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Guest Post: 4 Reasons Material Handling Needs Automation and How to Implement It

Today’s post is courtesy of Megan R. Nichols

When it comes to the supply chain, the most visible processes and events aren’t necessarily the only areas that should be modernized and improved upon. The so-called first-mile is just as important as the last, even though consumers may never see or hear what it entails. Collectively, every mile plays a role in the performance and efficiency of manufacturing and wholesale operations.

By streamlining the entire lineup, it improves the speed, quality and accuracy of all products and services. One of the best ways to make that happen is to deploy automated systems and equipment, including advanced robotics. These solutions never tire, burn out or falter — so long as they are maintained well, quite unlike human laborers.

Beyond the basics, there are several reasons why automation should be used in material handling and manufacturing environments.

Why Use Automation?

1. A Smarter, Connected Environment

Whether you’re talking about manufacturing processes directly, the handling of finished goods or distribution closer to the last mile, all these practices could benefit from more data-driven operations.

Implementing IoT and connected technologies earlier on can also help eliminate what’s known as the islands of automation within a facility. Most older machines and solutions operate in a siloed nature, separate from other components within a factory or facility. Automation and the resulting systems can help do away with this entirely, creating a more synchronous environment.

2. On-Demand Manufacturing and Services

In today’s hyper-fast and hyper-personalized environment, most customers and clients expect a degree of convenience, which can be difficult to provide in material handling and processing fields. To achieve this, the entire system needs to be optimized from start to finish. Queue advanced automation.

The connected nature of the autonomous factor also generates the on-demand concept for internal processes. Materials can be delivered exactly where they need to be, not just on time but in advance. This is done through a series of data-driven systems that send alerts and control various operations as necessary.

3. Predictive Modeling and Decision-Making

Near the start of the supply chain, performance and support directly rely on market trends. If a particular supply or raw material is low, it can affect everyone, including the delivery times of various components and goods. With automation and advanced analytics systems, this kind of problem can be eliminated, largely through predictive modeling.

A machine learning or AI system will essentially ingest data on a company’s history, performance, market trends and consumer demands. It will then build an accurate model of what’s to come or how things will play out, allowing for more informed decisions. This can be evolved to include automation systems for a larger efficiency boost.

If a certain raw material is becoming more scarce, the automated system can order more in anticipation of a major shortage. During the shortfall, the system can calculate the length of time to receive new supplies as well as the current stock to ensure operations run smoothly. Items arrive just before old ones run out.

4. Better Workforce Management

Rather than waste human expertise on rote and tedious tasks, projects can be automated through a series of systems including IoT, AI and advanced robotics. Personnel can then be assigned to higher-value tasks that better meet their talents. This has the added effect of boosting employee happiness, as workers will certainly enjoy the more important roles and responsibilities.

Moreover, labor shortages and high turnover rates become a problem of the past, with many of the tasks and opportunities that were hard to fill now handled by automation.

How to Implement Automation and Streamline Materials Handling

1. Research

The best place to start is by doing some research. Consider the available vendors and their reputation, as well as what kind of solutions they offer. What will you need to upgrade in your existing systems and solutions? Is there anything that can be carried over?

How long will it take to implement the full scope of the automation project? Most importantly, how long will it be until you recover the initial investment and turn a profit?

Also, consider the systems that will be automated. It’s much more than just digital tools and components. Pallet inverters, for example, can be used to automate the handling of pallet-based goods and have a load capacity of about 4,400 lbs.

Another way to automate your warehouse is to invest in, and maintain, conveyor belts. Not only do conveyors keep employees safe by minimizing the amount of heavy lifting they need to do, they could be optimized in the near future. Adding sensors to conveyor rollers will allow businesses to gather important data like, product weight, amount and quality.

Is there equipment that you can use to automate more conventional procedures, similar to the pallet inverter or conveyor belt examples?

2. Vendor Selection

Once those questions are answered and you understand what’s necessary to achieve automation, it’s time to start shopping around for vendors. What solutions can they offer and what comes included? How are system updates handled? What’s the support process like? Are there real-time consulting opportunities at the ready?

You may even want to consult with a vendor’s existing clients to get a feel for how satisfied they are. Did the company meet their needs? Were there complications and have all their concerns been addressed?

