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Home » Racking: An essential part of every cold store, warehouse or distribution centre

Racking: An essential part of every cold store, warehouse or distribution centre

  • marimac 

By Benjamin Brits

Sometimes considered a bit of a grudge purchase, racking is in fact the foundation to generate better efficiencies, expand capacity and grow revenue as facilities up their operations, literally.

A static racking system being installed at a pharmaceutical company’s warehouse. Image credit: Benjamin Brits
A static racking system being installed at a pharmaceutical company’s warehouse. Image credit: Benjamin Brits

The cold storage sector today is very different to what it was 25 years ago. Bulk facilities were the predominant solution in cold storage and many of these stores had no racking at all. Everything was either box-stacked inside the freezer or manually handled into simple steel frames. These were called converters and were typically able to be piled one on top of the other. This was, of course, a very labour-intensive process to pack, stack and store produce.

In cold storage in South Africa, it is said that uniquely compared to other countries around the world, the industry could be divided into two different types of stores – bulk stores catering to imports or exports, and distribution stores which are used by companies dealing in frozen or perishable goods, or logistics specialists as a distribution point. Here these companies get full palettes of produce, prepare orders and send these out in trucks to retail outlets or clients.

According to some historical information obtained, the cold storage industry really took off in the 2000s where prior to this the existing facilities had been established to cater more towards the affluent communities. At that time, large-scale electrification was carried out in many of the low cost and informal areas, followed naturally by everyone wanting to own a fridge or freezer. This caused a boom in demand – having a direct impact on cold stores and storage needs. There has been a rising trend ever since and cold storage capacity continued to increase dramatically as what people wanted to consume changed supply chain dynamics.

Today, cold stores, warehouses and distribution centres have very advanced methodologies and make use of various technology in their hardware and software setups. At the heart of their operations are the very racks that carry their business or services, and depending on the model in application, there is a racking solution to fit – no matter if a small scale operation or a multinational supply chain.

Types of racking systems available

Racking solutions come with a variety of options. There are two main storage types: racking that gives you individual access to every palette immediately, and high-density racking, which allows more storage capacity, but without the access to every palette.

Storage facilities over the years have tended to move from high density systems to the individual access systems. Why this has occurred is because today you have to negotiate many different date codes of the same products, you have lots of different products within a brand range and the same products in different packaging configurations. Individual access racks are therefore the most practical wide-scale option for produce to be stored.

The base of a racking system indicating the types of beams used. Image credit Benjamin Brits
The base of a racking system indicating the types of beams used. Image credit Benjamin Brits

The types of racking then available include fixed selective – these are typically the bulk standard, narrow aisle racking which can be utilised by special reach trucks or turret trucks, you also have crane stores where you don’t have a truck or forklift but a crane on a rail system, and then mobile racking. High density racking also includes flow racking, drive in racking, shuttle racking which is where a shuttle or mole can be placed in any lane and at any level which has a machine on every level to brings pallets to an end of the store, and various levels of autonomous solutions.

“Local manufacturers offer solutions that are attuned to local needs and dynamics.”

Mobile racking is just like the fixed rack solution, but instead of having multiple aisles, you put the racking on wheels and they move back and forth. They typically need to have only one access aisle at a time rather than the conventional setup as with the static racking option.

Different connecting designs, and there are many out there on the market, are another aspect that clients with existing racking look into – they look at the types of connections that are available and rather than throwing out all the existing racking they already have, they seek to add onto their systems. Although racking literally holds a store’s value to their customer, it can be considered a grudge purchase where clients don’t necessarily want to spend money on good quality. This is unfortunately the case across many sectors and is not just limited to racking systems and is a particular challenge suppliers constantly battle.

Some companies are now designing mobile systems with mobile banks which can be used for case picking. The one full access aisle is split into 2 or 3 case picking aisles using pallet jacks or cages. The rear cantilevers are widened slightly to allow pickers plus pallet to move from one picking aisle to the next around the back of the mobiles. This means you can have several pickers in an aisle at  the same time.

Determining the right solution per application

When determining the right solution, a number of factors need to be taken into account from a totally new development and installation to a revamped facility. Speaking to a number of companies you would find that the best solution to access a client’s needs is to do a walk-through of their ideas, or existing operation from goods receiving to goods dispatched. Thereafter solutions would come from an accurate base, and can take into account the types of forklifts, reach trucks or conveyor systems that may form part of the facility and that need to be incorporated.

