Materials-handling equipment, spurred on by advances in radio frequency technology, ergonomic considerations and more complex distribution system requirements, is no longer taking a back seat in the quest for heightened efficiency.
The supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a factor driving a growing number of retailers and wholesalers to upgrade their arsenal of materials-handling equipment, distributors told SN.
"If one area is not working efficiently, it could bog down other areas. Materials-handling equipment is as important as information systems, and both are as important as the people in the warehouse. Everything has to work together," said Corwin Karaffa, vice president of distribution, Certified Grocers of California, Los Angeles.
In just the last four months, Certified has upgraded its forklift fleet with both stand-up and traditional equipment. The investment was necessary because of the age of the existing equipment. "Reducing my equipment maintenance costs was a primary reason," Karaffa said.
Certified is also stepping up communications by installing radio frequency terminals on each of its lift trucks, he added.
"Three of our four warehouses have had the equipment mounted, but in some locations we still have lift trucks from 1985. We will be updating and improving our fleet over the next three to four years.
"I'm trying to get on a schedule where I am continually replacing and updating rather than buying everything at once and then having to retire everything at the same time," Karaffa said.
The marriage of information technology with materials-handling equipment, combined with the industry's strong emphasis on boosting productivity and cutting costs in all areas of the supply chain, has underscored the importance of all types of warehouse equipment, said Dennis Slater, safety and maintenance manager, Brookshire Grocery Co., Tyler, Texas.
"We know what our stores need in order to maintain their stock levels. If we don't have the equipment to get it there, what's the sense in getting the order?" Slater said.
To respond to the these issues, Brookshire this year began investing in new pallet jacks and forklifts.
"We especially looked at the maintenance costs of the equipment. We have some forklifts from 1960, and if we used them in a high production area, maintenance costs would go through the roof," he said.
Ergonomics also influenced the buying decision and prompted the firm this year to purchase propane-driven forklift equipment.
"We decided to buy a couple of propane forklifts. We looked at six different models, and the reason we chose the model we did was not cost or warranty, but because our operators liked it the best. They felt it was more comfortable and easier to get on to and off of. "Price-wise it was not the cheapest, but it also was not the most expensive. We evaluated the models from a maintenance standpoint, including cost of replacement parts and warranty. But the biggest emphasis was on what operators felt about it. Noise level and control layout were also considerations," Slater said.
City Market, Grand Junction, Colo., has updated some of its materials-handling equipment in the last two years, said Ed Crandall, maintenance supervisor. The 39-unit chain is part of Kroger Co., Cincinnati.
The most recently acquired equipment is designed to address ergonomic concerns, he said.
"The new ergonomic designs help reduce injuries from repetitive motion. Companies need to stay upgraded. A lot of equipment available now is better than what was out there four to five years ago. It focuses on ergonomics, such as how the arms rest and how the hand fits and turns the handle," Crandall said.
The chain is not planning wide-scale changes and upgrades in its materials-handling equipment, but is looking at testing some new technology, such as radio frequency to transmit orders electronically to forklift operators.
While the need to upgrade of materials-handling equipment is now a prime focus in boosting productivity, distributors are also taking a closer look at several other related warehousing issues in a bid to cut costs and enhance operations.
Certified of California, for example, not only is replacing and upgrading its forklift fleet, but also addressing some ergonomic concerns by making greater use of plastic pallets and automatic shrink-wrapping equipment for shipping some products, Karaffa said.
Traditional wooden pallets can weigh up to 70 pounds, vs. just 20 pounds for plastic pallets. Also, the plastic pallets are nestable and can be stacked 20 high, while wooden pallets can be stacked only eight to 10 pallets high, he said.
"Plastic pallets are a big improvement to the warehouse in terms of order selection and distribution. They also help retailers because they provide a better platform, occupy less space and are easier to handle," Karaffa said.
"Employees suffer less back strain from handling the plastic pallets, and shrink-wrapping provides better load control for shipping. The drivers don't have to spend as much time hand-stacking cases that then may topple over in the truck," he added.
Ergonomic considerations prompted Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis, to switch its reach truck supplier 18 months ago, said Warren Frank, manager of warehouse productivity and equipment for the wholesaler's 20 distribution centers.
The previous model featured a straight-ahead stand in which the operator stood facing the pallet load, but had to turn around to see anything else. The new reach trucks now being used have a side stand that allows the operator to see both ways much more easily. "It provides a greater field of vision to see oncoming traffic," Frank said.
How the warehouse is slotted is also a crucial ergonomic consideration, he added.
"For example, if 40-pound cases of tomato juice are stacked on the floor, a lot of bending and stooping could be required and increase the risk of back injury. We now have a computer program that helps us in slotting more intelligently to reduce risk of injury," Frank said.
"The system makes sure that we put the heaviest products at the most appropriate heights. As a result, there is much less stooping, bending or reaching overhead required, thus reducing the risk of back injury or product damage.
"The lighter items are put up higher or down lower while the heavy items are placed at waist level. We've instituted this system within the past 12 months," he added.
Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, has also implemented a program to slot its warehouse more efficiently, said Doug Pope, vice president of warehousing.
"The warehouse is now laid out so the selector is not lifting the heavier part of our inventory over his waist. We've been moving toward an ergonomically-friendly slotting program for the last couple of years. It's an ongoing program that is being continually refined. But it's been very successful for us," Pope said.
Seaway is also in the process of integrating its current warehouse management systems with new technology such as radio frequency, he said.
"The goal is to become more efficient. It is a slow and evolving process that tends to be accomplished on a case-by-case basis. We may not be able to implement the entire system across the entire spectrum of what we carry, but we are doing things with certain vendors and classes of product, such as handling of seasonal products."