The research process seems involved and can be daunting, but it’s necessary before getting involved with any automation providers or vendors.

3. Prepare Your Team

Next, you’ll need to prepare your workforce for the pending upgrade. This means training them and building awareness about the new systems, technologies and processes. Don’t forget to consult with them where applicable, as many workers have direct insight as to the inner workings of supply chain operations.

Ultimately, companywide buy-in will ensure the adoption process goes smoothly, and it will help mitigate the usual problems you might see when adopting new procedures.

4. Deployment

All that’s left is to deploy the necessary technology’s processes and solutions. Implementation can be a lot more complex than expected, however, so it’s always best to consult with support agencies and vendors. The exact approach is going to vary from business to business, which is why most of this explanation will seem broad.

The trick is to start small and slow. Choose one or two major processes that can be automated and work on perfecting those systems before moving on to other areas of the business.

With perseverance, the bulk of your materials handling operations will be automated, resulting in many cost- and time-saving benefits.

Megan R. Nichols is a technical writer who specializes in industrial and scientific topics. She regularly contributes to sites like American Machinist, Manufacturing Transformation and Industry Today. Megan also publishes weekly on her personal blog, Schooled By Science. Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter or subscribing to her blog.

Pallet Rack Purchasing Tips

Removing the risks – buying used pallet rack and other pre-owned equipment

Certainly, you can save money by purchasing used pallet rack instead of new equipment. Are there are some risks involved? Yes! Will it likely to have a shorter remaining service life and is there no manufacturer’s guarantee? Not necessarily! A common misconception is that with used equipment you’re not really sure what you’re getting. You can, however, easily reduce and even outright eliminate many of these risks by simply dealing with the right people when entering the used market. This article is a primer that covers a few of the basics.

There is no board that certifies dealers of used pallet rack. Used dealers are not “authorized” by the manufacturer or anyone else for that matter.

That said, the fact that some dealers of used equipment are also authorized dealers of new equipment, be it one or more manufacturers, is a good indication they know what they’re selling. Unfortunately, there is a wide variety of sellers of used pallet rack – individuals, brokers, middlemen and auctioneers. How do you know you’re dealing with a legitimate operation, and what makes an operation legitimate anyway?

Used Dealers: The good, the bad and the ugly.. and how to tell the difference.

KEY QUESTIONS & COMMON SENSE:

1. Do they stock what they sell?

There are several advantages to dealing with a dealer with an inventory, including assured delivery and easy inspection of items in stock. Even if the specific equipment you are looking for is not in his current inventory, the fact that he has one tells you some positive things about the dealer. We’ll get into them later, but they cause some dealers to give the impression of having more stock or a larger operation than they have if they have one at all. Beware of false impressions. A few years back, a self proclaimed major dealer had a web site with a picture representing his company location. The photo featured a large and impressive building in the middle of the photo. While the photo did include his building, what he didn’t tell people was his office was actually a one room office located in the shopping mall across the street and barely visible in the bottom corner of the photo.

Obviously, the best thing is to go see the dealers facility yourself, but that’s not always convenient, especially in the early stages of your search when you are looking at numerous possible dealers.

TIP: If it’s not convenient to inspect their facilities in person, go on-line with one of the various map sites like Google Earth or Google Maps (https://maps.google.com/) and enter their address. Look at a satellite photo of their location. If they have offices in their basement or a shopping center, chances are they have no inventory. If their inventory is extensive, you should be able to see it in the photo.

TIP: Beware of P.O. Box numbers and suite numbers, which often disguise a one-room office.

2. Is it an established business?

The pallet rack business is extremely competitive and dealers with a bad reputation don’t last long.

Long term survival is not just proof that a dealer has treated their customers well. Experienced pallet rack dealers know the equipment and can tell the jewels from junk. They know industry trends and current standards. In general, their recommendations are good, their prices are fair, and they have the respect of the industry. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be around this long.

RULE OF THUMB: Look for a company with a track record with at least ten years of business history under the same name. There is at least one such dealer in every major city in the United States.

3. Is it a real business?

We have already talked about people doing business out of their basement or a shopping mall, but it gets worse. Some people do this in their spare time. They have a day job, which may or may not have taught them something about pallet rack. They have neither the experience to guide you in making a good purchase nor the resources to support you after the sale.

