As consumers increasingly turn to e-commerce to purchase goods and new technology such as automation becomes available, warehousing design will need to continue evolving to keep pace and accommodate these trends. Understanding the key components in design lays the foundation for an optimized operation that delivers results. With many elements to consider in distribution center design, eight key focus areas can help shippers keep moving their operations in the right direction.
With more than 145,000 associates working in an estimated 7,000 warehouses across the United States, considering the safety of those operating a distribution facility is a top priority during design1. Evaluating dock locks that keep trailers locked in place or red light and green light systems that communicate to drivers if trailers can be pulled away from docks are some design and equipment examples that shippers are implementing. Additionally, the right lighting can prevent excessive glare and provide proper illumination to keep workers safe, as well as, improve efficiency by making SKU codes easier to read2. Fire suppression systems, smoke detectors, and strobes that can guide employees to exits during emergencies are also important safety measures.
Due to e-commerce, shippers are expanding their product mix, therefore generating an increased need for additional space and different approaches to warehousing design. In particular, shippers are extending ceiling clearance heights from 32 feet or 36 feet to as high as 40 feet, creating a possible 25 percent height increase needed to maximize cubic feet of the building and accommodate more racks and pallets3. As the real estate market continues to tighten, building with optimized capacity can assist with getting products closer to consumers.
Column spacing in a warehouse can be key to optimization and maximizing available cubic feet. Wider column spacing at 56 to 60 feet between support beams, can improve rack staging and automation such as conveyors, sortation, or robotics4. The need for racking and automation stems from e-commerce requiring a large number of smaller orders5. Columns that are too close together and force narrow aisles can become a safety concern for forklifts getting through tight areas. Additionally, if aisles are too wide, the space is not being used to its fullest potential and results in fewer racks and less space for products.
Exceptionally flat floors made from specialized concrete can enhance floor-load capacity, enable higher and tighter rack configurations, and provide for level conveyor installations. Level flooring also improves efficiency for material handling equipment, allowing for faster, uninterrupted, and smoother movement. The latest flooring material reduces the number of expansion joints by 75 percent, enabling more solid footing for high-bay pallet racking, heavy machines, and high-speed conveyors4.
With the amount of product in a distribution center increasing, planning for labor and parking is an important consideration. Trailer parking should accommodate for current needs and future growth. Optimal trailer parking has deep truck courts made of 100 percent concrete with specific trailer storage drop areas. Similar to trailers, planning for employee parking should also include seasonal needs and having the capacity for a spike in the number of vehicles the lot needs to accommodate4.
As the use of technology and automation continues growing, the need to ensure the right power is available for automated machines is important when designing a warehouse. The amount of power needed for the building will increase depending on the type of equipment the location plans to or could use in the future4.
Early response fast suppression sprinklers are used for most common products in distribution centers. However, the type of product planned for storage, such as combustible materials, can create a need for specialized sprinklers that match the components of the materials. Additionally sprinkler locations could move from the ceiling to in-rack depending on the product as well6. Understanding the sprinkler need during design can ensure compliance when the building begins operations.
Lighting, building insulation, water conservation measures, and solar panels are green and sustainable initiatives to consider during design. These efforts can result in the reduction of a building’s environmental footprint as well as provide potential cost savings. Additionally, evaluating a layout to limit the number of times an item is handled and streamline the process can generate efficiency and reduce the amount of energy used to get an item through the distribution process7.
Distribution center design will continue to adapt as new technology becomes available and consumer buying behavior evolves. In addition to considering the many factors that shape a building design, partnering with a 3PL with expertise in commercial real estate, design, and construction, as well as, distribution and supply chain can create efficiencies and give a shipper the competitive edge in this consumer driven market.