Enrico Moya, international business development manager at Acrow says, “The ‘right solution’ is always driven by the customer and their individual requirements starting with elements like expected output, what the customer is willing to invest, their business strategy or model and risks. Many customers today show a liking towards mobile racking solutions because it saves a significant amount of space in the facility. With cold stores and warehouses, every cubic metre that can be utilised makes a difference. However, in South Africa we don’t always have certainty about what is going to happen with the electricity supply and this is one of the major considerations for customers opting to install static racking to store their goods.”

Mobile racking solutions open up a particular aisle for picking as mentioned, however even though technology has advanced and this racking type has gained the same structural sturdiness as static solutions, it does have some disadvantages, one being reliant on a power supply and this is extremely important in any operational environment with perishable products, and secondly you have access to far less aisles to pick from at any given time, possibly slowing down loading and unloading. This then ties into the customer’s output requirement.

Electrical requirements for mobile racking are normally low. Almost 700 tons of frozen product can be moved with the same current that boils an electric kettle. Most freezer stores now also have generators installed.

Lack of access aisles doesn’t tend to be a major problem if the mobile banks are kept to a reasonable size. In fact, since the store footprint is compact, travel times for the materials handling equipment is significantly reduced on the plus side.

Another major consideration in choosing a solution is the sort of product being storing and how quickly you need to be able to get to the stock. Palette type, palette dimension, average weight and the volume of stock keeping units or SKUs are next on the list of considerations to choose the appropriate racking. Stock control methods have also moved higher on the list as a very important part of the storage industry, and this particular point can become very tedious to manage if not included in the planning.

“Clients sometimes request maximum pallet storage capacity in a fixed volume. It isn’t always that simple. We require dimensions and gross weights for each pallet type to be stored as well as other factors that the client doesn’t normally deal with. Accurate information is needed before we can produce any mobile layouts. Once received, a single solution or a variety of options is prepared. My first preference is to offer a mobile racking solution because of the footprint advantage, but if the client doesn’t require a complete system to start with, we  offer a staged solution by initially installing the embedded mobile rails and fixed selective racking designed for mobile use in the future. Capacity can then be incrementally increased by as much as 90% as required without taking the freezer out of operation,” says James Cunningham, managing director at Barpro Storage.

Grant Boonzaier, director at AON Racking adds, “The client’s expectations are generally always the same – the best product for their requirements at the best price and a reliable system that will solve their problem, whether this be a question of floor space for staff working, or packing space for their products. 3PL or third-party logistics companies always look to maximise their storage space because the more products they can get into a warehouse or that can be stored safely, the higher the value in turnover is in it for them.”

Setups, height and weight factors

Standard racking units can handle many tons and this can be increased by the addition of certain stronger beams. If a customer requires a higher capacity there are again a number of options that can be applied – racking can essentially be designed to handle any palette weight – at a relative cost of course.

“We have always had the stragegy to offer standard sizes of our racking in terms of frames, but primarily to tailor-make everything for the customer because they may have an odd-shaped palette for example 1500mm x 1200mm and then we can make the racking according to that specific size. Everything is customisable and this isn’t as difficult to deliver as in other industries like customising a car – its generally modular and we can chop and change as necessary. Custom solutions do have a longer turnaround and are also dependant on stock availability,” says Moya.

When it comes to facility layout and racking designs the most important thing is for the customer to finalise their strategy beforehand. Many elements must be considered that have a direct impact on the particular setup and these include future expansions or upgrades, the dimensions of the property and subsequent spaces for storage, the equipment to be used and flow of traffic.

Most storage facilities have adapted to higher racking over the years and today it is not uncommon to see installations at anywhere from 7 – 14 metres high, and designs catering rather to a maximum palette weight or tonnage per bay. A bay refers to the storage space between two racking frames – Bay load refers to the maximum weight that should be imposed on the two frames. If the bottom pallets sit on the floor their weight is not included.

“Today, cold stores, warehouses and distribution centres have very advanced methodologies and make use of various technology in their hardware and software setups.”

“The racking itself can consist of many variations in frame size and beam dimension, partly depending on how many pallets are loaded per rack compartment. Some applications have two pallets per pair of beams, with either the short or long side of the pallet facing the access aisle. Gross pallet weight is another consideration as well as the number of pallet levels in the height. Generally, the higher the racking the greater the loads imposed on the frames. Open bay widths should increase with height to widen gaps between the pallets. But increasing the number of pallet levels (within reason) also reduces the  freezer footprint. ‘Higher’ freezer stores tend to have a lower capital cost per pallet position created than lower ones with fewer pallet levels,” adds Cunningham.

Rack frames include bracing to keep the rack uprights at the right distance apart. Different bracing patterns can change the loading capacity of rack frames but such design aspects are now increasingly computer generated. As a general rule though, a rack user should never change bracing patterns or beam levels without first speaking to the company that supplied or manufactured the racking.