TIP: Ask for a business phone number, not just an e-mail address or cell phone number. If nobody answers the phone and you get the same person’s voice mail every time, there may be a problem. If your contact can’t meet with you during normal business hours, there’s definitely a problem.

4. Do they own what they sell?

Some brokers are no more than deal-makers, simply flipping the equipment and doing no more for their money than making a couple of phone calls. (Hollywood is run by deal-makers these days, and you know how long it’s been since they made a decent movie.) What you want is someone who has demonstrated their faith in the quality and sale-ability of their product by investing their own money in it.

TIP: Any legitimate dealer will be happy to let you inspect the equipment. Don’t accept photos. Larger dealers may have multiple storage facilities throughout the country. If the equipment has only recently become available, it may still be on the premises of the former owners. If you are performing an inspection anywhere not owned by the dealer, ask the people there who owns the equipment, or ask for proof of ownership.

TIP: Don’t give the dealer your money to buy the equipment. Pallet rack often comes on the market because of the bankruptcy of the current owner, and if the court seizes the assets of the company you may never see your equipment or your money ever again.

5. Is the company financially sound?

If your purchase is large enough to justify the expense, it may be a good idea to get a D&B report. The cost is $100.00 or less and can easily pay for itself many times over. This will tell you who they buy from, their payment record, lawsuits filed against them, when they were incorporated, the number of employees and the names of owners and officers – all valuable information.

TIP: If the person you’re dealing with claims to be the owner and operator but is not listed as either, this may indicate an attempt to shelter himself or his assets from previous lawsuits or bankruptcies. While privately held companies will often divulge less information that public ones, the fact is that reputable companies have nothing to hide. Use some common sense when evaluating companies. There are plenty of good people who run good companies out their and provide D&B their information. AVOID those that feel the need to conceal or shelter their histories, owners, officers, backgrounds and/or financial information. Ask yourself, what’s so shocking that they need to keep it hidden from public view?

6. Can they provide follow-up services?

Everyone will sell you equipment but only a few service what they sell. Once you own the equipment, someone has to inspect, repair, replace, buy back, deliver, install and maintain it. If it’s not the broker, you will have to start another search for somebody who can. Ask to see their facilities and resources for performing such services.

TIP:The broker may tell you he has somebody else to perform these services. Keep in mind that adding a middleman can mean a loss of control over costs and schedules. It also complicates communication with the various people involved. Can they repair or replace items that get damaged or need repair? If so, at what price? What you discover may be pretty shocking.

7. What is their reputation?

You can always ask for references, but be wary of the lists they voluntarily to give you. Some references are kept on a permanent retainer, and almost all of them are carefully selected.

Instead:

TIP:Ask about jobs they have performed in your area and whether you can talk to these customers. If they can’t provide names, it may mean
1) they have no track record in your area or
2) they have had service issues resulting in poor relations with customers.

TIP: Call their competitors.
Ask is they have ever heard of the company you’re asking about?
What is their reputation among other dealers?
Have they had any dealing with them?
If so, what was that experience like?

While impressions and opinions are just that, this is one instance where no news is NOT good news. Feedback like “I’d rather not say” or “NO COMMENT”, are not good testimonials.

I have always found people willing to volunteer feedback if they have good things to say while most will be reluctant to say anything bad. Usually a dealer will simply refuse to provide an opinion rather than provide you a negative report. Look for a pattern to the feedback you receive as this will provide you a good indication of what you can expect. Ask prepared, factual questions about the things covered in this report: time in business, number of employees, etc.

Who you buy it from is often more important than who made it

Pallet rack, like the majority of material handling equipment, is available from several quality manufacturers in the United States. The question of what to buy is normally fairly straightforward. The real question is, who you buy it from to get the best possible deal in terms of price, delivery and support. There are several options.

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Auction Buying Secrets – 7 Rookie Mistakes You Should Never Ever Make

So it’s your first auction and the place is full of people and excitement. The auctioneer is barking out bids, numbers and prices. People all around you are bidding on an item like it’s a long-lost childhood toy. You notice that some item you have just seen in the store sold for a fraction of the store price. A second item comes up and it goes for yet another great bargain. You think, “Wow, this seems like a pretty easy way to get things dirt cheap. Maybe I should bid and get in on the action. How hard can it be anyway…right?”

