By Jeff Mull, Strategic Products Manager
Innovation is good.
I’m a really big fan of finding a new solution to a material handling problem in a warehouse or DC. Let’s be honest, nobody wants to lift and carry a box across a 100,000 sq. ft. facility, and we certainly don’t want to pay a cast of thousands to do it for us. So we as a collective industry, have invented countless machines and systems to simplify and expedite stocking and picking operations for items big and small in stockrooms, warehouses and distribution centers. From the humble pallet jack to completely automated and computerized fulfillment systems, innovations have streamlined the industry. Sometimes, we can get a little carried away with our innovations, though.
This a phenomenon I like to call “Over-vation”.
“Over-vation” is a trend where a bigger, more complex and sexier solution to a problem is implemented when there may be a simpler, less expensive and uncomplicated answer available right off the shelf.
Two prime examples I’ve encountered in the field are automated parts carousels for inventory access and riding forklifts in mid-sized facilities. Now, I’m not going to bash either of these, in the right application, both can be incredibly powerful tools to help a business succeed. My contention is that, in many applications the extra costs and complexities may not payoff in the short or even long term.
First, let’s look at the automated parts carousel. The concept seems logical: storing hundreds of items on moving shelves in a motorized, vertically rotating system that can maximize floor space and improve worker safety by bringing the items to them at floor level. There are many applications, especially in newly built facilities where these excel.
There are, however, several cons to the concept. The first being that converting an existing warehouse or DC over is a very expensive proposition. Depending on the size and number of units needed to transition, the bottom line could easily run into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then there’s the time element required. This is a major project that will impact the flow of materials through the facility for weeks if not months. Existing racks will have to be unloaded and removed, carousels will have to be ordered, installed, powered up and tested, products will have to be assigned locations and stocked, SKU’s will have to be programmed and employees trained. This no small undertaking. Then there are the inherent complexities of the motorized units themselves. Each one is an independently operating piece of equipment that moves thousands of pounds up and down, needs maintenance, and will have breakdowns as all systems do. An issue here is that their enclosures limit a mechanic’s access, as does the concept of placing multiple units end to end to maximize floor space. This could result in inaccessible inventory until the unit is repaired. Automated parts carousels are also computer driven, requiring an interface with your existing software, which may or may not be compatible.
To all that, I offer the Joey family of access vehicles.
A simple, easy to use piece of equipment that requires very little operator training and costs less than a new mid-sized car. Need to maximize your floorspace and product density? Joeys are designed to operate in narrow warehouse aisles. Repositioning existing racks at 50” or less with rail guidance instead of the 126” standard spacing between can more than double the number of aisles in a facility. Want to take it to the next level, literally? Go up! Add overhead storage and you could then, depending on your roof height, quadruple your warehouse capacity. The Joey features a hydraulically powered platform that can lift a 300 lb. operator plus 500 lbs. of goods in a fully enclosed compartment. We offer 3 models working heights ranging from 185” to 250”, which allows you to purchase the right size vehicle to fit your building. Many companies choose to expand their Joey fleet over time, which allows for incremental growth flexibility that just isn’t as easy to implement with automated parts carousels. For the cost of some additional racking and a very affordable Joey, the average warehouse could increase its throughput dramatically.
Krones, Inc. (Franklin, WI) incorporated J1 Joeys into their stocking/picking operations and condensed their aisles to 50”, which more than doubled their warehouse capacity.
The downtime required to reconfigure a warehouse in this fashion is typically a fraction of the time required to implement a carousel system and can often be done by your own personnel instead of outside contractors. Generally, in the short time it takes to deliver a Joey, most companies can convert their facilities over and hit the ground running. Then there’s the maintenance issue. The Joey is an industry proven platform with a documented history of uptime and longevity. Should it break down, they are easily serviced by a technician from your dealer. More importantly, it can be moved out of the way so you can continue to access all of your inventory.
Clearly, the Joey offers several key advantages in concept cost, complexity and flexibility.
The second place where I see “Over-vation” is the use of riding forklifts in small to mid-sized warehouses. Now, depending on what your moving, how much it weighs and how high you’re stacking it, a riding forklift may be the perfect fit for your facility. They have been around forever and perform admirably in most applications. There are, however, a great many instances where companies are using a $40,000 riding lift truck in an application where a $10,000 walkie stacker would provide more than enough capability and do the job safer.
Walkie Stackers offer a lower cost of ownership.
If you’re moving pallets ranging from 1,000 lbs. to 4,000 lbs. and stacking nothing higher than 189” a sit-down forklift is sometimes not an economical choice in a warehouse under 100,000 sq. ft. Some might say you’re using a hammer to swat flies, an expensive hammer at that. This is the walkie stacker’s sweet spot. If you’re not going too far, lifting too much or stacking too high, why pay too much? In a sense, this is an exercise in looking at the big picture and choosing to think small. Smaller purchase price, smaller operating expense, smaller impact on your bottom line.
One key advantage a walkie stacker has is its compact (small) footprint and a much tighter turning radius. Many companies are often able to condense their aisles down to 6 or 7 feet versus the 10.5’ minimum required for a riding forklift to operate. The ability to fit 3 aisles in a space that previously only had room for 2 is an obvious advantage for the walkie’s owner.
Walkie stackers are much less complicated machines compared to their larger, more expensive cousins, therefore, requiring less maintenance in general. When you factor in the pay scale of a certified forklift operator, including the cost of training and retaining them, walkie stackers look even better. They are workforce friendly designs that require lower levels of certification to operate, which can be obtained in on the job training, often in under a day.
Workplace safety is another important element to consider.
Walkie stackers can help to reduce injuries throughout a facility by eliminating high speed rider forklift accidents.
As the name implies, the walkie stacker operator walks while operating the equipment. This alone can have a major impact on workplace accidents! The travel speed of a riding forklift, combined with limited visibility when transporting a load plus the ever-present blind spots in and around warehouse racking have resulted in countless severe injuries to personnel and untold losses in damage done to trucks, racks and product. Since a walkie stacker can only move at “human speed” there is a significant risk reduction for both operators and pedestrians throughout a facility. Choosing a walkie over a rider could help to lower workman’s compensation claims and insurance rates which has a direct impact on warehouse operating costs.
These are just a couple of scenarios where “thinking big” could cost you big, without delivering the real advantages your company needs in order to compete. I believe innovation is a good thing and have been helping to bring it to the materials handling industry for over twenty years. I’ve seen trends come and go and I know two things for certain, bigger isn’t always better and new isn’t always improved. Sometimes being innovative is having the audacity to match the right size or type of equipment to a customer’s needs and not “Over-vate” an expensive product into an otherwise uncomplicated application.