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Warehouse expertise for vertical farms 15/07/2021

With vertical farming growing like weeds, space optimisation could well be key to feeding the world, says Harry Watts.

It's well documented that the global population continues to rise at a rapid pace, with current projections suggesting we could have 10 billion hungry mouths to feed in 2050. In the UK alone the ONS predicts the population growing to 72m by 2041. Providing for that many would be challenging enough, but we need to do it while simultaneously reducing emissions, dealing with increasing environmental instability and preventing further destruction of existing ecologically essential habitats. Currently, 38% of the global land surface is already used for agriculture, and according to the Food & Agriculture Organisation's (FAO's) predictive models, we need to increase food production by 70% - within that same space - to satiate the additional demand caused by growing global population and wealth.

While we will inevitably require various technologies and approaches to solve this issue, one solution that combats the sustainability, resiliency, and space-efficacy challenges effectively is Vertical Farming. Already a proven technology in many environments, Vertical Farms have demonstrated that they can produce high-quality, low-emission, competitively priced food in a fraction of the space of a traditional farm.

For example, Harvest.London, a UK-Based Vertical Farm, have significantly reduced their customers' carbon footprint by eliminating waste and lowering transport emissions for their local customers. Harvest's co-founder Chris Davies identified that in total, "we use 95% less water, create 240,000 fewer food-miles and produce 15 times more crop yield per sq. m. than the same produce grown traditionally in the Hills of Italy - and the customer doesn't have to pay a premium."

"However, for Vertical Farming to become a true force in global agriculture and contribute significantly towards our total crop production requirements, it will need to scale into much larger, automated facilities - and increase production density even further."

Achieving this is not, however, entirely straightforward. Patrick Harte, Managing Director of leading Vertical Farm engineering business Cambridge HOK, explains: "when building a vertical farm, you have to create an ecologically complete environment. Light, nutrition, water, temperature, waste, airflow, space... every aspect of a plant's needs must be catered for. Every species crop has a unique requirement for each attribute and grows at a different pace, in a different way and to a different height. Therefore space optimisation and orchestration becomes a fundamental challenge. This is why we've partnered with SEC Storage; to combine our expertise in Vertical Farming with their expertise in space optimisation and automation. Together we can develop and deliver large-scale Vertical Farming solutions that could deliver higher quality crops, on an industrial scale, in a fraction of the footprint when compared with traditional methods."

For us at SEC Storage, this intersection of efficiency and space optimisation is a challenge that we have relished. Over the past twenty years, we've delivered data-driven warehouse solutions to over 1,500 customers and have successfully managed to increase capacity and efficiency through our intelligent use of space. Consequently, we've been leveraging this experience of creating contemporary storage solutions, our award-winning artificially intelligent design technology and cross-industry expertise to develop smart solutions to this novel problem of Vertical Farming.

Harry Watts, managing director, SEC group

For more information, visit www.sec-storage.co.uk

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SEC Storage promotes Harry Watts to MD 28/06/2021

Harry previously held the role of commercial director and now takes the reins in what will be a pivotal time for the business.

Harry commented: “The warehouse and logistics industry has seen unprecedented growth in recent years and the challenges of Brexit and the global pandemic have seen this great sector rise to the occasion. I look forward to taking SEC Storage onto the next phase of our growth plans and have a great team in place to support this development and achieve our goals.

“I could not be happier to be making this step up to lead an organisation that has played such a significant role in my life and development at such an exciting time in our company’s and industry's history.”

For more information, visit www.sec-storage.co.uk

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AI to transform warehouses 10/06/2021

Five years ago, I was asked a seemingly simple question by the owner of SEC Storage... are we relevant? One month of furious research later, I gave my answer: ‘Yes, but we won't be for long’ before outlining an ambitious plan to revolutionise our approach.

This included revamping our warehouse design ability by developing an Artificially Intelligent Design-Bot called ELSA to work alongside our expert design team.

Five years, five national awards, and unprecedented growth later, ELSA has helped transform our company into an industry-leading provider of warehouse solutions and has demonstrated the power AI has to supercharge distribution facilities regardless of size or industry. 

