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Looking for big wins

18 February 2021

We asked a number of experts for their tips on minimising downtime. The result – a wealth of advice covering many aspects of work in the warehouse. Simon Duddy reports.

One of the first things that comes to mind when minimising downtime in the warehouse is working with employees to help them be more efficient. 

That’s why we spoke to leading 3PL Wincanton. The logistics leader said that the priority is always firmly on staff wellbeing and safety. That said, warehouse operators can still effectively minimise downtime.

Wincanton MD general merchandise Rachel Gilbey explains: “You need a robust plan and the willingness and capability to see it through with consistent review. This process is the critical heartbeat in our day to day operations. We complement that with a culture of continuous improvement which enables us to identify, simplify and automate.”

Wincanton also emphasis engaging with staff, giving everyone a chance to contribute ideas and ways of working. MD for digital and eFulfilment Paul Durkin adds that supplier performance management is often an overlooked opportunity to reduce downtime. “The old adage ‘get it right first time’ is so true,” he says. “Similarly, a data driven, transparent colleague performance management system will identify ‘idle-time’ as well as ‘active performance’. This is integral to a large, people-based operation.”


XPO Logistics points to the value of software to assist with operational warehouse efficiency. Its MD supply chain logistics – UK and Ireland Gavin Williams says: “We use our proprietary XPO SMART software to identify trends and anticipate future patterns of demand. Our logistics managers can click between executive-level dashboards and team-level views of progress.”

Davies & Robson also emphasis the importance of the overview and keeping a grip on operations with regular monitoring. Director Nick Weetman states says: “Detailed resource planning – know the key metrics for each area of the warehouse operation and plan resource to meet forecast activity levels in each area. Smooth the workload across the day/week. Use Short Interval Control to monitor the day as it progresses and identify areas getting ahead or behind. If you have a plan you have a basis to measure against. Without one – you are blind.”


SEC Storage commercial director Harry Watts finds excessive downtime is often a symptom of over-resourcing, which is turn is caused by two primary factors - a reactive attitude towards demand, and a poor understanding of the likelihood of extreme events.

Harry explains: “There is a day-to-day disconnect between the warehouse and other areas of the company - such as sales or marketing - that possess more information about likely order-levels. We've seen operations where flash-sales that created huge demand had not been communicated to the warehouse at all. In the absence of good quality information, most logisticians tend to assume the worst, and over-resource.”

Also, the complexity of probability, combined with our natural tendency to believe that negative outcomes are more likely than they actually are, contributes to warehousing managers generally erring on the side of caution when setting labour levels: leading to excessive downtime. 

Harry continues: “To combat this, we recommend better communication and having a base understanding of the true likelihood an event actually happens. You can usually achieve this relatively simply, by taking critical day-to-day demand indicators and calculating not just the average (or mean) value - as you probably do already - but also every fifth or tenth percentile from 0 to 100.”


With many companies now operating sophisticated automated warehouse systems, keeping them up and running is critical. KNAPP UK customer service director Nathan Billing says companies can make easy gains in uptime by switching from reactive maintenance to a preventative approach, an even implementing predictive maintenance technology. 

“The old philosophy of 'fix it when it breaks' brings the risk of significant downtime,” says Nathan. “Preventative maintenance can be triggered by relevant data, such as recorded fault trends and feedback data via a SCADA system on equipment runtime. In this way, maintenance frequencies can be based on usage, rather than set points.” Using data, especially equipment MTTF (Mean Time To Failure) information, predictive analytics can be used to reveal patterns to pre-empt. Nathan adds: “Artificial intelligence can also be deployed to facilitate decision-making. For example, KNAPP's redPILOT CMMS leverages SCADA and WCS data, applies machine-learning algorithms, generates real-time maintenance plans and prioritises maintenance tasks.”

Swisslog head of customer service UK Arthur Sumner says it isn’t practical to schedule this maintenance during peak periods, but it’s also important not to wait too long to get back on track when demand stabilises again. “That makes the early part of the year an ideal time to catch up on needed preventive maintenance,” he adds.

He also points towards augmented reality that can assist with better maintenance during this challenging time. Arthur explains: “Due to its ability to get issues solved faster and without the need of a site visit, AR maintenance is set to rise in popularity. We are using it to provide socially distanced maintenance support. Using AR headsets, on-site technicians can open pre-configured self-service tutorials and get remote, hands-free guidance and support from Swisslog technical experts.”


AutoStore UK MD James Smith says systems utilising robots are generally recognised to have much lower failure rates and in turn, much higher percentage availability. James says: “Our AutoStore system has availability over 99.6% for example. There is no single point of failure - if a module does develop a fault, the other modules will continue to feed inventory through the system, ensuring no business interruption. Also, these systems typically do not require a specialist on-site team.”


In manual environments, employee ergonomics is worthy of consideration. For example, a poorly maintained picking trolley can mean a warehouse worker has to exert more energy and experience more muscle fatigue. For forklift dependant operations, service and maintenance is also a key consideration.

Linde Material Handling UK product manager David Bowen says: “Make sure all your trucks are serviced in line with manufacturer recommendations. The time and cost associated with fixing a truck that’s broken down because of an issue which would have been picked up at a service is much higher than that of the service itself.”

Furthermore, look more broadly than the truck. A poorly maintained floor can cause damage to trucks over time. Likewise poorly trained operators may use a truck for applications it wasn’t designed for. “Ensuring that operators are well trained and well supervised will increase productivity, reduce downtime and contribute to a safe working environment,” says David.


