The pandemic gave rise to many trends, perhaps the biggest of which was a focus on do-it-yourself home projects. From constructing new sheds to adding home gyms, building decks and more, people have used the past year to enhance their homes.
Retailers who carry the materials for all those projects—like Home Depot, Lowes, and ACE Hardware—are dealing with the challenges of keeping up, including inside their distribution centers.
These companies, and others, are having to make the most of their current DC space utilization. Often, this means reconfiguring racks to incorporate narrow aisles.
“Customers with existing facility size restraints are forced to rethink their current layouts and processes, often leading them to re-imagine their racking footprint—narrowing the aisles and building taller shelves,” says Michael Brunnet, systems trucks project manager at Mitsubishi Logisnext Americas. “This allows them to store more product in the same space.”
Narrower aisles means narrow aisle lift trucks are on the rise. The Industrial Truck Association’s Class 2 includes a variety of electric lift trucks built for use in narrow aisles. At 12 feet wide, standard storage aisles allow a counterbalanced lift truck to turn in the aisle and put away a load.
Narrow aisles are typically only 8 feet wide—and very narrow aisles are only 5.5 to 6 feet wide—requiring specialized lift trucks that can put away loads without turning or that are small enough to make tight turns. Three of the most common narrow aisle trucks are reach trucks, turret trucks and orderpickers.
“E-commerce growth was already well under way before the pandemic, affecting DC layouts,” says Chris Grote, marketing product manager at Crown Equipment. “But for many customers, the pandemic served to escalate e-commerce demands—if they weren’t thinking about how to support e-commerce before 2020, they are now.”
The growth in e-commerce DCs goes beyond home improvement retailers. As pandemic quarantines and shutdowns proliferated, a focus on home cooking emerged. And demand for food, especially frozen foods, skyrocketed, putting additional pressures on grocery stores. The early pandemic hording phase extended beyond food and included hand sanitizer, cleaning products, paper products and the like.
The same patterns held true for big e-commerce sites, like Amazon, Wayfair and retail/e-commerce players like Target and Walmart, as the pandemic increased online shopping by about 44% in 2020. As countries begin to emerge from the pandemic, these demands may ease, but in many cases, the trends are here to stay.
This all adds up to increased pressure on distribution centers to carry more and move product through their four walls faster and more efficiently. While leasing or building new, larger space might be a very outside option for some companies, for most, it’s impractical.
The pace and configuration of orders is evolving as a result. “The shift to smaller, more frequent orders is further transforming warehouse spaces with the need to maximize storage and enable easier access to inventory,” says Brunnet. “This, in turn, amplifies the need for efficient materials handling systems, equipment and technology that enables precise and efficient picking and navigation within the warehouse space. “
Essentially, says Jim Hess, director of warehouse business development for Yale Materials Handling Corp., companies are dealing with a combination of increased SKUs and needing more density within their DCs. “We’ve been focused on helping customers maximize their cube utilization,” he says. “Optimization involves moving racks closer together.”
This, in turn, means that the demand for a variety of narrow aisle lift trucks has never been higher. “Many DCs are moving on from the traditional layouts and turning to narrow aisle,” says Grote. “That means they need trucks that can meet their new configurations. In the last decade or so, there have been a lot of advancements in narrow aisle trucks that make that possible.”
As labor shortages continue, and the cost of that labor is often equated to a productivity killer, efficient narrow-aisle trucks are proving their added value. Doing more with less is often a goal in high-density, narrow aisle storage, and that’s what modern lift trucks provide.
With a focus on higher racks, narrower aisles and increased density, trends in this lift truck category include design and technology advances.