So, what does ELSA do? ELSA's role is to leverage our clients' data to ensure Everything Lives Somewhere Appropriate. ELSA utilises order, product and volumetric data, alongside cutting-edge machine-learning techniques, to find optimal clusters of 'similar' Stock-Keeping-Units (SKUs). This process is essentially a sophisticated form of ABC analysis and classifies products that should be stored in similar types and sizes of Pick-Faces.

Our designers then work with ELSA to refine these classifications by analysing the behaviour of each SKU and simulating virtual environments based upon seasonal data and growth projections to suggest the correct types and sizes of pick-face that balances pick-efficiency and replenishment cost.

The benefits of ELSA: In a typical warehouse, order picking and replenishment typically equates to more than 50% of the total cost of the facility, of which half is travel time. Pick-face selection and sizing is, consequently, the most critical design decision in most warehouse operations. Unfortunately, traditional pick-face selection regularly results in over-sizing pick-faces due to an understandable but over-inflated fear of escalating replenishment costs. This has two negative impacts: first, pick-face density is reduced and travel distances increase. Secondly, oversized pick-faces lead to excessive "white space" and larger aisles, resulting in reduced capacity.

Mathematically speaking, pick-face selection is an example of an 'optimisation problem', the type of query which machine learning is specifically equipped to tackle. ELSA's removes the overcompensation bias of traditional design methods and human designers and ensures that every SKU is analysed and classified scientifically.

How effective is ELSA? Since her introduction, ELSA has demonstrably improved all of the core performance indicators we use to assess the quality of our designs. Our solutions are now more effective and efficient, reducing return on investment periods substantially, which in turn has supported a 376% increase in the rate at which our customers order our proposed solutions. For illustration, SEC's award-winning project for Focus International increased pick-efficiency by over 100% and provided a 40% increase in capacity within the same footprint.

Major external bodies have also independently validated ELSA's ability to improve design. Since ELSA's inception, SEC has won four and been finalists for over ten other national awards for warehouse design, innovation and efficiency. Furthermore, last year, SEC was awarded the Lloyds Bank National Business Award for Data Excellence due to our disruptive approach to warehouse design. 

ELSA has, unquestionably, transformed our business by providing SEC with the ability to revolutionise our clients' operations. Our data-driven approach works regardless of industry sector or business size and is supplied to genuine potential customers free of charge. So if you are considering how to transform your warehouse operation, reach out for a free, no-obligation consultation today.

Harry Watts, managing director, SEC Storage


01438 731990

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Pick & pallet solution 29/04/2021

SEC STORAGE has designed and installed a highly efficient pick and pallet racking storage solution at Midlands-based Nero Pipeline Connections, ensuring improved pick operations through swift replenishment of stock held in the additional pallet locations.

Nero Pipeline Connections is a distributor of stainless pipeline products and its warehouse facility had some existing racking in place which had steadily expanded as the company grew, however this offered them mainly pick locations and only limited pallet storage capacity. The racking was also only 4m high and with the building offering 9m of height capacity, they were only utilising 50% of the available storage space.

Nero needed to increase both their pick areas and pallet locations, which would act as replenishment stock for tote locations. The increase to 630 pallet locations designed and installed by SEC Storage comprising adjustable pallet racking with timber decking and anti-collapse mesh, now allows Nero to hold considerably more bulk stock, ready to replenish the 6000+ tote locations for picking, which are situated directly below the pallet racking, as and when required.

The operation benefits from the use of a reach truck for all pallet movements and the manual pick process has been improved considerably as all stock is front facing, providing quicker replenishment as well as 100% selectivity with pick options from either side.

The project further benefited from a finance scheme via Systems Finance who were able to source a favourable, tax-friendly payment option via CBILS (Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme), a Government scheme provided as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This offered attractive terms for Nero, with a strong ROI and one that turned a significant CAPEX project into a manageable, fixed monthly payment scheme.

Nero operations director Darryl Spencer-Hicks says: “Due to the significant ongoing growth of the business we needed a quick solution to ensure the flow of stock remained unhindered. With this in mind, we contacted SEC to design and project manage the re-racking of the warehouse with the minimalist disruption to Nero. As with any large project, things change and it is how they are dealt with. SEC went to great lengths to rectify any delays and this meant our customers saw no impact on their orders. SEC worked alongside Toyota Material Handling to design the racking system to maximise the use of the warehouse space and worked with Systems Finance to deliver a cost effective finance package with us.”