Wrong!

While great buys can be had at auctions, the opposite is also true. Getting stuck with something that isn’t what you thought it was can (and more often than not, does) happen. Below are some pro tips that you can use to avoid costly mistakes. Following the tips will save you a lot of grief and expense and give you the tools you need to bid like the pros.

#1 – Hidden costs

While auctions provide a means for anyone to find a bargain, it’s important to keep in mind many of the hidden costs often associated with auction buying.

Buyer’s Premium/Commissions

Most, if not all auctions have what is called a buyer’s premium. This is an additional fee that is put on all items sold at an auction. This fee can run anywhere from 10% to 20% of the item’s sell price. This cost is an additional fee that you will be charged for items you buy in addition to the price you bid. Beware – buyer’s premiums can add up very quickly. Auctions can often have different buyer’s premiums for those bidding online and those physically bidding at the auction. Every auction is different so take note of what these costs are and which fees apply to you before you bid.

#2 – Do a detailed inventory and inspection

If I can give you two pieces of advice here – it would be these:

  • Don’t assume all the parts or there.
  • Don’t assume missing parts can be requisitioned or repurchased.

I’ve seen to many rookie bidders thinking they got a great buy only to discover later that the items are no longer in production or the manufacturer is out of business. Do a detailed inspection of items to make sure all necessary items (ie. hardware, parts, controls, manuals etc.) are there. If parts are missing make sure replacements are available and have an idea of what the costs will be to fix, repair or replace what is missing before you bid.

#3 – Taxes & Fees

Depending on the location of the auction, be aware that different states have different rules about what taxes or fees they want you to pay. Some states are nothing some are 6% – 8% or more.

#4 – Remember…there are no “Do-Overs”

What that means is that “What you see is what you get!” and “You buy it, you own it!”

If an item you bid on doesn’t run or isn’t what you thought it was, you have NO RECOURSE later. The auctioneer is not going to give you your money back or allow you to back out of a purchase once you buy it. It is your responsibility to know what it is you are bidding on – NOT the auctioneers. Items purchased thru auctions are inherently sold “as-is, where-is” with no implied guarantee or warrantee.

Caution: Auction bidding is a fast paced game for grown-ups – not victims. At auction, you sign the auction’s terms and agreement paperwork before you are allowed to bid. This agreement is a legally binding contract that says you know what you are doing and what you are bidding on, and you assume all liability to pay for whatever you buy in the condition it is in when you buy it. If you bid on an item thinking it works or runs only to find out later it doesn’t – too bad. In other words – you buy it, you own it.

#5 – Removal Costs

Never forget, unless specifically stated otherwise, everything in an auction is sold “as-is, where-is.” If the equipment you purchased requires dismantling and/or removal, YOU (as its new owner) will be responsible for the disassembly and removal of the item – not the auctioneer or former owner. This can be very expensive.

#6 – Time Costs

Related to removal costs are time costs. There are often very short time frames and/or restraints for removal that you will be responsible to adhere to. Failure to comply with these can result in fines or legal action and even forfeiture of the equipment. The time you have to remove the item can also drastically affect the final sale price you and others may be willing to pay. I have seen time frames for removal that range from the same day as the auction to several weeks or even months. Know when things need to be removed before you bid.

#7 – Transportation

Items to big to move by yourself may require additional people or equipment to move. The auctioneer IS NOT going to do that for you. Don’t bid on items that will require you to hire or requisition additional people unless you know the costs of doing so in advance. With fuel prices on the rise, having to freight items across long distances can be very costly. Again, know and factor in all the costs before you bid.

There you have it – as with any great deal – the devil really is in the details. Please feel free to comment or share other auction tips or tricks in the comments below.

Top 5 Rookie Mistakes New Entrepreneurs Make on Warehousing & Distribution

Starting any new business can be a daunting project, and setting up a new distribution center or warehouse where hundreds of different companies count on your efficiency can be downright overwhelming. As with any new business, you’re going to be purchasing equipment to outfit your operation and make it as efficient & profitable as possible. Many new entrepreneurs start this process from scratch and learn as they go. Today, you can’t afford to do on-the-job learning. You need to be on your “A-Game” from the start.