Mentor Training MD Stuart Taylor expands on this. A long-term mantra from the firm has been that accidents involving MHE don’t simply indicate a safety breach, they can also be incredibly costly and disruptive. “From aisle closures, truck/racking repairs, clean up and repicking to the resulting investigations, all accidents – big or small – disrupt your operational efficiency and, ultimately, your bottom line,” says Stuart. One key piece of advice from Stuart is to regularly review procedures.

Businesses are constantly adapting to stay efficient and competitive, so, as a result, operators may be tasked with using different equipment, carrying new types of loads, or navigating an updated site layout,” says Stuart. “Even simple changes can increase the risk of accidents, particularly if habitual shortcuts are taken in favour of fundamental forklift safety basics.

“By training staff, monitoring operations and regularly reviewing processes, you can reduce the risk of accidents and downtime, improve productivity and protect your profit margins.”

Housekeeping is particularly vital for highly specialised and sensitive operations. Briggs Equipment VNA installation manager Andrew Hancox says: “A machine that’s operating at a height in a warehouse aisle will be severely affected by a change to the floor surface or an obstruction. If an incident like this occurs, it not only takes time to resolve and resume operations, it can damage the equipment and put the warehouse operative at risk. “We advise our customers to practice good and consistent warehouse housekeeping, including a regular inspection service schedule.”


Minimising downtime isn’t just about the operations you have. It also comes down to the products you buy for the future. Sometimes it pays to take the long view. Narrow Aisle MD John Maguire says: “Rather than opt for cheapest up-front cost, today’s sophisticated users prefer to calculate and compare the costs that different solutions will incur over their working life. Consider how much is spent each year on a truck’s maintenance.”

This is one reason lithium-powered forklifts have come into vogue. With no battery change required and very little maintenance, battery-related forklift downtime is slashed. “Lithium-ion-powered trucks are increasingly seen to offer the best long-term value proposition,” says John. “Lithium-ion batteries are exceptionally quick to charge, usually reaching full charge in around an hour. The battery exchange process is eliminated - which means less truck downtime even during seasonal or daily peaks in activity.” Lithium-ion powered forklifts can be opportunity charged in any setting in the building, often much closer to the workplace – increasing truck availability. And because they do not require watering, equalising or cleaning, lithium-ion batteries are virtually maintenance free.

“In addition, lithium-ion batteries distribute consistent power levels each hour, which means maximum warehouse throughput efficiency is achieved even during the busiest multi-shift operation,” concludes John.


It pays to look carefully at the details when choosing a product or system. Better productivity is achieved hand in hand with greater complexity, but with thoughtful design, this does not have to create unintended problems.

BITO Storage Systems MD Edward Hutchison says: “Take mobile racking for example. It offers greater storage capacity than standard pallet racking by eliminating the need for access aisles but movement is involved. If the racking units on their mobile bases do not run parallel at a 90 degree angle to the guide rails, due to uneven loading, the tracking elements in the rails can slip, causing wear. BITO’s PROmobile Synchro, adds separation control that provides a solution for minimising this wear on wheels and rails.”

Edward also advises looking hard at the quality of products and components. “Higher quality racking will be better at maintaining its structural integrity – a key consideration in a very price competitive market. For quality racking frames look for a galvanised finish, which gives a high corrosion resistance and have a solid anchoring into the warehouse floor.” The same goes for the use of cartons and pick bins in automated systems, where properly specified products help the system to run smoothly as intended.


We thought we’d give a special mention to doors, after all this can be an almost continuously moving machine, a blend of motors, sheet metal (or canvas) and often sensors. And you really notice it when there’s a problem with the doors.

Hörmann UK says a schedule of regular servicing is essential to resolve any potential faults and optimise performance. Safety at Work regulations do not specify a set number of times loading bays and industrial doors should be serviced, however Hörmann recommends twice a year, or more frequently if in a high usage area. 

Industrial service manager Phil Clark urges companies to get on top of spares and training as well. “It is recommended that clients hold stock of critical components which cannot be readily stored within an engineers’ vehicle, in particular large or heavy parts. This can save significant time as spare parts do not have to be ordered in and means that repairs can then be completed as a first time fix while on site.” A first time fix is greatly valued, for obvious reasons, as is fast diagnosis of problems. Phil continues: “Operatives should be provided with basic fault finding and diagnosis of general maintenance issues with industrial doors & loading bays.” However, he cautions that servicing and maintenance should always be carried out by a specialist service engineer.


Union Industries sales director Alan Hirst adds that proactive and preventative maintenance maximises the lifespan and productivity of equipment. “If you are going down this road, it is important to consider your mentality, in particular changing your thinking from reactive to proactive. Thinking and culture play a large part in determining whether preventative maintenance, staff training and other measures are successful in reducing downtime,” he explains.

Due diligence is one of the most critical stages in the process of purchasing solutions for warehousing environments, and failure to carry it out can have a significant impact on efficiency and productivity. Alan says: “Many businesses invest in what they believe to be robust solutions, only to be let down by poor quality products often manufactured overseas. To add to that, parts for these products are often very hard to come by. It is important to consider availability of parts to minimise downtime. Our doors are manufactured in the UK, and our high-speed doors are backed by a lifetime warranty.”

We hope you find these tips useful and they help inspire some ideas, and contacts that can help you to minimising downtime in your facility.