage or imperfection when removing the item from its storage space.
Damaged goods bring up two things that need to be paid attention to: There should be enough items in stock to cover those that have to be discarded; and there has to be a good way to dispose of them. It all comes under good inventory management.
Workflows — can workers do their jobs efficiently?
The idea here is to avoid workers doubling up on tasks, or bumping into each other as they carry out their jobs. To avoid this, workflows should be in place. When done well, this will mean having picking plans that prevent all pickers from being in the same storage areas at the same time and giving them a picking route round the facility that takes the shortest time. Coordinating the receiving and storing of goods so it doesn’t get in the way of retrieving those same items also comes under workforce efficiency.
Clearly, it’s incredibly complicated to get this right, but there are automated workflows that can work all this out.
Packing — can all orders be packed in the same area?
There should be an area specifically for packing. If there isn’t a dedicated area for this, some items for a delivery could be in one area, while others could be in another. If that ever happened, it would take way longer than needed, if not impossible, to put an order together.
Depending on the size of the operation, this area should be large enough to hold all picked items for sorting before boxing. To streamline this final stage even more, shipping should be near this packing area.
Packing and shipping zones should be streamlined in conveyor-belt fashion, especially if there are a large number of orders to be readied and sent out the door. Labor has to be divided so that each person has a specific role in the process, be it packing the items, or sorting readied boxes into geographical delivery areas.
Inventory management systems like DEAR have a built-in warehouse management system (WMS) that can take care of these problems.
Order management — the heart of your business
This function is at the heart of any business, and it relates to everything that’s been outlined above. In other words, the business of putting an order together and getting it out to a customer. Ideally, this process should run as smoothly and quickly as possible, so proper organization of systems and labor is key.
Another important part of this end game is to keep meticulous track of the items, checking that the SKU on the item matches the specific item in an order, and registering when a particular item has been removed from storage. This way, orders can be verified, returns can be processed, and an accurate record can be kept of what’s left in storage.
Thankfully, automated inventory order management software is available to make sure the system works at its best.
Leveraging automation to overcome the roadblocks in warehouse management
Warehouse management is a highly complex activity that requires efficient planning and right execution. As human beings we are all susceptible to errors and omissions leading to inventory damage. Automating the warehouse management can not only reduce the chances of errors to a minimum but also solve the issues discussed above, including quality and workflow control, order management, and planning the storage area. Automation helps the management in getting a clear picture of issues faced by the warehouse. Additionally, the damage and loss of goods caused due to poor warehouse management contributes to the savings for the company.
Warehouse management is central to any business that holds inventory. It’s multifaceted and challenging, but with the right oversight and organization, the storage and movement of this inventory can be smooth and profitable.