For more information, visit www.sec-storage.co.uk

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Grenfell changing warehouse design 13/04/2021

The tragedy has had a demonstrable impact on how warehouses are being physically designed, says Harry Watts.

The reverberations of the Grenfell tragedy have rightly been felt throughout our society. Grenfell is an awful reminder of the importance of effective regulation and effective, considered design. Naturally, as an essential workplace, the warehouse has not been excluded from the national inquest into how we can make our residences and workplaces safer. Three years on from the tragedy, a long, hard look inwards has resulted in a demonstrable impact on how warehouses are being physically designed; and the materials being utilised.

Since Grenfell, there has been a significant push towards incorporating more sophisticated computer modelling of fire spread, as well as enhanced sprinkler and smoke detection technologies into facility design. These developments and reduced regulatory tolerance for fire-risk mean that to enable sprinkler systems to be most effective, permeability between floors is required. Consequently, for traditionally non-fire-rated structures such as rack-supported floors, there has been a drive towards steel mesh decking in both picking levels and flooring. Mesh-based materials are effectively replacing their chipboard and timber-decking counterparts in these solutions, with the increased cost of mesh versus chipboard worthwhile for the safety benefits they bring.

Mesh grating's permeability results in less dense smoke (which is typically more lethal than flames) than solid chipboard flooring. Smoke cannot become trapped underneath floors, and visibility is enhanced, so warehouse staff working on a mezzanine floor will be able to see and assess the situation immediately and react accordingly. Mesh is also not a source fuel - one of the three elements that cause fire outbreak - and consequently, when compared with timber products, reduce the risk of fire breakout occurring on its own or when exposed to fire hazardous substances such as paint vanish, archive papers, office paperwork, stored timber and accumulated sawdust.

Due to these safety benefits, mesh grating can now have some operational advantages compared with other materials. Longer shelving runs in multi-tier solutions are permissible due to the safety advantages, and mesh can improve space utilisation since sprinklers can deluge unimpeded through the floor, making fire baffle zones unnecessary. In some cases, this can offer an increase of up to 33% in storage capacity.

While the use of mesh is undoubtedly growing in a post-Grenfell world, it's not without sacrifice. The expense of utilising mesh rather than chipboard in rack-supported structures is significant and makes fire-rated mezzanine floors an increasingly economical alternative. Mezzanines generally offer more flexibility since they can be easily repurposed or reconfigured. Additionally, they continue to incorporate solid chipboard flooring safely (fire-rating negates the need for permeability), which has health and privacy benefits for employees. Walking and rolling equipment across mesh can be both noisy and more difficult than on a smooth solid surface.

Understandably, Grenfell forced an immediate response by changing warehouse design to incorporate pre-existing materials and technologies that provide additional protections. However, it will be interesting to see whether technological or material innovation steps up to respond to the notable operational or cost disadvantages this has resulted in - or whether the industry will just accept the cost of safety as a price worth paying.

Harry Watts, managing director, SEC Storage

For more information, visit www.sec-storage.co.uk

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Storage capacity up 40% at Focus International 25/03/2021

SEC Storage has designed and installed a future proofed, multi-tier picking structure solution at Focus International providing a 40% increase in storage capacity.

Focus International is a market leader in design, sourcing, distribution and promotion for over 10 million units across apparel, footwear and accessories, supplied to some of the most powerful high street retailers in the world.

At their impressive warehouse in St Albans, Hertfordshire, Focus stock a vast range of fashion and sports brands and apparel within a narrow aisle pallet racking system. Goods received from primarily overseas manufacturers arrive containerised, are then placed in the unloading bays, added to the warehouse management system and then moved via forklifts to be stored appropriately throughout the facility before onward distribution.

However increased growth and throughput requirements were putting a strain on their existing system and Focus came to SEC Storage to find a solution for their strategy going forward. The articulated truck pallet racking was no longer sustainable as a business model and an urgent requirement was to increase pick faces.