The following 5 tips (written by a 30 year industry professional) will help you avoid the most common pitfalls and mistakes that rookie entrepreneurs make that can bankrupt their business before it even gets off the ground.

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Pallet Racking Conditions – What to Know Before You Buy

Fact: There are more pallet rack options available to you now than at any time in history.

Fact: There are very significant differences between New, Used & Refurbished pallet racking.

Fact: You think you know everything there is to know about each – but really, you don’t.

The fact is, what one dealer says can often conflict with what another dealer says. As with any industry, there are several ways of doing something, but there are only a few ways of doing it right. The following article will give you some insight into what the differences may be between not only new, used & refurbished racking, but also the differences between the offerings from dealer to dealer.


New Pallet Racking

As you’d expect, new pallet rack is exactly what the name implies. New pallet rack is typically sold through authorized rack distributors. Rack distributors fit into two main categories: Stocking & Non-Stocking. The pricing that distributors provide can vary considerably. Stocking dealers and dealers who sell a larger volume of rack generally will get the best discounts from the manufacturers and will usually offer the best pricing to the customer.

Non-stocking distributors do not stock pallet rack, but rather buy & ship it directly from the manufacturer as they produce it. For this reason, rack purchased from non-stocking distributors will usually have a much longer lead time (4-12 weeks.) Rack purchased from stocking or non-stocking distributors typically comes with the same manufacturer’s warranty.


Used Pallet Racking

Used rack is rack that has been previously utilized by others. Used pallet rack can be found in conditions from ‘like-new’ with a few scratches to completely rusted or bent in places. Used rack can be a good investment for those looking to save money as long as the buyer takes some precautions. It is critical to validate not only the condition of the rack prior to purchase, but also the reputation of the dealer selling it. Start by finding dealers who have been in business for several years – the more the better. Check their web sites and avoid companies that don’t provide photos & descriptions of their equipment or if they don’t show pricing. The web site should also provide you with a physical address where the company resides, a phone number and the names of people you can talk to. They should also be able to verify that they own the equipment. Avoid dealers who will not let you inspect the racking before purchase. If the racking looks good and there’s little rust, the components should still have the same strength and capacity ratings it had when it was new.


Refurbished Pallet Rack

Refurbished pallet rack is another option available to rack buyers who want a lower priced alternative to new racking. Because there is little to no industry standardization for the term “Refurbished,” it is a good idea to ask what steps the supplier takes in their refurbishing process. While some dealers do a complete break-down, inspection & repair of the materials, some do not. The point is that not all refurbishing processes are the same. To make sure you’re getting what you pay for, equipment advertised as refurbished should go through many if not all of the following steps:

Inspection

Each piece to be reconditioned is thoroughly inspected. Components that are found to be damaged, cracked or bent should be repaired or replaced by experienced professionals. Replaced components should equal or exceed the manufacturer’s original specifications.

Clean & Prep

During this stage, all stickers, tags, etc. should be completely removed (not just painted over.) Dirt, debris and rust should also be removed prior to paint. Chemical baths or wire brushes are the preferred methods of removing dirt or rust prior to painting. While sand-blasting may be a cheaper process, it can remove some of the metal from the racking which can compromise the structural integrity of the product. No matter what method is used, make sure your dealer can confirm and will stand behind the original capacity rating of the rack.

Paint

Items that have passed the prior two steps are ready for paint. There are many different methods of painting. Whatever method is chosen, it should utilize paint that is specially formulated for industrial applications. For industrial applications, powder coat, epoxy & heated enamels are superior to cold applied spray or latex.


Renewed

Recently a new condition was introduced to the material handling industry. This ‘Renewed’ equipment provides “like-new” material at prices competitive with used or refurbished. Renewed products are manufactured as a blend of new & pre-owned materials that when combined, create a fully warrantied hybrid product that until recently, didn’t exist in the marketplace. Currently, SJF Material Handling is the only company offering renewed pallet rack.

Top 5 Things to Double-Check on a Pallet Rack Quote

So you’ve finally gathered the 3 competitive rack quotes that your boss requested a week ago. Now it’s time to sit down and give them a good looking over. While you may be tempted to simply look at the bottom line on each quote, you’ll want to first make sure you’re really getting the best price – not just the lowest.

