E-commerce growth may have slowed, but as the daily parade of delivery vans on residential streets attests, demand for direct-to-consumer deliveries remains strong. Consumers want their orders now, putting pressure on retailers to provide fast, free delivery of everything from pet food to potato chips.
To meet those expectations, more companies are taking advantage of microfulfillment centers. As their name suggests, these facilities are small, ranging in size from 5,000 to 20,000 square feet. (Some definitions have them topping out at 10,000 square feet.) With thousands of fast-moving items squeezed into a small footprint, aisles are narrow and sometimes congested with pedestrian and forklift traffic.
Microfulfillment centers can be standalone facilities, attached to or located inside a retail store or distribution center, or in a former storefront. To optimize last-mile delivery times and reduce transportation costs, they typically are located in densely populated areas. And because they only store enough inventory for a day or two, they require frequent replenishment, which adds to congestion.
So: High volumes, tight quarters, and a time crunch. What types of lift trucks are best suited to these conditions? Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing equipment.
In space-constrained environments, says Bill Pedriana, chief marketing officer for forklift maker Big Joe, three design considerations are especially important: compact size and turning radius, for maneuverability in tight spaces; lower truck weights, to reduce the possibility of injury in areas with many potential “pinch points”; and a high degree of operator control at the slower travel speeds required in confined, high-traffic areas.
Ease of operation counts too. Not all microfulfillment centers have a dedicated forklift driver on staff—someone whose sole job is forklift operation. “In the smaller ones attached to a retail store, I’ve seen them use a lot of people who are also working in the store,” says George Towne, director, major accounts, retail and e-commerce for equipment manufacturer Yale Materials Handling Corp. “Of course they are trained on the lift trucks, but they toggle back and forth between the different jobs.” When operators aren’t full-time specialists, it’s important that trucks’ controls be “both highly intuitive and highly accurate,” Pedriana says.
In many cases, products have already been broken down into delivery-size orders, or kitted or queued up for delivery routes, so associates will have fewer handling tasks than in large DCs, says Bill Byrd, senior manager–national account sales for forklift maker Toyota Material Handling. In addition, while bigger DCs usually require different types of lift trucks for specific product configurations or different storage systems, that’s rarely the case in these small facilities. For those reasons, he says, “you may want a versatile truck that can handle most or all of the tasks you need to do.”
That doesn’t mean every microfulfillment center should rely on a single type of lift truck, though. “If you don’t use the correct equipment for an application,” warns Tim Osmulski, director, supply chain and logistics segment for forklift manufacturer The Raymond Corp., “it will slow down the operation” by making the driver’s job more time-consuming—exactly what you don’t want in a high-velocity environment.
In the smallest facilities, such as retail backrooms and urban fulfillment locations, multipurpose elevated platforms (MPEPs) are popular. (See the sidebar “Make way for MPEPs.”) Designed for confined spaces—as narrow as 32 inches for one model on the market—and light loads, they’re billed as a safer, more productive replacement for the rolling ladders traditionally used in stockrooms for tasks like inventory stocking and order picking. MPEPs essentially combine the attributes of elevating work platforms and order pickers, but they’re much smaller than full-sized order pickers, and there is no overhead guard or requirement for a harness. Examples of MPEPs offered by forklift makers include Crown Equipment Corp.’s Wave, Clark Material Handling Co.’s Order Selector Quick Pick, Raymond’s Sprint 2.0, and Big Joe’s Joey.
In addition to consumer-ready orders, microfulfillment centers handle inbound cartons and pallets, so motorized single- and multi-level pallet trucks are in wide use. Walkie types eliminate the need for operators to jump on and off the truck while picking orders and are appropriate in facilities where they’re not in use all day long, as opposed to high-throughput environments where associates are constantly picking, Towne says. Where medium- and longer-distance horizontal transport is required, ride-on models that reduce travel times and physical stress on operators are useful. (Paul Short, president–North America for equipment maker Combilift, notes that for safety reasons, small facilities with narrow aisles and a lot of pedestrian traffic often don’t want a lot of ride-on equipment and instead prefer walkies that are designed for narrow aisles.)