Following a comprehensive site survey, in-depth data analysis and system modelling, SEC Storage put forward a solution for a multi-tier picking structure encompassing all lighting and data communication required, fully designed and installed by the team at SEC. 

The solution offered a complete change from the way Focus had been working previously and as SEC collaborated with them during Brexit, this meant the system selected had to be very flexible as any manufacturing or import decisions could have influenced a change in requirements. Overall the new structure is a bespoke design that incorporates the capacity for convertible pick-faces from static to dynamic carton flow, allowing the flexibility for change that is necessary due to the uncertainties surrounding Brexit and the changing demographics of Focus’ marketplaces. Future conversions offer the opportunity to increase storage capacity and pick-efficiency further as the business grows, and to do so without carrying out any structural amendments.

Implementing the SEC Storage solution has provided Focus with a 40% increase in storage capacity, an innovative design allowing it to convert from static to dynamic at will, the installation of spiral shoots with the ability to convert to power spirals within the existing warehouse, as well as a significant increase in throughput.

In addition to the vastly improved storage and throughput efficiencies, the key ROI came through staff efficiencies as the business was able to increase overall productivity by over 50%. The solution offered the ideal conduit for growth using the existing skilled staff, simply reallocated within the company structure. 

As part of the longer term strategy for Focus International, SEC Storage has outlined a phase two of the project to be installed across the warehouse which could deliver automation elements such as conveyors, further demonstrating the benefit of this future proofed design. 

For more information, visit https://sec-online.co.uk/storage/



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SEC Storage scoops Warehouse Efficiency award 08/03/2021

SEC Storage won in the ‘Warehouse Efficiency’ category at The Logistics Awards.

Showcasing true efficiency, the design and installation at Focus International (part of the JD Group) was one of the most agile warehouse solutions in SEC's history, implementing a future-proofed, multi-tier picking structure solution that has provided a 40% increase in storage capacity, 100% increase in pick efficiency and has proved so successful, that the concept is being expanded into Focus' new larger facility in Bedfordshire.

SEC Storage’s commercial director Harry commented: “SEC prides itself on designing and delivering true warehouse efficiency to solve complex logistics challenges. Supported by in-depth data analysis, we were able to design a highly efficient, dense-picking and storage environment that has the ability to be rapidly adapted to become a primarily carton-out facility, rather than unit-out facility if Brexit, or other business changes demand it.”

For more information, visit www.sec-storage.co.uk

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Take warehouse efficiency higher with machine learning 09/02/2021

Harry Watts says machine learning is under-utilised in the warehouse but can bring considerable insights without a significant price-tag.

One piece of technology with the potential to have an enormous impact on logistics and the warehouse is machine learning; a branch of artificial intelligence that utilises computer algorithms to look for patterns in big datasets and uses the insights to improve its performance or understanding of a particular problem over time. It's a vast area of computer-science with many applications, but it's already all around you, in examples such as virtual personal assistants (e.g. Siri, Alexa, etc.), facial recognition and self-driving technology.

It is, however, essential to note that Machine Learning is an umbrella term for a variety of sub-technologies that vary considerably in complexity, sophistication and accessibility. At one end of the spectrum, technology giants such as Tesla and Google are spending billions on building supercomputer powered, deep neural networks to create next-generation technologies. But at the other end, small businesses are using simple, DIY-models to improve operational decisions and efficiency, without a significant price-tag.

Although currently under-utilised in the warehouse, machine learning's potential impact in distribution centre design and management is virtually limitless. The language of logistics is data, and consequently, there are big-datasets available in most warehouse operations. The promise of machine learning is that it can take this information and not only make connections virtually impossible for humans to identify, but actually to get better at doing so as time goes by and more data becomes available. These insights can then be fed back to either an IT-system or management to help improve operational performance.

We have developed a machine learning platform that allows us to analyse our clients' picking data and throughput information to optimise the selection of pick-faces for new and existing SKUs. Not reliant on fixed logic-based algorithms like traditional WMS, our program instead leverages historical and current data to assess new SKUs and make accurate predictions about the most efficient type and location of pick-face to utilise. In a recent application for a major high street retailer, this system helped increase pick-efficiency by 34% by ensuring that SKUs were located in the most optimally positioned, and sized, pick-faces. Doing so resulted in both reduced travel distances and replenishment frequency, and better still, the system is still learning and improving as more data becomes available to it. 

