Material Handling 101: How to Keep Your Warehouse Productive
If you want to focus on one concept to increase warehouse productivity, boost worker morale, and protect workers all in one go, we’ve got two words for you: material handling.
The Material Handling Industry group defines material handling as the “movement, protection, storage and control of materials and products throughout manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, consumption, and disposal”.
Material handling is a far-reaching concept in supply chain management. It’s a foundational process including several types of equipment and activities that are either:
- Manual: Workers use their hands to transport objects within a warehouse or to a transportation vehicle. This includes filling, lifting, carrying, and emptying. Manual material handling poses serious workplace safety risks. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) the most frequently reported cause for “lost or restricted work time” is musculoskeletal disorders.
- Semi-Automatic/Automatic: Automatic machinery exists to reduce the number of manual movements. Nevertheless, most automatic machines fall into the category of semi-automatic material handling as they require employees to load and unload goods or to drive the equipment. At present, fully automating these processes is too expensive for most warehouses.
A warehouse has a lot of moving parts. Literally. It’s why poor material handling brings sweeping consequences. For better or for worse, it impacts production flow, employee safety, and employee morale. That said, understanding material handling systems and implementing best practices significantly improves the function of your warehouse.
Need to jump to a particular section? Here’s what we cover in our Material Handling 101 guide:
- Why does material handling matter?
- How does warehouse layout impact material handling?
- What are the different types of material handling equipment?
- How do you make the most of your material handling equipment?
- What to do when manual movement is the only option
- Best practices for effective materials handling
BONUS: Before you read further, download our Warehouse Management Software White paper to see how Logiwa uses real-time data to help you get up to 100% inventory accuracy and execute advanced fulfillment strategies like wave planning.
Why Does Warehouse Material Handling Matter?
Material handling directly impacts productivity in warehouses, manufacturing plants, and distribution centers. An inefficient facility causes errors and delays, eroding customer loyalty and making it easier for your competition to snatch away business.
Something else that’s interesting? Effective material handling isn’t only about sorting your goods into unit loads. Successful businesses invest time into monitoring and improving their material handling system in order to protect:
- The integrity of their goods
- The productivity of their retail warehouse,3PL warehouse, distribution center, or manufacturing plant
- The physical and mental health of their workers
When a shipment arrives, a good material handling process ensures goods get from the dock to the appropriate rack in good time. It also accounts for proper control of materials. You can mitigate theft, damage, and spoilage with a material handling process that limits access to certain parts of your warehouse to particular employees.
Finally, proper material handling allows warehouses to store goods in an organized manner that makes it easy to pick and pack inventory for outgoing shipments.
Improve Your Employee Morale
Beyond inventory management, effective material handling can also increase employee morale. Well-designed systems and processes help employees complete work faster.
A poorly designed warehouse positions machinery with little to no regard for specific processes. Frustratingly, a machine used for Step 2 of production may be placed all the way on the other side of the warehouse.
Now your employee’s time on task is doubled. It can also result in workers to moving heavy loads over unnecessarily long distances.
Not only does poor material handling pose physical risks, but it also poses mental risks, too. According to one study, useless or inefficient activities lead to reduced mental health in workers, and unhappy workers are unproductive workers. They’re also more likely to take time off or quit, increasing turnover and raising your recruitment costs.
What Role Does Warehouse Layout Play in Material Handling?
Your warehouse layout significantly influences your material handling system. It can be the difference between an efficient warehouse and a warehouse that can’t keep it together.
A poor warehouse layout causes bottlenecks, increases motion waste (moving more than necessary within the warehouse), and raises the risk of injury due to manual material handling.
A well-designed warehouse layout streamlines processes, decreases worker movements, and positively impacts employees’ physical and mental health.
Prioritize Flow, Accessibility, and Space in Warehouse Design
If you’re moving shop or opening up a new warehouse, you’re in the perfect position to start off right. Keep the following warehouse layout optimization tips in mind.
Flow Keeps Ops Moving
Does your design enable the uninterrupted flow of goods through your facility? Is machinery set next to the machines workers subsequently use in a given process? Are materials for each workstation nearby?
Optimize Accessibility to Increase Worker Speed
Are pallets stored in a way where workers can access goods without moving other goods out of the way? Are racks safety and readily accessible by forklifts and pallet jacks?
Use Space Efficiently
Have you accounted for all your warehouse needs, storage-related or otherwise such as offices and washrooms? Do you have space to store empty pallets or batteries?
By keeping flow, accessibility, and space at the forefront of your mind, you can design an effective warehouse layout.
Determine Your Warehouse Objectives
What processes do you want to prioritize in your warehouse? Your particular business may want to improve inventory management while another wants to implement cross-docking while another wishes to improve picking and packing. Once you’ve zeroed in on the goal you want to achieve, you can structure your warehouse thoughtfully.
What’s more, all of those example objectives support the larger objective of improving material handling.
Calculate How Much Inventory You’ll Store
An overloaded facility has a detrimental effect on material handling. Improperly stacked loads can topple causing injuries. Poorly stored goods require workers to move one product to gain access to another.
Understanding how much inventory you’ll store at a given time and how big the average item will be helps you make smart decisions about pallet rack height and aisle space.
The Different Types of Material Handling Equipment
There are different types of material handling equipment. The types of equipment you order, and how you organize them in your warehouse, impact your material handling processes.
- Storage and handling equipment: Stores goods in the time between receiving and shipping. Examples of such equipment are stacking frames, racks, and shelves.
