At a time when the warehousing industry is relatively prosperous, it is natural for operators to be working on acquisition of new facilities and/or expansion of old ones. Your expansion could either be a construction project or the adaptation of an existing building to meet both today's and tomorrow's needs.

Moving from the inside out

Designing a new warehouse starts with an understanding of what goes on inside. Few businesses can assume that a wrongly sized building can be corrected by growth or by renting or subletting temporary space.

In the growing number of warehouse operations with fast inventory turnover, serious deficiencies in material flow may be impossible or impractical to correct. Therefore, a critical first step is to determine just exactly what the operation will look like from inside out.

This starts with defining your business. Just what is the function of your warehouse anyway? For most companies, this is best answered by altering former President Bill Clinton's political slogan: "It’s the cycle time, stupid."

In nearly every warehousing operation, a key goal is to reduce the time lapse between the moment when a customer wanted an item until that time when he or she received it. In the effort to reduce order cycle time, a growing number of warehouses are operating not just two shifts but sometimes three — not just five days, but sometimes seven. The best way to improve order cycle time is to have a warehouse that never sleeps, an operation where nothing must wait until tomorrow.

Is your distribution center there to store dead merchandise or to move product more rapidly than ever before? As a growing number of operations turn from storehouses to cross docks, warehouse buildings that were designed for the first function may fail to work efficiently at the second.

Designing for fast turn

If your operation has higher inventory velocity than ever before, what kind of warehouse do you really need? This may best be answered in the negative. Manufacturing tradition says that the receiving docks are at one end of the building and shipping docks are at the opposite end.

For a process industry where raw materials come in and a different finished item goes out, such a layout makes reasonable sense. But for a cross dock or fast-turn operation, receiving and shipping doors should be adjacent to each other. Doors one through eight might be used for receiving in the morning and for shipping in the afternoon, or the odd numbered doors used for receiving and the even numbered ones for shipping.

Such an arrangement will facilitate cross docking by allowing goods that come in one door to go out through an adjacent door. For the warehouse of today and tomorrow, the concept of dedicated doors for receiving or shipping is obsolete.

New concepts in design and maintenance

Yesterday's storehouse was designed for storage density, narrow aisles, high floor loads and excellent space utilization. The warehouse of today and tomorrow is designed for velocity.

It requires more space to spot trailers, more doors per acre of floor, and more trucks per dock door. To accommodate ever-increasing velocity, your warehouse may need a yard tractor to remove trailers when the work is completed and replace them with the trailers needed for the next job.

Another growing need for the future will be the requirement to find and identify urgently needed items that may be in the middle of a trailer in your yard. Just as air couriers can find your package in a matter of seconds through electronic control, a growing number of warehouse managers will be able to find and expedite given boxes that are urgently needed to fill a customer order.

Yesterday's warehouse used skylights to enjoy the economy and attractiveness of natural light. In designing for tomorrow's around-the-clock operation, we bear in mind that it is dark 50 percent of the time. Therefore, high quality in artificial illumination is more important than skylights.

That illumination must be not only efficient but also movable. Lights that were directly over the aisles yesterday may be in the wrong place when the warehouse is rearranged tomorrow. By mounting all lights on a long pig-tailed cord, illumination can be readjusted as aisle locations change.

Balancing cost and flexibility

Dock doors are expensive, and it is natural for the cost-conscious builder to minimize the number that must be supplied. A compromise answer is to create the ability to easily add additional dock doors at a later date.

One way to do this is to depress the building footer enough to allow future installation of dock doors. Perhaps the entire north wall of the building would be designed for dock doors, but only a few of these would be installed in the initial construction project. By designing the foundation and the walls for future alteration, you can preserve flexibility and still limit the construction cost.

Growing product velocity means more wear and tear on warehouse floors. This means that it may be wise to spend more on a high-quality concrete floor that is designed to minimize the dusting, curling or cracking that occurs in many concrete floors.

Changing functions and changing buildings

As the function of warehousing changes, rules of thumb about building design rapidly become obsolete. For example, many operators have assumed that office space need not occupy more than 20 percent of the floor space in a building. The distribution center of tomorrow seems to have clerical functions growing faster than materials-handling jobs.

As we dedicate more warehouses to cross docking, consolidation and direct marketing, the clerical and administrative functions require more people and become more critical to the operation. Consider the fact that you could run out of office before you run out of warehouse.

Have you made provision to expand the office area as necessary? Do all of the office operations have to be performed on site, or could they be moved to office space at another location? As you look at the future, plan on the fact that the office operation at your warehouse will continue to grow.

Furthermore, just as the warehouse operation must move to two or three shifts and six to seven days per week, office and administrative jobs may also be performed on an around-the-clock basis in order to provide improved service.

Is the office area designed for a multishift operation? If not, what features should be added? For example, high-quality food and beverage vending services become a necessity rather than a luxury if people need a lunch break in the middle of the night when no restaurants are operating.

As you design facilities to meet today's requirement, consider what you may need tomorrow. If packaging or product assembly could be part of your future, do you have the power requirements to support such processes? Now that computers have moved from the office to the warehouse floor, are there power connections to support computer operations throughout the building?

As a growing number of products are designated as hazardous materials, have you considered the alterations that would make your building safe for such commodities in the future? The dikes and retention drains that are necessary for safe handling of hazardous materials can be added later, if the planning for them takes place when the building is constructed.

Storage and handling flexibility

Tomorrow's technology will change the way storage and handling are performed. Adoption of robotic equipment allows a flexibility that was unheard of a few years ago. Information systems give us improved ability to analyze the inventory and utilize a constantly-changing 80/20 rule.

Storage and handling systems that are bolted to the floor are less flexible than robotic systems that can be moved from one building to another.

The storage layout is designed to place those 20 percent of items that constitute 80 percent of activity in a pick line where they can be easily shipped. However, the perfect layout today will become less-than-perfect tomorrow, and it is inevitable that location in storage patterns significantly changed during the useful life of the building. Therefore, storage and handling tools should be designed for flexibility rather than just for efficiency.

Continued pressure to improve utilization of trucks will require more land for storage of trailers, as a greater number of operators use the "drop and hook" strategy to avoid loading and unloading delays.

Designing for the Age of Information

As you look at computer requirements in the office, consider the changes in computing equipment that have taken place in the last 20 years, as well as the probability that changes in the next 20 will be even more profound. As computer capabilities become ever more critical to warehouse operations, facility design should include backup systems to insure that computers will not be disabled if the primary power source fails.

Similar backup capabilities are necessary for communications links. Today, this must include e-mail, Internet, telephone and fax. How would each of these be handled if the primary power or line source fails?

Finally, design the building to accommodate your most important asset the people who work there. Longer hours may seem to make warehouse work less attractive, but this can be compensated by providing your people with a safe and comfortable work environment.

This starts with illumination. Is there enough lighting to make the warehouse as bright at 2 a.m. as it is at noon? Is there security lighting to cover employee parking areas and the walkways between the parking lots and the warehouses? Do the night shifts receive as much management attention as the day shift? Or are night workers treated as second-class citizens?

Night operations can be a potential drain on morale, but this is overcome by planning the facilities and operations so that every worker is treated as a key member of the team.

Team management may require meeting rooms, and your facility design should provide for such meeting spaces.

If you think about the future as you design the warehouse you need today, you should avoid constructing or buying a building that cannot be adapted to the changes that are highly predictable as well as those you cannot anticipate. Your next warehouse must be designed for a rapidly changing world, and your failure to do this will limit the future utility or salability of the building.