Rising volumes at the General Mills production facility in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had put a strain on the warehouse that feeds raw materials to the plant. For one thing, the site was running short on storage space for the grains, liquids, and other ingredients needed to keep the production lines running. For another, the existing rack configuration was making it tough to maintain the first-in/first-out (FIFO) inventory flow essential to keeping ingredients fresh. Often, workers would grab whichever pallet was easiest to reach rather than the one that had been there the longest.
On top of that, General Mills was looking to switch to larger containers for transporting and storing ingredients, and the racks were presenting an obstacle.
"We have gotten away from using 50-pound bags of grain and have gone to the use of Super Sacks, which can hold 3,000 pounds of product apiece," explains Scott Ladwig, inventory analyst at General Mills. While switching to the larger containers has allowed General Mills to make better use of trailer space and reduced the amount of handling required, the Super Sacks initially posed a problem for storage. The racks in the warehouse were configured for standard-sized 40- by 48-inch pallets, which could not accommodate the larger containers.
In this case, neither expanding the existing storage facility nor moving to off-site storage was an option, "We needed to find an answer within the four walls," says Ladwig.
Working with material handling equipment distributor RMH Systems, General Mills installed new flow racks and pushback racks from Steel King that could accommodate both Super Sacks and large liquid containers in 1,500 optimized storage locations.
For the flow racks, the company chose Steel King's Model SK 3400 racks, which are configured to hold products seven to 10 pallets deep, three to four levels high. At 52 to 56 inches wide and up to eight feet tall, the rack bays are easily able to accommodate the Super Sacks. Lift trucks load items into the back of the racks, where they are set on declined rails that allow the pallets to gently roll forward to the front of the racks. Entry guides help forklift operators place loads accurately, while reinforced rail side channels keep pallets positioned properly.
When ingredients are needed for production, a lift truck is dispatched to remove a pallet from the front of the rack, causing the pallets behind it to slide forward. This assures that all products in the racks are easily accessible and ensures adherence to the FIFO inventory flow policy.
Along with the flow racks, General Mills installed three sections of Model SK 3600 pushback racks in the facility. These racks, which are also designed to hold the larger containers, are configured four high and four deep. Pallets here are stored behind one another on nested carts. As with the flow racks, inclined rails rely on gravity to keep products positioned at the front of the racks. However, unlike the flow racks, the pushback racks are loaded and unloaded from the same side, eliminating the need for a travel aisle at the back of the racks. As a lift truck operator deposits a pallet, he or she uses the load to gently push back the existing pallets to create needed space.
By installing the new racks, the Cedar Rapids plant was able to boost its inventory density by about 20 percent while reducing the rack system's footprint. This allows the facility to store a higher volume of total product, which has helped it keep up with the increased demands of production. With the deep-lane storage, aisles have been eliminated. As a result of all these improvements, space has been freed up for the storage of other, nonfood items, such as corrugated.
"The wider racks give us plenty of elbow room for even-wider pallets," says Ladwig. "We have been able to condense everything into a safe, organized, neater system that provides a cleaner line of sight for all of our products. It has really been instrumental for us."
Ladwig adds that General Mills is so pleased with the new racks that the company is now looking to install them at a facility in Joplin, Mo.