Warehouses’ needs vary widely, but if there is one principle that is universal, it’s that all warehouse operations must drive the efficient flow of materials in, through, and out of the warehouse. Mapping out space and predetermining pick paths is vital to creating that flow.
But your warehouse setup is more than just a design on a piece of graph paper. You will need to purchase equipment to facilitate the flow of goods through each area—without blowing your initial budget, of course. And that fact begs the inevitable question: Which pieces of equipment are absolutely essential when setting up a proper warehouse?
Here’s the dirty secret: No one piece of equipment is essential for your warehouse. Warehouse equipment is essential—or not—depending on your products, your volume, and your business model.
Goals for Your Warehouse
The set-up of any effective warehouse should work toward the same set of goals:
- Increased efficiency: Limit the number of times an item is touched and the distance it needs to move.
- Maximized space: Make sure your people, equipment, and products have plenty of space to do what they need to do, but resist the urge to spread out just because you have the room. Further distances = more steps = time and money.
- Inventory control: Knowing exactly what’s in the warehouse will help you stay organized, anticipate labor needs, and measure productivity.
- Safety: Following procedures and having the right equipment will help reduce workplace injuries, as well as damage to products.
On top of that, these factors should be at the heart of all decisions in the warehouse setup: where things are located; the processes, procedures, and pick paths workers follow; and the equipment used. Regardless of the product, every warehouse moves things, stores them, keeps track of them, and sends them out.
Those four functions result in our four essential categories of equipment: storage, material handling, packing and shipping, and barcode equipment.
Storage equipment encompasses everything from large warehouse shelves and racks to small bins and drawers. Choosing storage equipment is more complicated than simply putting up some shelves and loading your products onto them. Exactly what you need will be determined by your space and the materials you need to store.
Think in 3D
Your square footage is important to deciding which storage equipment to use, but remember to think vertically as well as horizontally. How high are the ceilings in the warehouse? If you have room, taller warehouse racks and shelving can provide additional, valuable storage space.
It’s important to remember, though, that anything on high shelves will need a way to get there—and back down again. Additional equipment like forklifts, pallet jacks, and even overhead cranes may be necessary.
Organization Is Key
To be effective, storage space must accommodate the physical aspects of your inventory and keep it organized. Warehouse slotting is the concept of organizing a warehouse based on the way products can be grouped together, their size and shape, and how often they are needed. These factors will also help determine what storage equipment to use.
Something large and heavy like steel construction beams are obviously stored differently from small items like nuts and bolts. And although small, nuts and bolts are much heavier than shirt buttons. A typical warehouse will need a wide variety of storage options both big and small.
- Choose the right container (bins, totes, bags) to hold small objects. Can you toss items into a tub, or should you stack them upright in a carton? Does a worker need to lift the container?
- Make sure warehouse racks and warehouse shelves can accommodate each product’s weight.
- Certain items might be purchased together frequently. Configure shelves to keep items near each other if they’re normally picked together.
- Measure containers and shelves to fit as many containers as possible without leaving empty space.
Material Handling Equipment
Material handling equipment is actually a broad category that usually includes transport equipment, unit load equipment, storage equipment, and positioning equipment. We’ve already discussed storage, and we’ll cover unit load equipment in the packing and shipping section. When we say material handling equipment, we’re referring to transport and positioning equipment.
Transport equipment is any piece of machinery that moves objects from one place to another in the warehouse. Positioning equipment holds it in place while a task is performed.
How materials will be moved while they’re in the warehouse will account for a good portion of equipment planning as well as the budget.
Some pieces of rudimentary transport equipment are hand carts, dollies, and pushcarts. These are examples of manual “trucks” that allow employees to lift and move items that they couldn’t lift or move by hand. Pallet jacks and walkie stackers are operated manually but can handle even bigger loads.
Powered transport equipment like forklifts, lift trucks, and cranes are necessary when handling pallets or very heavy items. They are also recommended when items need to travel distances of more than 40 feet.
These are examples of equipment that move around to carry items, but transport equipment can also remain in one spot. Conveyors are an example of transport equipment that is stationary and moves things along a fixed path. Conveyors can be powered or run manually.
There may be stations in a warehouse where an item is assembled, painted, or otherwise manipulated. Positioning equipment holds this item in place when it is difficult for a worker to do so. Work tables, hoists, and clamps are all examples of positioning equipment.
Just as with storage, deciding on transport and positioning equipment starts with knowing the product. Size and weight will be a factor. For transport equipment, how often and how far it needs to travel both horizontally and vertically will play a role. But positioning equipment might depend on what task is being performed. For example, an item may need to be suspended in the air for the paint to dry on all sides. A special rack might hold sheet metal while a pattern is punched onto it.
Packing and Shipping Equipment
The shipping department is an important part of any warehouse. If products can’t head out to consumers or wholesalers efficiently, the bottom line will suffer. Equipment choices in this area can help expedite the process.
Items need to be assembled, packaged, labeled, and prepared for shipping. The shipping area needs to be equipped with the necessary tools to do this work.
Here are a few examples of equipment and supplies that might be in the packing and shipping area:
- Tables and workbenches
- Boxes, bags, cartons
- Sealers (tape dispensers, glue guns)
- Label printers and labels
When a warehouse does bulk wholesale shipping, unit load formation equipment is necessary. Unit loads are groupings of packed containers that are shipped together, usually on pallets or skids or in large shipping containers. This equipment will include:
- Strapping or wrapping machines
- Pallet jacks or forklifts
- Shrinkwrap and strapping materials
Warehouse automation can dramatically improve accuracy, productivity, and efficiency. For this reason, barcode scanning equipment earns a place on our list of essential equipment. (If you’ve avoided barcodes before, it might be high time to rethink the decision!)
Barcoding and scanning items the moment they arrive in the receiving area allows for more complete inventory tracking. First, it reduces the chances of human data entry error. Next, by following a well-thought-out rack labeling system, materials make their way to their proper place in storage. The location and quantity of any item in the warehouse can be accessed at a moment’s notice.
Barcoding equipment includes barcode readers, printers, labels, and the accompanying computer software.
Choosing Essential Warehouse Equipment
Knowing where to begin when setting up a warehouse can be daunting. The first step is to work out a plan that optimizes efficiency. Then, integrate equipment into the design that will work with your product, your people, and your warehouse space. Start with our list of the four essential pieces of equipment, and you’ll have a helpful guide to outfitting your warehouse to reach your production goals.