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Forget the “New Normal:” Three Tips for Improving Facility Operations Beyond COVID-19

Forklift operators perform tasks in warehouse setting

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reshape and challenge distribution facilities and supply chains, there’s been a lot of talk about adjusting to the “new normal.”  But why focus on normal when you could focus on better? In many ways, the pandemic has become an accelerator or catalyst for positive change, forcing companies to reexamine, refocus, or fast-track existing or new operational initiatives.

For instance, the coronavirus pandemic has brought novel urgency and complexity to how companies maintain or increase operational efficiency while ensuring a safe working environment. The balancing act of increased efficiency and worker safety is also occurring at a time of unprecedented changes in consumer expectations and behaviors, forcing companies to increase supply chain flexibility and resilience to meet changing demands.

Following are three actions warehouse and fleet managers can take to help enhance efficiency, safety, and flexibility during COVID-19 and better position the operation for continued performance gains and success beyond.

1. Adjust and standardize processes and procedures

Take a look at your existing processes and procedures, especially those focused on health and safety. Determine which existing ones might need to be adjusted for today’s environment and identify where you may have gaps that need addressing. For instance, COVID-19 has brought hygiene front and center, leading to new policies across workplaces, including warehouses and distribution centers.

Warehouses and distribution centers should consider the need for a structured cleaning program for their forklifts and other material handling equipment. Relying on operators to clean the equipment before or after their shift is not efficient and is only effective as long as they remember to do so and they follow the standard protocols. Rather, check with your forklift provider to see if they offer a forklift cleaning service or recommended certain protocols. They may even be able to schedule their onsite technicians to regularly clean equipment between shifts, leaving your operators more time to focus on productivity and efficiency.

Additionally, take a look at your existing training program and see how any new safety procedures or requirements should be incorporated. New health and safety initiatives, such as sanitization and social distancing efforts, can be explained and reinforced within the structure of your existing program.

2. Prioritize forklift fleet utilization

In normal times, you should understand how and when your forklifts are being used. Today, this understanding is even more critical as COVID-19 has reminded us of the importance of preparing operations for unexpected shortages and delays, as well as shifting consumer expectations.

At any given time, knowing how many forklifts are in operation or sitting idle can be extremely valuable in right-sizing your fleet and shifting equipment where it’s needed. Armed with this information, you can make informed decisions about the number and types of forklifts you have and better manage your resources. You can determine if you need to rent or buy additional trucks or simply reallocate certain ones within your organization. You can also paint an accurate picture of how many forklifts you need at each facility during typical peak seasons or timeframes.

The key is making decisions based on data. Utilize a fleet and operator management system to gain visibility into an array of fleet and operator information, including forklift utilization. The connected technology can give you invaluable, actionable data on how and when trucks are being used, so you can ensure operators are achieving similar levels of productivity and safety as well as determine if the fleet is sized properly for efficient performance. It will also better prepare you to manage unexpected fleet allocation challenges.

3. Leverage automation solutions, where appropriate

Numerous successful projects and applications across the industry have shown that there can be benefits to incorporating certain types of automation into warehouses and distribution centers. However, it is important to understand that not all processes are right for automation. Identify those tasks and equipment that are ideal for the technology and where automation will most likely show a tangible return on investment.

One approach gaining attention is dual-mode technology that enables forklifts to switch between manual and automated operations, depending on the needs of the facility. Dual-mode automation enables warehouses to take an incremental approach to deploying automation, with minimal supporting infrastructure and with or without a warehouse management system. Vertical lift models, or deep lane shuttle systems, are another automation technology worth considering. These automated storage systems facilitate movement and consolidation of materials—for instance, to fill an order—versus traditional order picking methods to increase efficiency and reduce human touch.

By focusing on these areas and making the needed adjustments, you will show your operators and warehouse employees that you are committed to creating and maintaining a healthy and safe work environment. Additionally, you will help to prepare your operations to maintain the flexibility and efficiency needed to keep pace with changing demands and customer expectations, regardless of what “normal” may prove to be.

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