Two examples of pallet trucks specifically designed for constrained spaces include Combilift’s pedestrian stackers, which are operated from the side rather than from behind; and one from Toyota Material Handling that can operate at reduced speed with the control handle at an angle of just 10 degrees.
For narrow aisles with mid-height and high racking, selection considerations include the width of the spaces where trucks will operate, how quickly products are moving in and out, racking heights and depths, and whether the forklift will be used for just one or multiple tasks, says Michael Brunnet, warehouse and systems truck sales manager with Mitsubishi Logisnext Americas and an expert on the company’s Jungheinrich product line.
In facilities where operators are picking individual items in medium or high racks and then taking them to packing stations, order pickers that lift and lower the operator are most productive. Maximum heights vary, but 30-plus feet is common.
Three-wheel counterbalanced standup and sit-down forklifts are popular in back-of-store operations and microfulfillment centers with fast-moving products. This configuration has a shorter turning radius than four-wheel trucks and is highly maneuverable. These trucks typically offer stacking heights of 15 to 18 feet and work best in aisles that are 11 to 13 feet wide, according to Brunnet.
Standup counterbalanced forklifts with a 3,000-pound capacity work well where pallets aren’t very heavy and product moves in and out quickly, says Byrd of Toyota. These trucks are versatile: They can unload trailers, transport pallets, and put away product in double-height racking, he notes. They’re compact and easy for operators to get on and off, and they can handle the mixed pallets often seen in microfulfillment centers.
For higher-density storage in aisles that are eight to nine feet wide, straddle stackers (which typically have lift heights of 10 to 16 feet) or reach trucks (20 feet up to 40 feet or more) should be on the short list. In fact, “the reach truck was invented for this!” says Susan Comfort, senior manager, technology solutions and marketing for The Raymond Corp. Both types of trucks have base “straddle” legs that help to stabilize the truck as it supports the load, a design that allows for a shorter chassis with a tight turning radius, she notes.
In the narrowest aisles, VNA (very narrow aisle) equipment is the way to go. Turret trucks, which can lift as high as 60 feet and may follow tracks, guidewires, or transponders on set paths, are an option for the very highest racking. Articulating forklifts are highly efficient when maneuverability is important for productivity; operators can swivel the forks, mast, and front wheels as a unit, shortening the truck’s length profile and allowing the forks to move into and out of racks at right angles to the chassis. One example is Combilift’s Aisle Master, which performs efficiently in aisles as narrow as six feet. Another is Narrow Aisle Inc.’s Flexi product line.
Design features and technology that are geared toward narrow, congested environments can help microfulfillment centers improve operator and pedestrian safety. One example of the former is the tiller arm with electric controls that is standard on all of Combilift’s pedestrian trucks. The tiller arm allows the operator to drive the vehicle from either the left or right side of the machine instead of from the rear. This removes the operator from the dangerous “crush zone” between the rear of the truck and the racking during putaway or picking, and it provides better visibility of both forks and load, Short says.
On the technology side, pedestrian-detection systems are seeing wider adoption. Examples include Toyota’s SEnS Smart Environment Sensor, which uses cameras to detect human activity behind the forklift and gives the operator both visual and audible alerts; Jungheinrich’s Personnel Protection System (PPS), which uses sensors to detect pedestrians and slows or stops the truck when needed; and a module of the Yale Reliant operator-assist system that detects transmitter tags on pedestrians and other trucks and decelerates the truck, giving the operator additional time to steer away or stop if needed. Some safety systems, including Yale’s, also offer object-detection and real-time location sensing, which let users set location-based rules like equipment exclusion zones and end-of-aisle slowdowns.
Technology that, in essence, takes some of the decision-making away and makes certain actions fail-safe can help operators use equipment safely in small, congested spaces with limited visibility, says Brunnet. He cites the example of a guidance system that includes RFID (radio-frequency identification) transponders embedded in the floor and that disengages the steering of Jungheinrich’s VNA and turret trucks when they are in an aisle and brings them to a controlled stop before they exit an aisle.
