Automated warehouses get a new dimension

3-D design changes supply chain function and operation.

By Ryan White, O'Neal, Inc. February 26, 2018
With the rise in e-commerce, manual warehouses are no longer viable to execute a supply chain strategy. 
Single items must be picked and packed then shipped in small volumes or as individual pieces. Companies are also looking to grow in volume and in SKUs in order to meet customer expectations. Labor is harder to find to meet these demands. 
Constructing warehouses that can meet the requirements of e-commerce involves careful planning. It also involves having multiple stakeholders who understand and buy into the plan.
A new dimension in planning
Most automated warehouses utilize their vertical space with many interaction points at different elevations. There’s an emphasis on fitting automated technologies into existing brownfield buildings in order to create a better return on investment. This means technologies use all of the cubic volume to squeeze the most value out of the space. 
With 2-D layouts, the only way to make sense of the material flow is to have a different offset drawing for each level, with connector lines to each transition from level to level. These drawings are difficult to read for customers and engineers alike.
While 2-D drawings still have a place in engineering these complex systems, 3-D modeling has great value in three ways: 
1. Getting stakeholder buy-in. Any successful project starts with a plan that everyone understands—from operations to engineering to the owner. Even the simplest of conventional 2-D drawings are hard to understand for people who do not use CAD programs every day. 3-D modeling allows people with different backgrounds to understand the operation.

For example, a client’s engineering team may look at a 3-D design for details such as whether an electrical cabinet has a sloped roof, ensuring no dust can collect on top and the cabinet will meet a clean design standard. A client’s operation team may look at the same design to check operator workstations where pallets are being unwrapped to ensure there is space for a trash bin and a way to empty it. 

A company’s owner may be looking at the design to make sure the equipment is painted the right color. While this is a simple issue, it is not one that’s able to be corrected once the equipment is on site.
A good 3-D model will be capable of producing fly-through videos of the facility, so that no area of the concept is overlooked. Lastly, a 3-D model with enough detail also gets people excited about the project because it allows them to visualize their operation and helps sell the project to all levels of management. 

2. A single point of truth: Automation projects involve multiple firms and disciplines. On a typical unit-load automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) project with a building expansion, for example, a project requires the coordination of the building general contractor, the material handling automation vendor, a structural racking vendor, fire protection systems, and more. 

All of these vendors have their own drawings, requirements, and points of interaction with one another. All engineers and architects on a project must coordinate to ensure their designs do not conflict. In a 2-D-only design workflow, mistakes are harder to catch and often result in more engineering hours and lost time in the delivery of a project. 

A 3-D design workflow allows engineering disciplines to catch issues early without lost time, which saves money. Even before engineering starts, a 3-D model in the conceptual stage helps ensure the design will work inside a new or existing building. 

3. Risk management. With the rising demand for new and modern distribution warehouses, the risk of implementing a project is also increasing. Historically, building a large manual warehouse has been a low-risk proposition because in the event of a rapid volume increase or change in business model, an effective response could be implemented by simply hiring more people, adopting a new process, or expanding the building. 

When using an automated system, more planning and resources are needed to ensure its success. Data must be analyzed and interpreted, the operations team must learn to work with automation, and the building utilities (including electrical, compressed air, fire protection systems, etc.) must be coordinated and integrated at key points in the system.

If an automated system is not well planned at the beginning, redesigning or moving the system is costly and changes take much longer to implement than would be the case in a manual warehouse. Understanding all aspects of a system, before it is purchased or built, is the key to mitigating risk. 3-D modeling is one important step to catching mistakes before they are found in the field. Reviewing a 3-D model with all key stakeholders provides a chance to review the design and ask questions that engineers may have overlooked.

In the past, many equipment suppliers and construction firms did not adopt 3-D models into their project lifecycle because the models took too long to produce and required high-end computers. 

Design control
A 3-D model workflow helped catch a costly design mistake early in a project where the automation design had an operator at mezzanine level and a pallet conveyor system on the ground level. After the general arrangement drawing was complete, the architectural team added an egress stair to the 2-D drawing to meet a code requirement and to allow operators from the mezzanine to get out of the building quickly in the event of a fire. 
The 2-D drawings showed no clash, with a standard-height stair landing expected to clear the conveyor below. However, when the 3-D model was created, it revealed that the stair landing would interfere if a tall pallet were riding on the conveyor. This mistake would have compromised the effectiveness of the design and limited the height of pallets being stored in the system. 
The use of 3-D drawings also can identify cost saving opportunities. In a manual distribution facility, there is typically one finished floor elevation for the entire warehouse. Manual material handling equipment such as forklifts and pallet jacks require that a pallet or tote be on the ground level in order to store and access it. 
Automated storage systems such as a mini-load or a shuttle system are able to store an item on one level and deliver it on another. This allows the automated storage system to have a different finished floor elevation than the rest of the warehouse, with the bottom level of storage being below the finished floor. This can reduce construction costs considerably, since—depending on the topography and elevation of the warehouse site—bringing the entire site to a single grade height can be extremely costly. 
Planning and execution are the two most important aspects of a complicated project. Working with a company that has the experience and capabilities to create 3-D models, and also knows enough about the infrastructure and equipment to integrate all of the pieces of a project, helps mitigate risk and is the start to a successful project delivery.
Ryan White is senior distribution system planner for O’Neal, Inc.