Turning Less into More in Distribution Centers  

There are many approaches to optimizing warehouse space, each differentiated by which feature or function to optimize for. Ideally, warehouses would be optimized around a balance of priorities specific to the business at hand, with each priority determined through proper operational cost and performance analysis. For most warehouses, forklift operational efficiency is only one of these priorities, but is certainly important enough to warrant a healthy discussion on the building blocks that make up productive forklift operations. In this manner, warehouse managers can do more with less, paving the way to more efficient space utilization while also controlling costs and effectively serving customers.  

Optimizing Warehouses around Efficient Forklift Operations  

Let’s jump right into suggestions on how managers can optimize their warehouses’ space utilization through forklift-centered opportunities and best practices:  

  • Go Vertical – in the context of warehouse layout and design, vertical storage arrangements are a fact of life. Adding vertical storage layers can unlock higher overall route efficiencies as compared to building out in square footage (increasing travel distances). Usually warehouse storage is built out to max heights when initially constructed, but there are plenty of cases where shorter racking is installed as limited by low-height forklift selections (to keep capital costs down), leaving room for vertical expansion via taller racking and high-reach forklift models. 
  • Examine Aisle Widths – since we’re talking forklift efficiency and not all-out storage maximization, aisle widths can be equally subject to shrinking or expanding in order to facilitate smoother forklift operations. In some cases, aisle spacing can be redesigned around narrow-aisle or side-reach forklifts, reducing forklift pick motions and times. In other cases, aisle spacing may need to be widened, granting operators more clearance to make turns or handle larger loads, resulting in smoother, faster motions than time-consuming constrained maneuvering.  
  • Increase Storage Density – warehouses need forklifts for two reasons: to pick up large, heavy loads, and to transport these loads across relevant distances. Forklift efficiency therefore can be measured by the speed and accuracy of a lift discharging these two duties. In this way, increasing warehouse storage density can provide shorter distances to travel and fewer maneuvers to make. Increasing storage density can be achieved through right-sizing storage bay dimensions, finding unused space to add storage, or consolidating wasted empty positions created by undersized storage lots.  
  • Augment or Replace Storage Solutionsphysical racking changes can benefit forklift efficiency in major ways. Switching from single-selective to double-selective, deep lane, push-back, gravity flow, or other advanced racking solutions boosts overall warehouse productivity in terms of adding density, reducing lift movements, and optimizing lot sizes. Even better, different storage systems can be commingled within a single warehouse, splitting up warehouse areas in ways that serve specific functions, movement rates, and storage objectives.  
  • Consolidate / Eliminate Staging – too often, warehouses fall victim to excess staging, overflow, and work-in-progress islands sprinkled all throughout non-storage areas. For example, partial picks end up in full pallet positions, return stock sits idly around the docks, and tomorrow’s pre-picks choke main traffic aisles. Consolidating necessary staging areas to smaller spots where they do not interfere with normal forklift traffic is the first step to solving this issue, followed by addressing inventory flow issues that force ad-hoc staging decisions.  
  • Streamline Traffic Patterns – once staging islands are cleaned up, all other traffic flow limitations should next be addressed. Cross-traffic, congested intersections, narrow thoroughfares, low visibility corners, and non-continuous corridors are all great candidates for improvement. Overall, forklift and pedestrian traffic paths throughout a warehouse should be planned holistically, solving for fast transit times, zero traffic conflicts, and above all, personnel safety.  
  • Increase Container or Movement Sizes – larger containers hold more goods, and transporting larger quantities of goods in fewer trips speeds up high volume pick missions. In appropriate situations, scaling up container and movement sizes can directly improve forklift efficiency, but this isn’t always practical (especially in consumer or non-standard order picking). In these cases, there are other strategies that can achieve the same results, such as introducing large intermediate containers and longer missions to gather more single-item picks in one trip. 
  • Analyze Route Efficiency – even after implementing individual improvements, there may still be significant forklift optimization available. Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) and related software packages serve to find these opportunities, performing route efficiency analysis down to the per-route or even per-pick level of detail. WMS platforms in particular can aggregate a whole day’s activities and produce ultra-optimized routes, pick sequences, and individual operator assignments across the entire workforce.  

Other Considerations in Warehouse Optimization  

We said above that warehouses should be ideally optimized around a variety of top priorities specific to each business. Space and forklift efficiencies are certainly important, but what other adjacent considerations might overlap forklift efficiencies that could just as readily come into play? Here are a few of the most common efficiency-minded topics we discuss with our clients:  

  • Time Efficiency vs. Space Efficiency – an optimized warehouse is not necessarily the most densely packed warehouse. In practice, time efficiency can be even more important than space efficiency. That is to say, a warehouse completing movements faster and more accurately can complete an order with fewer net resources and lower costs than a crammed warehouse operating ineffectively. Warehouse managers should always weigh time and space constraints against each other, and never improve one to the detriment of the other.   
  • Material Handling Automation – if we zoom out of forklift operations to look at the macro scale of supply chain optimization, automation is front and center. Anywhere that data can be used to drive automatic decisions, actions, and continuous improvement activities, material handling businesses stand to benefit using automation. Zooming back into any given warehouse, automated and autonomous forklifts are a maturing technology used to optimize material handling tasks, as are fully-automated storage systems where forklifts are entirely replaced by robotics and direct conveyance systems.  
  • Inventory Velocity – turning warehouse space over faster, more effectively can feel exactly the same as gaining physical space. For example, if an unoptimized pallet position turning over at most twice a day can be streamlined to turn over four times a day, the net effect is the equivalent of an additional pallet position turning over at the slower rate. Managing and optimizing velocity can shake out space utilization efficiencies like this quite easily.   
  • Warehouse Safety – nothing is more important than personnel safety, and all warehouse optimization efforts must always keep this fact in mind. Too many organizations push operational speed and volume up against nearly unsafe limits, resulting in a non-zero number of near-misses, close calls, slowdowns, and stop-work conditions that impact their overall efficiency. Evaluating a warehouse from a safety perspective can shine a light on these situations, which if corrected back to safer levels, can directly return found time and improve overall operational efficiency.  
  • Staff Training & Continued Development – the very best of intentions in warehouse design, forklift selections, and operational efficiency can all be squandered if the staff expected to implement such intentions are not trained or comfortable doing so. Personnel training, ongoing development, and persistent in-situ feedback are part and parcel of utilizing warehouse space efficiently, as any time a decision has to be made between a desirable use of space and a wasteful one, we need to count on our people to make the desirable one. Even better, if managers explain the need for sound decisions and the reasoning behind them, staff naturally get brought into the efficiency-mindset fold, empowering them to expand their impact beyond the lesson plan and serve as examples for others to do the same.  

We hope that this discussion has been helpful for your commercial material handling needs. Fairchild Equipment is the Upper Midwest’s premier Material Handling Equipment and Service resource, with headquarters in  Green Bay, Wisconsin, and numerous locations serving needs 24/7 across Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Northern Illinois, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For more information or to discuss which Warehouse Optimization solution might be best for you, please send us a message or call us at (844) 432-4724.


2140 Hutson Rd.
Green Bay, Wisconsin 54303
(920) 494-8726