It’s clear that COVID-19 has had a profound impact on warehouses, distribution and fulfillment centers as the pandemic continues to disrupt global supply chains.
While improving efficiency and productivity has always been a goal for virtually every warehouse operation, it is an especially necessary aim now. As changing consumer behaviors underscore the dominance of eCommerce, the effects of this “new normal” on warehousing and distribution will be long lasting, outlasting the pandemic itself.
There are some crucial lessons that all warehouses have had to learn in the last year as a result, with a particular emphasis how safety must be considered alongside strategies for increased efficiency.
We’ve included below some highlights of areas that will continue to see transitions within the next few months of continued quarantine:
Warehouses represent environments that normally can be hard to keep social distancing between employees since layouts have historically been designed around maximizing throughput rather than minimizing human contact. However, by reassessing floor organization and breaking down sections of the workflow, you can determine different areas of your operation that may require different strategies and make the necessary changes without hurting productivity.
Think about the typical movement flow associated with goods, people and equipment:
Does your current layout necessitate too much travel for employees to find what they need, increasing the likelihood of contact with others? Are your aisles wide enough to accommodate foot traffic? If your aisles are narrower, can you set up a one-directional flow for foot traffic?
Making these adjustments to organize your floor plan and workstations helps workers will feel confident that they’re adhering to social distancing protocols while keeping productivity alive and well.
Safety and Hygiene
Your warehouse employees are critical components to your company’s success. While warehouses are being hit with fluctuating demands, managers must continue to explore ways to ensure procedures are in place to protect workers. In fact, according to OSHA’s recently released fact sheet, “workers who believe that their employer provides a safe and healthy workplace are more likely to report for work during a pandemic.”
Viruses can spread quickly in the confines of a warehouse work environment. So rather than proceeding with business as usual, make sure your employees know how to protect themselves and reduce the spread of illness at work:
- Frequent Hand Washing: employees should be directed to wash their hands with soap and water as much as possible throughout their shift. Antibacterial hand soap and hand sanitizer should be readily available.
- Social Distancing and Masking: wearing a face mask and maintaining a distance of six feet from others minimizes the coronavirus’s spread. Post and share social distancing and masking policies and reinforce them by setting up floor markers and signs to remind and guide workers.
- Proper Equipment: providing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as facial masks, ear plugs, safety glasses, gloves and protective clothing helps to safeguard against germs, viruses and common warehouse injuries. This includes equipping employees with all necessary cleaning supplies.
- Physical Barriers: when able, installing physical barriers, like plastic sheeting or panels, can be a helpful solution to your social distancing plan.
As with any new procedure or policy, communication will be key. Teach employees how to protect themselves and help them understand the risks and the role they play. Not only with this improve your processes to help employees perform, but also help combat the increasing levels of fear that accompany uncertainty that can lead to burnout.
Picking Process Updates
Another specific area where your warehouses can improve both productivity and safety is your picking process. With all the potential changes in processes and floor plans it’s important to choose the optimal picking methodology depending on what works best for your organization, your team and your safety measures.
This will involve evaluating a number of factors including:
- Size and layout of your facility;
- Number of employees per shift;
- Inventory placement and available storage space;
- Employee walking patterns and travel times within the warehouse; and
- Tools and technology available to address any environment challenges.
Warehouse managers should focus on maximizing warehouse space utilization to efficiently execute picking processes that can easily handle the shifts in order demand while supporting the health and safety of your employees.
For example, zone picking divides the warehouse into zones and assigns employees to a specified, defined area while working. These employees are then only responsible for picking order items in their zone, ensuring employees are able to follow social distancing protocols and minimizing encounters other coworkers in picking aisles.
Take time to evaluate and determine which solution or strategy best fits helps you optimize the overall results while making employees feel safer.
Keeping up with technology is an important factor in running at maximum productivity and improving your bottom line. Based on the RIS Supply Chain Technology Study 2020, if you want to match or surpass your industry competitors, it’s recommended that you dedicate about a third of the overall IT budget (29 percent) to support supply chain capabilities, such as material handling technology and tools.
But these machines don’t only help warehouses keep up with competitors, and keep pace with growing consumer demands and expectations, they also help make your work environment safer and more efficient.
Tools such as industrial manipulators facilitate fast, convenient and safe handling operations that relieve employees during laborious maneuvers and save valuable time when your warehouse may be working on staggered shifts or fewer employees per picking zone. For example, some lifting and handling tasks require two people if the load being handled is over the recommended safe limit for a single person, which may violate established safety protocols. Industrial manipulators enable a single employee to handle loads of up to 2,000 pounds with ease and precision quickly while still observing social distancing guidelines.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every company in every industry, with businesses operating in the supply chain feeling some of the most intense pain. But with serious challenges come important lessons learned.
Taking a look at your current processes and systems to identify bottlenecks and other concerns, implementing process improvements and making smart technology investments that address your key challenges puts warehouse efficiency within reach and will leave you better prepared for the next major challenge.
If you’re realizing your warehouse needs a lifting and handling solution to meet your productivity goals, our buyer’s guide can help find the right machine for you.