When it comes to investing in warehouse equipment, it seems axiomatic that nothing is more important than the warehouse itself. Sure enough, food distributors are increasingly redesigning their entire distribution centers. Among the current trends are demands for more refrigerated and frozen space within a facility and greater use of vertical space.
Which is not to say that they are ignoring other staples of warehousing equipment like forklifts, pallets and bulkheads. Using the right equipment in a distribution center can generate cost savings while increasing productivity. To these ends, various categories of equipment are evolving to reduce maintenance requirements, extend durability, and provide greater worker comfort.
In this special report, SN sizes up some of the important trends in warehouse equipment, from the top down.
With space at a premium, today's supermarket distributors are using vertical space to expand their warehouses. "One trend that we are seeing is increasing the building's cube by increasing product storage height," said Nick Nixon, principal, Leo A. Daly, a Minneapolis-based architecture and engineering firm that designs distribution centers for wholesale grocers. "What was an average of 25 to 30 feet high is now 35 to 50 feet." Nixon said the industry is also experiencing an increased demand for cold storage. Associated Grocers of the South, Birmingham, Ala., a cooperative that serves 325 members, was using a 420,000-square-foot facility that was completely landlocked. This limited AG South's options when it wanted to expand its refrigerated and frozen space.
Gerry Totoritis, president of AG South, said his company wanted to focus on where its business was growing. "We saw a need to expand in order for our members to compete successfully against dollar stores and supercenters," he said. "Instead of establishing a remote facility, we decided to focus at our facility on perishables, which is more than 50% of our business."
AG South's solution was to work with the Tippmann Group, Fort Wayne, Ind., to convert 40% of its dry grocery space to perishables in fewer than four months. This helped to eliminate roadblocks to item selection, and thereby accommodate AG South's current and future needs.
The new facility has been in existence for almost one year. Refrigerated and frozen space increased by 50%, from 80,000 square feet to 120,000 square feet, without increasing the cost of utilities. Among the improvements is a new 15,000-square-foot "swing room" in which the temperature can be adjusted from 55 degrees to 25 degrees. Totoritis said this was the first year it didn't use outside storage for turkey product, which eliminated double handling. It also used the swing room for watermelon in July.
The number of pallet positions and pick facings has nearly doubled by re-racking dry groceries. Normally, there are two levels for pallets: one on the floor and one in the rack. There are now three-level picks, which enable AG South to handle more variety and maintain wider aisles.
The latest models of forklift equipment are geared toward productivity improvements, as well as greater operator comfort. For example, Raymond Corp., Greene, N.Y., earlier this year introduced the Model 7400 Reach-Fork truck, which features the ACR system -- a combination of AC motor technology and ergonomics improvements.
Price Chopper Supermarkets. Schenectady, N.Y., began using the Model 7400 in November. Tom Bird, vice president of warehousing, said the most significant improvement is the "clear view" design, in which the center of the mast is wide open for the operator. This enables a clear view of the moving forklift or the product. Other forklifts have an obstruction created by the hydraulic system.
"With this ergonomic feature, the operator does not need to bend or look around the edge of the truck," said Bird. "This makes it easier for drivers to use this equipment in eight- to 10-hour shifts. Their vision is straight ahead, and their body is neutral so they do not have to tilt their necks."
Bird said a second new feature is a redesigned overhead guard, which is angled so the operator can look clearly above. Another improvement is a redesigned cab for the operator's comfort. The dash has also been redesigned with a depression where an operator can place the scanner gun and pencils.
Although it's too soon to quantify efficiency improvements, Bird said he is hoping to achieve an improvement in pure-lift speed due to the improved design. In addition to the single-reach design that Price Chopper uses, Raymond also offers a deep-reach version, allowing the operator to reach two pallets deep on a shelf.
When transporting mixed loads of frozen, refrigerated, or dry goods on a single vehicle, it is important to maintain separate temperatures in order to minimize shrinkage and save energy. To this end, bulkheads, which are insulated panels, are placed on trucks as screens to create compartments and maintain temperatures.
Associated Food Stores (AFS), Far West, Utah, had experienced problems with its bulkheads over a]five- year period. The problems stemmed from AFS' use of "wedge" trailers in which the back is higher than the front by 1-3/4 to 2-3/4 inches. Wedge trailers use roll-up doors vs. swing doors that standard trailers use. The roll-up doors allow workers to drive into the truck on a forklift with a full pallet without having to remove one level from the pallet.
However, explained Jon Beckstead, warehouse manager at AFS, the back of the wedge trailer has to be higher than the front in order to accommodate the roll-up. Thus, "the wedge trailer creates a unique challenge for bulkheads because the interior height will vary depending on where you place them within the trailer," he said.
AFS' problem was that the cushion on top of the bulkhead became compressed, reducing its quality. "The cushion wears out and does not retain its shape, which means it also loses its tight seal," said Beckstead. "We had to spend time repairing the cushions."
AFS initially ordered 70 bulkheads from another company, thinking it had enough size variation in order to handle different trailers. "However, the only way that we could have been sure was to take the measurements of each one," said Beckstead. "When we realized there were still problems, we had already used our bulkhead budget for the year."
In August, AFS began using a more beefy bulkhead, the model UB1, from ITW Insulated Products, La Grange, Ga. Beckstead decided to order just one UB1 initially, but will order 70 more in April. "We were able to set it up in different trailers from the nose to the rear, and no longer experienced those problems," he said. "It is wearing well. Our loaders like it because it has a good seal no matter where on the trailer they place it."
The UB1 has a stainless steel frame and a flexible top, which bends and flexes back. "It recovers beautifully," Beckstead said.
Compact and Durable
The latest models of plastic pallets are designed to be more compact and durable. For example, Granville Plastic Pallets, Montreal, introduced a new pallet to the supermarket industry in March called the I-Nest G 4840. Used for storage and delivery, the pallet contains evenly spaced indentations, called piers, which are spaces for the nesting legs.
One user of the new pallet is Super Store Industries, Stockton, Calif., which began using the I-Nest G 4840 in early 2004. Super Store is a general partnership of two large regional chains: Raley's and Save Mart. Pete Blasquez, director of purchasing, said his company had been using another brand of pallet for about 10 years. "We needed another nestable pallet that was compatible with our existing one. This time we wanted something more durable than our existing ones, which were two-piece [twin-sheet] pallets. We also wanted a better price."
Blasquez said it's too soon to quantify the efficiency improvements with the I-Nest G 4840, though he has not experienced any problems with damage. "We expected the same durability as with our previous brand, but have not had them long enough to say definitively," he said. "However, I can definitely say that plastic is 10 times better than wood."
He noted that a truckload in a conventional trailer can hold 1,000 nestable pallets, vs. just 380 wood pallets, which can make a difference for backhauls. In addition, the I-Nest's height is 1/2 inch to 1 inch lower than a traditional twin-sheet pallet, which creates additional space savings.
The main challenge with these pallets is preventing loss. "If you are only one of 15 to 20 distributors that serve a store, it is easy to lose these pallets," he said. "In this case, it is not a big deal because the stores are owned by their supplier, but it occasionally happens."