Driven by the rise of e-commerce, molded by increased competition, and enabled by technological innovations, the modern warehouse has taken center-stage, handling more complex tasks than just simple storage.
In this article, we’ll cover the main trends and challenges in warehousing that have caused this transformation. Then, we’ll explore the ways in which innovations – especially with respect to material handling equipment and alternative motive power systems – provide effective solutions to these trends and challenges.
The creation of the modern consumer
The rise of Amazon and e-commerce has given consumers greater choice. As a result, warehouses and fulfillment centers must now handle many different types of materials and products across a variety of stock-keeping units (SKUs). At the same time, these facilities must also maintain peak efficiency in their operations, but without sacrificing operational flexibility.
In order to handle the greater amount and variety of SKUs, warehouses need more storage space. But expanding horizontally often carries too great a cost for budget-conscious directors. In fact, as Modern Materials Handling reports, the trend is to reduce warehouse footprints, as doing so can shave up to 65% off operating costs.
One way that warehouses have sought to expand their storage capacity without increasing their footprint is by building taller racking. Whereas in the 1970s the typical racking height was 20’, the evolving standard is a whopping 36’. This upward growth provides a particular benefit in space-strapped, expensive areas like Los Angeles, where the First 36 Logistics Center is one of the area’s newest warehouses to feature this new, taller racking configuration.
Another strategy warehouses have used is reducing the space between aisles in order to fit more racking into the same space. This has resulted in the creation of very-narrow aisles (VNAs), which can increase storage capacity by 40 to 50%.
The consequence of both of these warehousing trends is the expanded demand for material handling equipment designed to reach these new heights and fit into these new, smaller spaces. Thus, tall-mast reach trucks and very-narrow aisles machines like articulating and swing-mast forklifts are becoming increasingly popular in the modern warehouse.
How industrial lithium batteries enable warehouses to boost storage space
Li-ion batteries are particularly well suited to help warehouses adapt to these dual trends of reducing facility footprints while increasing reliance on specialized material handling equipment.
For one, using Li-ion batteries eliminates the need for costly battery storage areas. This allows companies to repurpose their existing industrial battery warehouse space to accommodate more storage area, or eliminate future construction costs altogether.
The root reason for this is that Li-ion batteries provide greater run times and faster-charging cycles than lead-acid industrial forklift batteries. Consequently, they do not have to be changed multiple times per shift, eliminating both the need for spare batteries and the space to store them.
One such company that has benefited in this regard is Allan Brothers, a fruit producer based in Washington State. They were able to save $440,000 in construction costs for a new lead-acid battery storage space by switching their forklift fleet to run on Li-ion batteries.
In addition to the space-saving advantage, Li-ion batteries also have the ability to work across a wide swath of specialized material handling equipment, like the aforementioned tall-mast reach trucks and articulating forklifts.
In fact, OneCharge, one of the top lithium battery manufacturers in the USA, has over 550 Li-ion battery models available to fit nearly any type of machine. Better yet, they fit within standard battery compartment sizes and connect to existing electrical systems, so there is no need for expensive modifications to accommodate them.
Labor shortages and budgetary pressure
Another warehousing trend prompted by the demands of the modern consumer is a shift from centralized warehouses to regional hubs. Warehouses have felt the need to make this change in order to improve delivery times, given the expectation of two-day delivery established years ago by Amazon Prime.
However, in moving closer to customer bases, warehouse directors have found two problems: A shortage of workers and higher costs associated with recruiting, hiring, and training the workers they do find.
Both of these problems have been compounded recently, given the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting pressure has forced facilities to raise their wages in order to recruit and retain scarce warehouse workers, further straining their already-tight budgets. Leading the pack in this is Amazon, which recently increased their workers’ pay to $17 per hour to attract workers to their fulfillment centers.
In order to reduce their reliance on expensive and difficult-to-source labor, while also maximizing productivity to meet consumer demands, many warehouses are increasing their use of automated guided vehicles (AGVs).
One company that has found a great use for AGVs is Oxford Cold Storage, which has reported benefits such as utility savings, wage cost reduction, and improvements in order picking accuracy, among others.
How Li-ion batteries enable facilities to achieve maximum productivity with automated material handling equipment
AGVs are electric vehicles and thus require batteries for power. And where lithium battery systems really shine is in their compatibility with AGVs and other automated equipment. There are multiple reasons for this.
For one, Li-ion batteries have quick-charge capabilities, enabling longer operating hours without incurring the life-reducing effects of opportunity charging that is associated with lead-acid forklift batteries. In fact, lithium battery cycles can span up to 3,000 charges as opposed to 1,500 for lead-acid batteries.
Additionally, using Li-ion power means having a no-maintenance battery system, eliminating the need for daily upkeep as is required with lead-acid batteries. And where problems do arise, an integrated battery management system can immediately alert facility operators so corrective measures can be taken.
One company in particular that has benefited from adopting Li-ion batteries for use with their AGVs is Spirit AeroSystems, a manufacturer of aerostructures, which relies extensively on material handling equipment to fulfill the needs of their manufacturing processes.
The major advantage Spirit has realized since they began using Li-ion batteries is a reduction in charging times to 1 to 1.5 hours, once or twice daily. Lead-acid batteries, on the other hand, require 30 to 40 minutes six times per day. Such a reduction in idle time can add thousands of dollars to an operation’s budget in the form of improved productivity.
The warehousing industry has experienced an upheaval in recent years. Emerging trends have placed unprecedented pressure on existing structures and solutions, forcing a change in the function and configuration of the modern warehouse.
Much of this change has been enabled by emerging technologies, especially next-generation power systems like Li-ion batteries. For companies that need to keep up with the pace of modern commerce, adopting Li-ion technology solutions can be a major step forward.