Three things to do to keep up with growth and your competitors warehouse systems.

How can the Prime Reach Zone help improve efficiencies?

Most of us know UPS by the brown trucks that seem to swarm our streets to deliver packages to our homes. One of the world’s largest parcel delivery services, UPS, generated a total of $74 billion in revenue in 2019 and delivered more than 5.5 billion packages and documents. Perhaps less known is UPS’s Supply Chain Services, a $13 billion division that handles everything from freight forwarding to e-commerce fulfillment services targeted at the small- to mid-sized (SMB) business community.

UPS’s e-commerce fulfillment operations are transforming to adapt to a rapidly changing market. And while it’s simple to attribute the changes to the pandemic, many of the trends impacting e-commerce fulfillment were already in motion before Covid-19, but Covid-19 may have accelerated their success and growth. To keep up with that growth, UPS has been investing in connectivity across its smart network…. Of course, most businesses (ours included) cannot keep up with the infrastructure investment of a UPS but what are we doing to keep up with growth and how do we plan to outperform our competitors. Are we looking at our flow and bottlenecks?

While COVID-19 has caused many horrible disruptions, it has also meant an increase in e-commerce fulfillment activity. In a recent survey, businesses were asked about their e-commerce growth since the pandemic began, 10% of respondents say it has grown their e-commerce channel by 60% or more, and a combined 34% say e-commerce has grown by 30% or greater since the beginning of the pandemic. Operational change driven largely by e-commerce has been ongoing for several years, but the pandemic has put that pace of change into overdrive. Again, what can a small struggling ecommerce business do to change and grow properly, especially when there seems to be so few hours in a day. Here are three things to consider for your small or large fulfillment center (i.e., warehouse, garage, etc.):

  1. Improve Aisle, and Bin Labeling

Bin and aisle labels that are clear, easy to read, and easy to scan can help pickers find the right bin quickly before adding an item to a pick tote. Be careful though, while floor labels might seem ideal, they may be easily overlooked and often become difficult to read/scan with regular wear and tear. Make sure all employees are thoroughly trained on the layout of items – if they are random by item number or alpha order or by category, etc. Simple informal, random tests can help keep employees committed to memorizing layouts.

  1. Use Narrow Aisle Equipment to Reduce Lost Space

When the opportunity arises, developing smaller aisles and buying narrow forklift equipment can lead to increased warehouse capacity.  Although this approach does increase space, it could lead to aisle congestion and unexpected delays during the put away and replenishment process. Efficiency in smaller aisles and the proper tools go hand in hand in the modern warehouse, but if you’re not ready for this type of change, maybe you’re small and just starting your real growth cycle, then this is a strategy to keep in mind.

  1. Improve Pack-out Stations.

Most any well-built workbench can be at the center of a pack out station, but that does not necessarily mean it will support an optimal pack out process. To achieve a process that is fast and efficient, takes more than equipment: it takes thinking about the process involved, consideration of the range of products and packages that need to be handled, as well as physical height and reach differences in the workforce.

If you can integrate workflow considerations with the ergonomic needs of the operators, a productive pack out process should follow; the idea of “integration,” in that pack out is often a blend of automated presentation of goods, pack out equipment, people and monitors, printers, scanners, in the box packaging (which can consume a lot of table real estate) and scales.

When thinking about how to improve productivity in pack stations, the No. 1 issue is integration of items on the table. Ask yourself, how well does the manual process at a pack station integrate with my automation or manually processes and how things flow into pack out? How well the pack out station integrates with the flow and process can really affect your outcome. How do goods arrive at pack out, whether by conveyor, by mobile robots with totes on top, or manually pushed carts or on pallets.

Top considerations include how to goods arrive at the pack-out table, workflow, weight and size of typical packages, and ergonomic factors of many kinds, from reach distances to how often different operators use the same table.

Another key ergonomic is where to store materials like corrugate, bags, tape, labels or devices like a bar code printer that generates shipping labels. For the most frequently used materials, it’s best to put those into a zone reach of 14 inches or less from the operator, not only for reaches that are horizontal in nature, but also up or down.

The “prime reach zone”, should be reserved for the most frequently used cartons and materials like a tape dispenser or void fill supplies. So to optimize the “prime reach zone” first evaluate what you are shipping and what needs to be on the table. Are you shipping only soft goods or a mix of soft goods and hard goods? Are any of the hard goods fragile and need special in the box protection.

If you’re shipping only soft good then your table may need a few sizes of poly bags or bubble mailers, which takes up a lot less space than bubble wrapping or kraft paper. In the box packaging can take up a lot of real estate but is critical for the protection of goods being shipped. Most items shipped can be adequately protected by void fill or bubble wrapping made on demand with an air cushion machine. Air pillow machines are an economical way to make in the box product protection needed and help reduce damage claims. Air cushions machines are designed to keep up with the most demanding (fastest) packaging situations. Again, after evaluating what you pack, and the variety of shipping carton sizes you need; you may decide you need either a bubble wrapping cushion or a simple 4x8” void fill inflatable air cushion. Although air pillow machines can make both, it’s generally not an efficient use of packing time to have staff change out the types of film needed in the machine, especially when they have demanding packing requirements. Portable storage bins can also be a good way to store extra void fill or bubble wrapping materials. Having an air cushion machine build 4x8” or 8x8” void fill into large bins can help speed up packaging.

honeycomb packaging

If you feel you need kraft paper to protect your products you should also consider a paper dispenser, even if it is a manual dispenser – this is a real decision you’ll need to make which is really about speeding up the packing process. If you are using kraft paper for void fill (first consider changing out to air cushions) but a dispenser is critical, unless your packers are using kraft to carefully wrap glass or other fragile products, then a dispenser is probably not needed and paper on rolls or PaperEZ in a box works well. Specialty kraft paper also exists, like honeycomb that was specifically designed for wrapping delicate products with a concern on a beautiful presentation for the customer.

Lastly, if you’re shipping heavy products, greasy products or even delicate glass products some shippers may prefer to use foam in a bag. Foam in a bag is a convenient way to make custom in the box packaging. Foam envelopes can easily fit on a shelf within the prime reach zone. Foam bags activate with simple pressure from a packer and a unique product can be guaranteed safe arrival to their final destination.

Infrequently used cartons or tools might be better stored on a nearby cart or shelf, even if it involves walking. Ergonomically and to help prevent repetitive motion injuries, it can actually be good for operator comfort to change positions now and then, and take a few steps away from the station, as long as it’s not too frequent.

One of the main things that is recommended is continuous review and improvement. To keep up, grow and improve efficiencies takes a mindset that is always looking at processes and evaluating what can be done better.