Similarly, Yale Reliant’s advanced operator awareness system, which Towne describes as “like having a trainer on board with the operator,” helps drivers operate the truck correctly. The system monitors truck speed, load position, load weight, and steering angle to calculate the combined center of gravity of the truck and load. This allows the solution to safely adjust truck performance if factors such as the speed, fork height, or weight exceed a designated threshold.
A logical question is whether ergonomics and operator comfort must be sacrificed in a space-constrained environment. Combilift’s Short emphatically says no. The company’s Aisle Master VNA truck “is as comfortable as a sit-down counterbalanced forklift,” and deliberately so, he says. “We do not think comfort should ever be sacrificed,” he explains. The primary reason, of course, is respect for the operator’s well-being. Another is that when lift trucks are comfortable and ergonomically appropriate, operators are more efficient and productive.
Still, some might be inclined to equate “small space” with “extremely basic.” Raymond’s Osmulski has seen small but busy facilities try to get by with only manual pallet jacks. But moving loads all day with manual equipment is hard on the body, and from an ergonomic point of view, electric pallet trucks are well worth the additional expense, in his view.
Nevertheless, in applications where usage hours are low and loads are light, buyers on a budget may decide to forgo some comforts. V. Mariotti S.r.l., which says it makes “the world’s smallest compact riders,” offers a forklift model “without the extra comfort features” of its more expensive (but still remarkably small) trucks.
Driverless forklifts and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are becoming ubiquitous in large e-commerce fulfillment centers, but that’s unlikely to happen in microfulfillment centers. In Short’s experience, the setup and integration costs for automation don’t scale down much for small facilities. However, he also notes that automation makes more economic sense and is less risky when microfulfillment is located within a larger DC that already has the necessary equipment, technology systems, and infrastructure.
On top of that, successful automation requires “repetitive action, load commonality, and load integrity”—none of which are characteristic of most microfulfillment centers, Brunnet says. Autonomous vehicles may also need more clearance than many pedestrian-filled microfulfillment centers offer, he adds.
Some, though, do see a place for automated trucks in small facilities. Raymond’s Comfort, for one, posits that using them in even limited applications would allow the redeployment of humans to non-routine tasks. Automating simple workflows could also eliminate the need for associates to shift from one task to another, a common (and productivity-busting) situation in small facilities, says Big Joe’s Pedriana. Semiautonomous machines that supplement human effort, without the capital expense of full automation, may be a practical choice, he adds. For example, an associate working in a pick module could place orders on an autonomous truck like Big Joe’s “BUD” user-directed pallet mover and send it to a pack station, without having to leave the picking area.
Toyota’s Byrd thinks we’re years away from seeing a lot of forklift automation in direct-to-consumer fulfillment. “Until we have better machine learning that gives the autonomous forklift the ability to recognize different types, sizes, and form features of packages and loads,” he says, driverless trucks are unlikely to gain wide acceptance in small e-commerce environments.
MAKE WAY FOR MPEPs
Multi-purpose elevated platforms (MPEPs)—mobile equipment that raises the operator on an enclosed platform—are replacing the rolling ladders used in stockrooms for tasks like inventory stocking, order picking, and other work that must be performed at height. They’re different enough from other industrial trucks and are becoming so popular that they’ll soon have their own industrial truck classification subgroup and safety standard.
The Industrial Truck Association (ITA) maintains classifications for the many different types of industrial trucks. Currently, trucks are organized into Classes 1 through 7; within each class are subgroups based on such characteristics as operator position, tire type, power source, and lift height. ITA and its members use these designations for statistical purposes when tracking orders and shipments of the various types of industrial trucks, explains ITA President Brian Feehan.
MPEPs have been available for a while, and ITA already captures market data for them. However, because they essentially are “a cross between an order picker and a mobile utility platform,” as Feehan puts it, they straddle the B56 industrial truck safety standards administered by the Industrial Truck Standards Development Foundation (ITSDF) and the A92 standards for mobile elevated work platforms, which are different and are administered by another organization.
An ITSDF committee is currently developing new safety standards specifically for MPEPs “to make sure we have the right standards in place that reflect the correct use of these products,” Feehan says. The new standard will be designated B56.15; once that’s in place, a new lift truck classification is expected to follow.