There is also a structural difference between mobile and static options. On mobiles they have to be able to work with dynamic loading (which is that they are moving), whereas the fixed racking stays in one place so the design criteria on mobile racking needs to be more robust that the static solutions.

Most racking suppliers offer the design of the racking and the layout of the store in their services and some also offer this through a complete computerised or simulated system based on the gathered information where the most appropriate designs are revealed.

This mobile racking solution shows the aisle request button to gain access to the required aisle for picking. Image by Benjamin Brits
This mobile racking solution shows the aisle request button to gain access to the required aisle for picking. Image by Benjamin Brits

Fully automated solutions and systems are available and have been used for some time in facilities around the world. Automation is a word that often gets muddled by people thinking its all about machines doing all the work, when rather there are a number of different levels of automation.

“In the consideration of automation and with the varying levels, you could look at self-driving forklifts or automated guided vehicles, or a forklift driver still going in and out of the store with mobile racking, that is also considered a form of automation by opening an aisle for picking. A forklift or turret truck these days can have a level of automation themselves when in the aisles to manage risk, so automation is a very broad topic,” notes Moya.

Automation is something that is very important in first world countries like America, Australia and some degree in Europe. The reason for automation is mainly to have the ability to run a system or procedure without the involvement of a person. It also creates the need to have more qualified people that can make sure the operations continue to run correctly because very small things can go wrong and if you don’t have the right people, you are not moving your stock, basically halting your operation.

Cunningham says further, “Fully automated stores find it difficult to cope with variations in daily volume throughput which can be significant for commercial freezer stores. Fully automated racking systems, normally incorporating cranes, are designed to handle a set number of pallets per hour. They can work where a freezer store is ‘tied’ to a processing plant with relatively contstant production volumes. In commercial freezers where product flows vary, experienced staff are required to manage the various levels of activity. In such environments, automation above a certain level tends to be avoided.”

Local vs imported

Locally manufactured versus imported products is always a very interesting and difficult question to address at the same time because even in South Africa from a manufacturing perspective you find companies where the quality of their products vary. Some have extremely good and durable products and others go a bit too close to the safety line, not to say that their product is unsafe, but there are many safety factors that will always come into play when considering the height racking can now go to, and the overall weight they carry.

“When you take a product like racking that has been standardised over the years in the production process you can assure quality products and quality assurance certification guaranteeing a particular quality product. As you may know with construction and building, there is always something that needs to be made or modified and therefore the sentiment is that it is always good to have a manufacturer at your doorstep that can do this rather than having to wait for parts from Europe or China. If something goes wrong with the racking once its been installed, a local manufacturer can be at your service almost immediately to assist with solutions and technical expertise. All the best technology is already availble in South Africa, and although many people continue to bash the country, we in fact have a really great local talent pool that create solutions which people easily forget,” Moyo adds.

“Clients often come “Clients often come with requests based only on how many palettes we can plan for, when in fact it is not as simple as that.”

Cunningham notes, “Imported racking is designed to save steel. It will support the stated pallet loads but may have less resistance to impacts. Imported racking is made to higher levels of engineering design and will perform to a specific rating. Local manufacturers tend to use more material and can over specify because of how racking is sometimes treated in the South African working environment.”

Mobile racking installation in a freezer store. Image credit Benjamin Brits
Mobile racking installation in a freezer store. Image credit Benjamin Brits

Currently a lot more imported racking is coming into the country because the industry is under pressure specifically in Europe – there is no work so exporters supply here and their pricing is generally cheaper than local companies with only one major challenge standing in their way – being the exchange rate. The process, design and manufacturing is also very automated from international suppliers which also boosts their global competitiveness. Often too, producers from Euope and China are subsidised by their governments and get extremely cheap loans or finance, and this all aids in being able to supply products cheaper.

“When asked, I tend to initially suggest the use of locally-produced racking because it is attuned to our market requirements. When racking is damaged, and this is a given, the supply and installation of replacement components can be quicker with local product. Local manufacturers also create much needed jobs. On the other hand, South Africa is experiencing a steel shortage, so local raw material prices have risen considerably, and our steel industry is not an efficient producer. Renewed import duties on raw steel profiles can give overseas rack suppliers an additional advantage. If Government could resolve these issues, then South Africa’s rack manufacturers could be more competitive, and even consider export markets,” says Cunningham.