In reality, given the right data, machine learning is sufficiently flexible that it can tackle most warehouse management problems in virtually any warehouse operation. Other examples of how we are or will use machine learning in warehouses over the coming years include, improving the quality of forecasting for planning and predictive purposes, and identifying SKUs that should be clustered together due to previously unforeseen connections in buying habits.

The widespread accessibility and the vast array of potential applications has led Forbes to predict that the machine learning industry will grow 1200% in seven years. And, in their logistics trend radar report, DHL predicts that machine learning will be the highest-impact technological trend over the next ten years, ranking it above robotics and self-driving vehicles.

Harry Watts, commercial director, SEC Storage

For more information, visit www.sec-storage.co.uk

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SEC Storage reaches new heights at RAJA UK 26/02/2021

SEC Storage has designed and installed a space optimised storage solution at RAJA UK’s new warehouse facility leading to increased pick efficiency and impressive storage capacity that still offers 50% growth potential.

RAJA UK, is part of the RAJA Group, Europe’s leading packaging supplier with over 5,000 products spanning all areas of packaging. The Bedfordshire based company has benefited from continued organic growth with substantial increases in sales and market share as well as an expanding product range through business acquisition. With such a significant number of SKUs (stock keeping units), an efficient storage, picking and distribution process is essential to its ongoing efficiency.

RAJA UK approached SEC Storage regarding their newly acquired building which was nearing completion close to their existing facility. The key support they needed was to move into the new warehouse in the most efficient manner possible and SEC Storage was tasked with devising a solution to achieve this. Just one of the key challenges of designing a solution was that the majority of their products are bulky and light weight such as bubble wrap and cardboard. As they are of relatively low value per item, they have vast quantities of stock.

With the new facility offering 270,000 sqft of warehouse space, SEC conducted a detailed space utilisation analysis to ensure the optimised space solution provided 40,000 pallet bays, five-times more than they had previously. SEC was able to design a storage solution which would house all their stock in just two thirds of the building allowing them to benefit from the additional space in which to grow as part of their ongoing expansion strategy. 

Whilst conducting in-depth pallet analysis, SEC Storage were able to reduce the amount of steel and consequently, the capital expenditure required on the project, by carrying out a full pallet analysis that demonstrated just 11% of pallets were heavier than 500kg, as opposed to the 1 tonne pallets previously assumed. 

Pick Efficiency Up By At Least 50%

SEC undertook a detailed simulation of the available space and demonstrated how best to operate within the facility and were able to create a new picking methodology that will see pick density, travel distances and idle times, reduce to create an increased picking efficiency of at least 50%. Further phases planned for the future which are focused on small unit-volume products should see this increase further still, and could increase by as much as 320% compared to the previous solution.

Designs were also provided for specialist loads with oversized racking taking larger products, and these were optimised through the analysis. Additionally, SEC ran the SKU data through their aperture optimisation software, which concluded that the client was able to compress all oversized products into one aisle, thereby resulting in only one wide aisle with an extra deep rack being required in the entire warehouse. 

Additionally, SEC Storage has created a bespoke bulk storage system on a FIFO (first in first out) basis for their eco-flow material, of which the customer sells substantial quantities. The product is 2m high and 750mm wide, so a hopper system of 15m x 15m was installed to allow the product to be fed in from top and picked the from bottom when required.

Managing director Tom Rodda commented: “Having doubled the business in the last four years we urgently needed additional space. With pallets spread over three locations, the decision came to move into larger premises and we needed SEC Storage to deliver a solution to meet our objectives of increasing the current storage capacity, improving efficiency, as well as offering us potential for future expansion.”

Future Proofed

The design solution offered by SEC Storage was a two phase process, with the second phase focused on creating a small part picking area to increase pick rate efficiency by up to 4 times due to the far denser storage capacity of the SEC solution. This was also shown via the simulation analysis undertaken to demonstrate the operational benefits of the proposed solution.

