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I know just how difficult it is to build pallets in a manual warehouse, because I used to do this type of work as a student – it was a great part-time job during my time at high school and university. It’s a complicated business getting products ready to ship to stores. Stacking by hand is a real challenge: you have to know how products should be placed on a pallet, taking account of elements such as their weight and fragility.
As a teenager I spent hours driving through the warehouse, collecting products to build the perfect pallet as quickly as possible. I remember going through the picking list to come up with an initial plan to get the products on a pallet by considering such factors as the location, size and weight of the product.
Building the perfect pallet
Even experienced operators will have to touch an item two or three times before it’s placed correctly – and the more touches, the more time it takes. However, I remember one guy who would just fly through the warehouse and build those perfect pallets in record time. He knew almost every product, including its location and “stackability”, as well as the product combinations that would work well on a pallet. He was our star order picker and even after ten years of doing the job, I could not reach his level.
To be fair, during my days as an order picker I still dreamed of becoming a football player or fighter pilot. I never expected that the knowledge I gained would become so valuable to me, some 13 years after I built my last pallet. Today at Vanderlande, I’m immersed in the world of innovative software – Load Forming Logic (LFL) – that helps warehouses build store-friendly pallets. So, when I talk to customers about optimising their warehouse processes, and more specifically about palletising, I can really relate to the order pickers and their struggles to build the perfect pallet.
When we are in the first stage of collaboration with a customer, they send us some theoretical scenarios of product mixes that need to be on the same pallet. What usually happens is that a business analyst sends us up to 100 orders from the past week along with the relevant product data. We do some initial basic testing and report back on the potential efficiency savings. At that point, we only have a basic view on the specific challenges or opportunities of the actual SKU set.
Automation combined with best practices
Then, as we start building the warehouse automation and test pallet stacking on site, the customer becomes more closely involved in formatting LFL. We also get a better view on the actual SKU set that is going to be used and combine this with the best practices used by the best operators from the existing warehouse. Recently this occurred during a discussion with a customer, when an operator told us that he was looking for combinations of bread and beer crates to increase utilisation. Bread crates are very difficult to stack with other products as they need to be placed on a large flat surface and have a large open top. The operator found out that one bread crate could fit on two bear crates in a way that provided the required stability. As a result, we configured LFL to actively look for these combinations and we achieved the required target. Once they shared that knowledge, we made the necessary changes to the algorithm to build better stacks specifically for that warehouse.
The beauty of LFL is that we can continue to optimise the pallet-building process as a retailer’s portfolio evolves over time. On the one hand, it’s straightforward to “teach” the system new products. This is done by entering the relevant product characteristics, such as weight and dimensions, of a case or an item into the LFL database. On the other hand, together with the customer we can keep updating LFL with specific instructions that fit their evolving business and SKU assortment.
Building the perfect team
The stage is then set for the best team player to be cloned – not really, of course, but their knowledge and reliability can be duplicated along the pallet-building line in each robot that uses LFL.
A warehouse can realise the dream of having the best operator at every pallet-building station when they automate and introduce LFL to their operations. Robot palletisers using this smart software are also able to work 24/7. In addition, the warehouse manager enjoys greater flexibility as shift patterns can be changed more easily than with a manual workforce. These are significant benefits, whether or not a warehouse is struggling with recruitment and a scarcity of labour.
Benefits beyond the warehouse
So, there are many benefits of using LFL in a warehouse. However, there are many more advantages to a retailer’s overall business, not least because a perfectly stacked pallet delivers what we call “store friendliness”.
LFL ensures that pallets and roll cages are stacked in such a way that they match a store’s layout and their movement is limited to just one or two aisles. This enables employees to replenish shelves efficiently and quickly. There’s no need to split pallets and sort products at the back of the store or even on the shop floor.
Limiting the movement of cages and pallets also means shoppers are less likely to encounter a blocked aisle. Furthermore, they won’t find as many empty shelves where their favourite products should be because the replenishment process is more efficient.
In addition, the stability from an efficiently stacked pallet improves safety inside the store. This is because there is little chance of the stack tipping over when being opened and emptied. And as every item is perfectly in position, the employees replenishing shelves are much less likely to encounter that broken jar of mayonnaise, which can hold up their work and ruin other items on the pallet.
Stability also helps greatly when goods travel from the warehouse to the store. A stable pallet does not move about or topple over during transport. Moreover, fewer trips are needed to and from stores, helping to reduce the retailer’s carbon footprint and save fuel.
In summary, I can confidently say that LFL is a smart piece of software that has become integral to our automated palletising systems. It really is helping to optimise our customers’ warehousing operations, as well as enhance the efficiency of their transportation and shelf replenishing processes.
Take it from an enthusiastic warehouse hand, LFL is good for business!