5 of the most overlooked items on every pallet rack quote after the jump…
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7 Tips for an Improved Warehouse Workflow

From managing logistics and layout to ensuring optimal safety and efficiency, warehouse workflow is more than just the speed of output. A quality warehouse manager knows how to utilize their best tools to achieve maximum optimization but even the elite need a refresher of best practices to keep things running smooth.

Here’s our list of 7 Tips for an Improved Warehouse Workflow:

1. Laying out the warehouse for optimum space utilization

The most important job of any warehouse manager is to determine how to best use the available floor space to store and move product. Especially in high dollar real estate markets, every inch counts! Ideally, the process begins with a complete drawing of the space including posts, sprinklers, windows, doors and any other architectural fixtures that will have to be taken into account. Then, the warehouse manager must clearly understand the inbound and outbound operations with the goal of maximizing space utilization while also saving time and reducing errors as product is moved in and out of the warehouse.

2. Using the proper type of storage systems

Choosing the proper type of storage system is an essential component of warehouse workflow efficiency. Understanding what is being stored, how much of it is being stored and how often it needs to be accessed will determine the most efficient storage system to use. Factors such as product expiration, temperature requirements and product demand must also be factored into the type of storage system chosen. Storage systems can be mixed and matched to meet the various product rotation needs within the warehouse. The speed and frequency of vehicles (such as forklifts) moving through the warehouse will dictate the durability requirements of any storage system.

3. Picking optimization

Within the warehouse layout, pick routes must be carefully planned. Minimizing travel through the warehouse will result in significant time savings and reduced potential for accidents. No matter how large the warehouse is, the amount of time spent picking product represents a significant part of costs. Organizing pick routes to match pick lists is a great way to reduce going back and forth through the aisles.

4. Properly managing inventory

A surprising number of companies do not know exactly how much inventory they have and exactly where it is stored. It is impossible to run an efficient workflow without this knowledge. More organizations that do a good job of inventory management are adopting lean inventory practices—only storing what is actually needed. The benefits of lean inventory management include time savings and waste reduction which translate to cost savings. Inventory must always be properly labelled to ensure proper counting, storage and retrieval. There are a number of different ways to keep track of inventory, from manual processes to highly automated, integrated systems.

5. Using Technology

While some companies are still using spreadsheets and other manual systems to manage their operations, the vast majority have adopted at least some technology to help them manage their warehouse. There are a plethora of WMS (warehouse management system) options available today that can help you manage standard as well as daily tasks such including labor, inventory, order processing, SKU handling, stock location and more. WMS’s can be standalone systems or part of a full ERP (enterprise resource planning) system. Always make sure WMS modules are linked and integrated to ensure smooth operation of the system as a whole and that users are fully trained on all software systems. Aligning IT and operations for a common understanding of business processes is a must.

6. Keeping the Warehouse Tidy and Orderly

Cluttered and disorderly aisles not only create safety hazards, they greatly impede the ability to move through the warehouse efficiently. Allocating even a little bit of time every day to clearing the aisles will immediately improve workflow. Consider posting SOP’s where appropriate, within the warehouse.

7. Maintaining Health and Safety Best Practices (including training)

Worker safety is of utmost importance to any company. Making sure workers are fully trained to do their jobs before they start doing them is always the best practice. Spending more time training will pay back many times over in not only accident reduction but error reduction as well. Consider cross-training workers to be able to perform more than one type of job so you can keep your operation moving at all times. Provide refresher training to make sure all workers are current in your processes and work standards. Clearly marking travel paths, for forklifts and people, and keeping them clear of clutter is essential to creating a safe work environment. Having proper lighting will reduce potential errors in product picking as well as improve the overall environment for the workers. Posting health and safety rules and regulations where everyone can see them is required by law.

Optimizing warehouse workflow is essential to optimizing profits. As inventory and storage needs change, warehouse design should be revisited and amended as practically as possible.


About the Author: Jeff Howard is the VP of Sales for Advance Storage Products, a structural rack systems manufacturer. Jeff has over 15 years in the material handling industry and holds a BA in Economics from Denison University.

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