SEC Storage commercial director Harry Watts commented: “Overall our solution has provided RAJA UK with excellent space utilisation and efficiency, and we were able to overachieve expectations on the level of storage expected. One of the most significant benefits is that the customer is able to use the available space to expand rapidly with 50% growth capacity through the intelligent way we’ve utilised the cube within the building. When UK storage space is at a premium, this impressive growth potential will provide long term benefits.”

Safe Installation During COVID-19

The team at SEC Storage has undertaken the installation at the new facility during this challenging time, adhering to strict health and safety protocols including social distancing, ensuring safe operating procedures were maintained at all times both for the SEC team and the customer’s own staff. 

Tom Rodda concluded: “During COVID-19, SEC were outstanding. Even though we were in the middle of a pandemic, the project ran smoothly with the fitters and steel arriving on schedule. I couldn’t have asked for any more from SEC.”

For more information, visit https://sec-online.co.uk/storage/projects/raja-uk/

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Are your pick-faces oversized? Find out in 2 minutes 25/01/2021

If you operate a warehouse that picks cartons or units, your pick faces are probably over-sized, which has a considerable cost attached.

THIS MIGHT seem a bold statement, particularly seeing as I've likely never seen your warehouse, but since this is one of the most common warehouse inefficiencies we see, I'm prepared to lay odds that I'm right.

The good news is, the following two-minute test can usually identify whether your pick-faces are oversized. There are three primary reasons that oversized pick-faces are so common. First, the industry has a historical bias towards palletised loads, which has led to pallets becoming the most commonly used type of pick-face. This is despite the fact that SKU proliferation over the past few decades has been rampant, and most businesses now sell smaller quantities of a larger range of products than they did in the past. And while order profiles have changed for most operations, the types of pick-faces we use have not. Unsure whether this is true?

Ask yourself whether you have either pallet pick-faces with multiple SKUs on them, or alternatively, pallet pick-faces that are mostly empty. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, we have an understandable fear of creating large quantities of replenishments or pick-face stockouts. Since these both carry a significant operational cost, we always lean towards what we believe to be a lesser evil - larger pick-faces.

This issue is commonly compounded by the third reason; we often lack the data or analytics to size or classify pick-faces and products accurately. However, are oversized pick-faces actually a lesser evil? And does our understandable fear of obvious inefficiency (particularly replenishments), obscure a heavier, albeit less visible cost? At SEC we've developed a pretty good rule of thumb called the Ratio Test which quickly combines generally available metrics to indicate how over/under-sized your pick-faces are.

Ultimately, if the following holds: Then pick-faces are on average, likely to be at least twice the size they should be - and a large proportion of SKUs would benefit from being repositioned into smaller location types. Furthermore, doing so would likely reduce overall costs substantially (up to 40%), and the lower the ratio, the more substantial the potential savings. Now, you are probably asking how (and if) this test works.

It would be impossible to go through all the mathematics in this article; however, the test is built upon two fundamental assumptions. First, that in a typical warehouse, the cost of travel and selection is roughly the same (i.e. travel is half the cost of picking). A statement that numerous pieces of research have identified to be true. The second assumption is that there is a proportionality between decreased pick-face size and increased replenishment cost. i.e. when pick-faces are larger, travel costs are higher, but replenishment costs are lower, and vice-versa. Taking these, and utilising a bit of mathematical wizardry, the ratio test can be derived.

So, if you want to put this to the test and find out more about whether your operation could make considerable operational savings, or you just want to see the video-explainer that gives the mathematics behind the test, visit: www.sec-online.co.uk/storage/ratio-test

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The Storage Equipment Centre Ltd (“SEC Storage”) understands that warehouses now play a pivotal role in the logistics industry and are a key component of a company’s competitive advantage, enabling organisations to offer outstanding customer service by servitising the products it sells.

Through a combination of operational analysis, simulation capabilities and industry experience, SEC Storage has created award-winning solutions for a broad range of clients throughout the UK.

Originally formed in 1998 as a distributor of warehouse storage systems, SEC Storage has grown and evolved with the logistics industry, refining its approach to become a leading, independent provider of complete warehouse solutions with a group turnover in excess of £12,000,000.