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Forklifts are the workhorse of the warehouse sector, but as changes in the economy mean even more demand on storage and distribution, squeezing more productivity and efficiency from these assets appears essential.

MP16-22-Pedestrian-Pallet-Truck-App6Very Narrow Aisle (VNA) warehousing is a real option for generating more yield. The question is; how to make an informed choice about VNA forklifts that will deliver the right package of benefits?  
As high street sales figures continually show that consumers are failing to show up and instead opt for online shopping, it is clearly warehouse and logistics operations that are increasingly the engine room of UK retailing. Added to the traditional role of wholesaling and industrial supply channels the warehousing sector continues to grow strongly.  

It’s not too surprising then that total sales of forklift trucks to the UK warehouse sector rose by around 12% last year. With some industry analysts suggesting that the distribution sector, now responsible for around 40% of GDP, is likely to grow next year by an impressive 3-4%, it would seem that demand for even greater efficiency in warehouse operations is predestined.
 
But to get on top of this increasing demand and ensure that more goods can be shifted, it’s clear that operations need to get smarter and that means generating more productivity from warehouse assets. 
 
Warehouse operations demand a high level of flexibility if they are to meet business cycle and demand changes, so it is vital to create solutions that will iron out the peaks and troughs.  What’s more, to operate at peak efficiency, warehouses must make optimal use of the space while also maximising output and productivity, making the design and layout of the facility a key factor.
 
The challenge businesses face when determining current and future fleet performance, is finding answers to a number of essential questions relating to economy and performance. Warehouse operators need to take into consideration factors such as aisle widths, picking heights and the safest and most efficient method of operating.  Crucially, they need to determine how fleet selection and contracts can be configured to ensure the lowest lifecycle cost with optimised performance.
 
The ideal solution for high density warehouses is generally acknowledged to be VNA trucks, which are designed to operate in aisles from 1650mm. The big plus point is that these trucks allow for more racking within the operational space and since more racking means more pick locations, a greater number of SKUs (stock keeping units) can be stored within the space.  
 
The upshot is, potentially, up to 50% more warehouse capacity. However, additional capacity will inevitably give rise to a different forklift fleet profile, since operating hours and maintenance will be reflected in the capability of the fleet, which is why it is so important to get it right the first time when it comes to truck selection.
 
Operating in narrow aisles allows the warehouse to increase its storage density while still allowing one hundred per cent stock selectivity.  There is therefore a requirement to move higher volumes quickly and safely while avoiding congestion and bottlenecks. An obvious consideration is that trucks should be capable of lifting high enough to cope with the height of the racking.  Less obvious, but equally important, is the need for trucks to elevate quickly and smoothly, with sufficient load capacity, so truck flexibility is a prime consideration.
 
Paul Smith and colleagues at Yale® – a brand that is deeply rooted in the warehouse truck sector – have been working on developing solutions that address the needs of VNA applications, and have produced a number of innovative features and benefits that support these more advanced warehouse operations. Their patented hydraulic system in VNA trucks means the operator can undertake synchronized tasks such as traversing, rotating and operating the auxiliary lift while simultaneously lifting the cabin. This flexibility significantly improves the smooth operation of pallet retrieval and put-away while also eliminating pauses in operation resulting in improved productivity. 
 

Tackling congestion and bottlenecks

When business levels are such that the warehouse load seems to be ever increasing, adding more trucks to cope with demand is too simplistic an approach.  If the aisles are already occupied, this leads to hold-ups and diminishing productivity levels, so it is important to take into account congestion and its effects, even on a lightly-loaded warehouse.
 
Paul Smith says: “The size of staging and marshalling areas, how they are utilised and what effect they have on free movement of pallets through the warehouse, also plays an important part in the smooth operation of the facility, so they must be sized correctly for the projected throughput.  
 
“Similarly, possible bottlenecks at touch points, such as Pick and Drop areas at the ends of racks and packing and wrapping areas, should be factored in and an assessment made of the traditionally complex and high cost order-picking environment.  
 
“The location of goods stored, the picking time of a truck at a particular location and the overall length of cycle need to be determined so that fleet managers can review options and their likely impact on the warehousing operation in order to determine the most cost-effective solution.”

Never underestimate ergonomics

Truck ergonomics can play an important role.  Asking more from a truck invariably means asking more of an operator, so proper consideration must be given to operator safety, comfort and well-being. Raising the operating position, for example, allows better visibility of the pallet at all times and enables the driver to perform piece picking when required – a major advantage.
 
Meanwhile, for the personal comfort and well-being of the operator, cushioned floor space to absorb vibration and operator presence foot pedals play a key role in decisions around fit for purpose trucks.  Pedals which are activated by the driver’s feet provide a comfortable operating position and can be incorporated and are easily affordable. Depending on the application, the ability for the operator to sit or stand would offer more flexibility. This can be achieved with trucks that have a 3-way adjustable forward-mounted controls arrangement or seat-side located joystick controls positioned vertically or horizontally.

Tools to choose your fleet

During healthy trading conditions storage operations tend to be left to grow organically leading to inefficient solutions that have not been properly thought through, while repeat processes, used to good effect in the past, can result in small inefficiencies being magnified to the extent that they cause major problems.  
 
Once problems have been identified, the debate centres on what to change to improve productivity or reduce costs.  The options can only be investigated properly if fleet managers can access relevant data.  To make informed decisions, fleet managers have tended to rely on spreadsheets or traditional time and motion studies, and while they have a part to play, in the drive to optimise efficiency, they have their limitations.  Commercial software simulations provide much greater detail, but can be time consuming and come with costly consultancy support, while they do not take into account congestion or truck interaction around staging or pick up locations.
 
Yale understands the complexity of the issue and has developed a simulator to help fleet managers choose the right equipment for their application with a view to increasing productivity and driving down the cost of ownership.  A sophisticated software tool based on advanced mathematical modelling, the Yale Warehouse Simulator combines real data and tested assumptions with the additional input of experience and know-how to identify the precise make-up of the fleet required to match the operational requirements. 
 
This kind of software can add much more value to the decision making process.  It can, for example, calculate the size and mix of fleet required to move a prescribed number of pallets within specific utilisation limits or determine current fleet performance in terms of hours used.  If these are excessive and placing a burden on maintenance requirements, a solution can be modelled to bring hours down to within reasonable limits while still satisfying throughput requirements. 
 
Paul Smith concludes: “Choosing the appropriate VNA equipment for the facility and application will make a huge difference to operational performance, so it’s important to get it right the first time.  
 
“Fleet managers need all the help they can get to identify the precise make-up of the fleet that will best meet their individual operation’s requirements, enabling them to achieve optimum warehouse layout and trim costs intelligently.
 
“Software simulation therefore offers a major benefit in simplifying the decision making process.  However, it should be viewed as part of a toolkit of methodologies and the data it provides used in conjunction with expert advice from the manufacturer/distributor to achieve a solution that will meet all objectives.”