Three ways to boost efficiency in materials handling

Dec. 1, 2014
Take a close look at your current operations and make note of what’s working and what isn’t.

Any business can run more smoothly if it can just spot and address inefficiencies. In a volatile economy, most facilities managers can’t run the risk of overlooking expensive inefficiencies. A common culprit for inefficiencies in manufacturing and warehouse operations is the materials handling, where any number of issues — faulty equipment or overly complicated building layouts, for example — can slow productivity and ultimately eat into profits.

Take a close look at your current operations and make note of what’s working and what isn’t, and consider the three areas below to ensure that your materials handling operations are done more efficiently.

1. Look at new layout options

Walking the floor of a warehouse is time-consuming — even more so when you have a poor layout in your materials handling area. While restructuring can be time-consuming and disruptive, the potential benefit is a highly efficient workflow. With that in mind, here are a few ways you can improve your layout:

  • Consider narrow aisles to reduce the amount of overall space in your materials handling area. If movement is a concern, keep in mind that you have several options for narrow-aisle forklifts and other machinery to more easily navigate.
  • Be smart about how you route foot or vehicle traffic. If workers are forced to cross each other’s paths at multiple locations, they are bound to slow each other down. If you can’t reroute workers along separate paths, then use clear labels (tape, signage) to better direct traffic flow.
  • Go vertical. If you’re running low on ground space, and your workers are stepping all over one another, try vertical carousels and vertical lift modules. By going up instead of out, you can save considerable ground space.

2. Have the right equipment and technology

Part of the reason that manufacturing is making a comeback is the application of new technologies that are revolutionizing every sector. Here are a few examples of new materials handling technologies that you should consider using to be more efficient:

  • Vehicle-mounted technology is a game-changer for materials handling. It saves time and makes it possible to be exponentially more productive. Industrial vehicles such as forklifts can be equipped so that the driver can communicate throughout the facility, keep track of materials movement, and log actual manpower.
  • Vertical carousels are also very helpful for reducing strain on your workers and keeping them productive. These carousels cut the amount of walking needed, thus reducing employee fatigue and keeping them safer and more efficient.
  • Energy efficiency initiatives are huge in this industry because technology is improving and we’re actually able to make a dent in fuel costs. From portable heating and cooling units that reduce the need for building-wide climate control, to building designs that make better use of windows for light, you can run a more efficient materials handling operation.

3. Document everything

Cheryl Bikowski is Marketing Communications Supervisor at Gamber-Johnson.

Data is everything. One of the most proactive things you can do to improve efficiencies in materials handling is to log every bit of activity and watch for trends. Here are a few ways to use the numbers to improve efficiencies:

  • Log man-hours and see how they compare as you test different workflows — for example, the new layouts mentioned above.
  • Record how much each item is touched and moved. Ideally, you want to limit human contact with materials to reduce the chance for human error and oversight. Additionally, you can spot inefficiencies that result as worker tasks overlap.
  • In addition to tracking movement throughout the facility, be sure everything is properly labeled so that you can ensure your materials flow makes the most sense. Materials ready for shipping should be easily accessible, and materials coming in should have a clear, easy-to-identify location.
  • What about times of day or even seasons? If you track daily activity, you should be able to spot the high points and low points and adjust your staffing needs accordingly. You can also ensure that you have the right equipment available when it’s needed most, to limit employee downtime.

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