If you're familiar with Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (ourselves, we read the Classic Comics version), you know it tells the story of a portrait that aged, while its subject remained youthful in appearance. Our theme is the facility that superficially ages, while its functionality remains viable. (We will omit any parallels with the debauchery that permeates the book.)
Oldies but goodies
Ultimately, the only thing that can completely wipe out the utility of a warehouse or DC is a very bad floor. In parts of Texas, for example, untreated soil can shift and render floors unusable. A poor-quality floor can also pose hazards to sanitation systems. For that reason, special care is required to have good floors in the "meadowlands" (i.e., swamps) of New Jersey, not to mention to avoid discovering Jimmy Hoffa. In other parts of the world, quality shortcuts can result in floors that are able to swallow forklifts whole.
Absent floor problems, however, facilities can have a long useful life. For instance, a Philadelphia company that has been in business since the 1830s still uses a number of buildings that pre-date the Civil War as storerooms and mini-warehouses. Constructed by immigrant Moravian craftsmen whose only experience was in building churches, the buildings are paragons of quality and are strangely beautiful, with arches, windows, and vaulted ceilings. Some of the company's other facilities still use the ramps built for horse-drawn wagons for truck and car access.
Dependable Distribution Centers in Los Angeles is located in a five-story, 1.5 million-square-foot building that dates to the 1970s. It is the largest public storage facility under one roof in the United States.
Richmond, Va.-based Cockrell Distribution Systems operates public warehouses that are 40 and 50 years old. Even though their clear heights are low by today's standards, the well-maintained (and paid-for) buildings offer both quality and very flexible pricing in competitive situations.
But that's not to say things always work out so well. There are, sadly, cases in which an older facility is not suitable for warehousing and distribution. These often involve functional mismatches that should never have been attempted in the first place.
We recall the home goods importer and distributor that stored pallets and filled retail orders from within the labyrinthine maze of a low-ceilinged former textile mill, with many small rooms and narrow passages. The owner could not—and cannot to this day—get past the notion that the building was practically "free," no matter the cost of its manifold inefficiencies.
Then, there was the uncommonly thrifty grocer that attempted both manufacturing and distribution from a 19th century "plant" that would have made sweatshops look good by comparison. Even though inbound and outbound trucks clogged narrow and twisting city streets for endless blocks, the grocer couldn't resist the lure of a "free" facility.
Reuse, recycle ...
But cases of misapplication and failing floors aside, older buildings don't have to be abandoned or razed. Repurposing, creative process design, and practical technology applications can all help keep ageless facilities useful. In an ever-more-green supply chain universe, recycling and reusing buildings seems timely and appropriate.
Selected and targeted technology can help keep older buildings relevant. Vertical reciprocal conveyors (VRCs) can replace elevators in multistory facilities, reducing cost and risk, and improving speed and reliability.
Robotics can be game-changers in ageless facilities. Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) can "see" where they are going. Converting current rolling stock into operator-less lift trucks can reduce labor—and risk. In a building that might not be efficient—for reasons of sheer size or structural complexity—the added time of robotic movement becomes a relatively trivial factor when compared with the cost of time lost by workers to travel.
To be honest, which we sometimes try to be, the absence of complex technology can also help the ageless facility stay in the game. An empty room offers enormous flexibility when it comes to potential applications and uses.
Granted, yesterday's pallet-in/pallet-out storage facility might not be the right foundation to convert into a high-volume retail or consumer fulfillment center. But it could be very useful for storage—either primary or overflow—and low- to moderate-volume transaction processing. It's really all a matter of finding the right role for the building in the greater scheme of supply chain things. And understanding the difference between problem-solving technology and gee-whiz shiny new things.
Remember, even the aged Inuit who is only good for chewing leather into a useful state of pliability is providing societal value while others go out to hunt seals.