- Engineered systems: Automated units that efficiently move goods through a warehouse and reduce the need for manual intervention. Examples of such equipment are automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), robotic delivery systems, automatic guided vehicles, and conveyor systems.
- Industrial trucks: Powered vehicles that move materials around a warehouse. Examples of such vehicles are forklifts, hand trucks, side loaders, and pallet jacks.
- Bulk Material Handling Equipment: Equipment that assists workers with handling large loads. Examples of such equipment include bucket elevators, stackers, and silos.
Conveyors move materials from Point A to Point B, limiting the amount of heavy lifting required. They also take goods through different stages of the distribution process including receiving, packaging, and shipping.
Overhead handling methods supplement conveyors. Rather than occupying floor space to move goods, overhead handling methods, such as hoists and cranes, use overhead space to move goods from Point A to Point B. Additionally, they allow warehouse operators to use floor space for storage rather than as maneuvering room for shifting shipments.
Industrial trucks, like forklifts, offer more maneuverability around the warehouse, allowing stock pickers to navigate aisles and handle pallets.
How Do You Make the Most of Your Material Handling Equipment?
Investing in Automated Systems
Increasing your inventory of automated tools, like those listed in the engineering systems category, introduces additional efficiency and improves material handling.
For instance, if your business works with a large volume of goods and limited space, you could benefit from an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS). This computer-controlled system automatically stores and retrieves goods from pre-defined locations within the warehouse.
Organizing Your Warehouse Intelligently
While automation is incredibly effective, it may not always be the best solution.
There are some problems that can’t be solved by simply adding more technology. For instance, an automated system requires pre-defined rules, and if you don’t understand what the most efficient layout of your warehouse is, your gadgets won’t be as efficient.
Moreover, automation isn’t as nimble and intuitive as humans. At present, solutions like an AS/RS are most effective in instances where storing and picking are the only tasks. Processes that require workers to “add value” to a good by changing or processing it in any way wouldn’t be suitable for an AS/RS.
Organizing your warehouse intelligently means keeping it clean, sorting inventory in a sensible system, and putting materials away when they’re not in use.
Implementing a Warehouse Management System (WMS)
A WMS software gives you visibility over your entire warehouse operation. While a WMS offers countless benefits, with regard to material handling, it’s especially useful thanks to the use of advance ship notices (ASN). An ASN alerts a warehouse when shipments are en route, allowing them to plan ahead by scheduling staff and freeing up equipment.
Improving Put-Away Processes
Putting goods away the same day they’re received reduces errors, frees up much-needed warehouse space, and reduces the risk of damage or theft. It also speeds up order fulfillment, since items are already in the pick rack ready for retrieval.
Direct put-away systems, the process of putting goods away the same day, relies on an advanced warehouse inventory management system.
Incorporating RFID Tags and Scanners
RFID scanners present numerous benefits over traditional barcodes. RFID scanners don’t need line of sight access the way barcodes do, limiting the amount of material handling. Moreover, RFID scanners can pick up the presence of inventory from up to 40 feet for a fixed reader, 20 feet for a handheld reader, and over 100 feet for an active UHF RFID system.
RFID scanners empower warehouses to collect more data about their operations, setting the stage for further insights into material handling improvements.
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Material Handling Tips for Unavoidable Manual Processes
At times, there’s no choice but to move materials manually. In this case, it’s important to train employees on proper handling techniques to limit injuries. The National Safety Council recommends that employees observe the following do’s and don’t’s when manually handling materials.
|Lift in areas with sufficient lighting||Lift materials from the floor|
|Lift in areas with enough space to keep your footing||Lift materials while seated|
|Modify activities and objects to make lifting easier||Lift with sudden movements|
|Stay in shape||Lift loads over obstacles|
|Start lifts close to your body||Twist or bend while lifting|
|Store goods in containers made of lighter materials||Perform repetitive, heavy lifts|
Are There Best Practices for Effective Material Handling?
If your business needs a starting point, here are specific material handling principles that can guide you for improvement projects.
- Planning Principle: Set clear objectives and specifications.
- Standardization Principle: Standardize equipment and software without compromising on production, modularity, or flexibility.
- Work Principle: Reduce the amount of warehouse movements without sacrificing on operating levels or productivity. Solutions shouldn’t lead to a reduction in output.
- Ergonomic Principle: Prioritize worker health and safety while undertaking improvement efforts. Attempting to increase efficiency by making unreasonable or dangerous demands of employees is counterproductive and in some cases illegal.
- Unit Load Principle: Ensure unit loads are the correct size and actually facilitate the flow of goods through a warehouse rather than causing bottlenecks.
- Space Utilization Principle: Treat space like the finite resource it is and use it effectively through practices like direct put-away.
- System Principle: Integrate your storage activities and material handling systems to cover everything starting from reception all the way to transportation and possible claims handling.
- Automation Principle: Limit the amount of manual intervention by automating processes where possible.
- Environmental Principle: Assess the environmental impact and effect on your company’s footprint when considering new equipment.
- Lifecycle Principle: Evaluate the expected life cycle of potential equipment and how much the ongoing maintenance costs will be.
Businesses that keep these principles in mind avoid creating new problems while trying to solve old ones.
Proper Material Handling Protects Your Warehouse’s Employees and Facilitates Productivity
Your material handling process underpins your warehouse’s entire productivity efforts. Ignore the former and it’ll be to the detriment of the latter. Effective material handling processes keep production flowing, ensure goods reach customers in time, prevent workplace injuries, and elevate overall employee morale.
In other words, it’s an essential part of a healthy supply chain. Routinely monitoring and improving it will ensure your warehouse stays in top operational shape well into the future.