Some common mistakes to consider

“One of the common mistakes that we see clients make include not getting their designs done correctly the first time for the store layout which means re-doing the layout and this then becomes a costly exercise. Trying to always cut back on costs is another major challenge because the client then opts for a system that will need to be replaced anyway in time. We also find installing a system with load capacities that work for the current needs but fail to take into account the possible growth of the company leads to loading more than the specified ratings onto the racking resulting in collapses,” says Boonzaier.

Moya adds, “We also find clients don’t chose the racking that is fit for their purpose and sometimes insist on, for example, an automated solutions that is not necessary at all. Some clients want the ‘shinest solution’. What is important in South Africa around cold stores and warehouses is picking and thinking more about the operational needs. It’s also too easy for clients to go into an analysis paralysis mode about what they want. I also second Grant’s observation about specifying their racking for a palette that is too light because over time palette loading can get heavier. Any commercial store must accommodate for growth and diverse products that obviously have differing weights. Clients too often don’t include any flexibility.”

Training of staff is also extremely important, and further racking maintenance cannot be stressed enough – companies just put the racking up and forget about any maintenance. You might get a break today and the smallest thing like a gust of wind comes through and can create instability and the entire store comes down. Periodic checks and maintenance through both internal checking and external companies is commonly neglected. This type of damage can cause millions of rands in losses or even death on your hands.

“In recent years and especially in freezer stores – freezer heights continually increase and racking is required to handle heavier loads. A mistake companies make is that they don’t plan to go high enough – they only want a store that is 7 metres high and these days if you want any sort of competitive operation, commercial freezer stores should consider racking that is at least 10 metres high. But, given all of the solutions and options on offer, one point must be stressed. Here the industry as a whole could improve. Rarely, if ever, is warehouse racking checked correctly on at least a weekly basis. This should be done by a competent person to identify any damage or overloading which can then be rectified before rack collapses occur. Unfortunately this just doesn’t happen in South Africa. It is a mandatory requirement in overseas warehouses and there is no valid reason why it isn’t happening here,” Cunningham remarks.

People often worry about working with heavy machinery but racking and storage is just as dangerous.The equipment used in a store and the operators all tie directly into any racking solution as together they make up either an efficient system or not. How the racking setup is completed is also highly dependant on the the equipment at the facility, so for example if the facility only has forklifts, a high solution is not possible without further investments.

Equipment operators have been trainined and are productive based on their equipment but when you have run a nighmare shift its becomes very difficult to pick a palette 14 metres up in the air.

This also leads into another aspect that is not commonly understood in this country, that in a cold or freezer store you have to work in temperatures as low as -25°C. If an operator does not have a heated cab he or she is sitting for an entire shift, most likely with poorly insulated safety clothing, getting cold because not moving means not generating heat.

Local manufacturers offer solutions that are attuned to local needs and dynamics.

If the operator gets cold enough that their core temperate decreases by merely half a degree, which happens very quickly by the way, then they would not be able to judge distances accurately and not be able to add figures – essentially all fine motor control gets degraded. This has a direct impact onto the racking because the instances of damage increases exponentially. Savings in this way is a huge mistake and result in additional costs for the owners such as high racks needs more space in the aisles, cameras on the forks.

The case for used goods

At the current moment, as alluded to earlier in the article, there is a significant shortage of steel in the country, primarily due to Covid-19 and the disrupted supply chains, and manufacturers are struggling to secure raw materials for their production.

With this in mind second hand racking has become a hot commodity, now more than ever, even if it is only for a short period of time until manufacturers can again get production going fully.

Boonzaier states, “When buying back racking for sale as a used product, both buyer and seller need to consider the following aspects:

  • Has the racking on offer been looked after and still in good condition?
  • Often when buying racking from freezers companies, the bottom of the frames are badly rusted so this is evaluated and may be cut off and scrapped. Scrapping occurs around 20% of the time.
  • The same goes for standard pallet racking, which, if the company didn’t have column guards to protect the uprights, the bottom of the frames will be badly damaged from forklifts or turret trucks and we have to scrap them as well.
  • A cost when buying back, that clients seldom take into account, is that somebody has to dismantle the racking at their own cost, which, if you have a buy back of racking for a big warehouse, can often be the same price as the offer we would make to the client for the racking alone.
  • Used racking is not advisable for the cold store arena as you want to supply the client with a premium product for their fridge / freezers and new is always the best option here as it gives the client as well as the supplier peace of mind from a safety aspect and what they have been supplied will ensure that it does the work that it has been designed to do correctly and safely.
  • Used racking in the general workplace has the same concerns and that is why you need to be 100% certain that the racking one is buying back can still carry the load capacities it has been designed to.

Sometimes it does happen with used racking that customers are happy to take any product and install it as is as they are shopping on price only.”