While techniques to maintain and track inventory under a roof are well-established and somewhat ubiquitous, outdoor storage still lags in performance as many businesses ignore some of the basic rules that they followed when setting up their warehouse. While the warehouse space might be packed with advanced scanning and conveyor equipment, high bay racks served by aisle pickers and perhaps even robots, outdoor areas tend to suffer from lack of attention to the same level of precision and order that is valued in the warehouse.
In this article, we will discuss outdoor storage by differentiating between simple bulk storage facilities and yard management facilities, which are used to store containers, trailers, and trucks.
Your Outdoor Storage is More Than an “Overflow” Space
For basic bulk storage facilities, the outdoor space is often one created out of the overflow, or from inadequate space utilization indoors. It’s possible that a re-arrangement of how your racking is utilized may provide a way to move the outdoor product back inside. For example, if you have separate areas for storage and picking and a high enough ceiling, it’s possible to reimagine the racking so that pallets can be stored above the picking bins. While it may seem unwieldy for picking bins and pallet storage to use the same aisles, it may work if you set up the replenishment process to happen outside of picking hours. Since these pallets are not likely to be part of the standard replenishment process anyway (which is why they were outside), they will likely be moved less frequently anyway and then likely moved to your standard replenishment area.
But what if your outdoor storage is a necessity because of either space or the type of items being handled? In these cases, it makes sense to approach your outdoor storage with the same sense of organization and importance as your indoor space.
- Software Setup - Designate the space as a separate area just like you would any other area of the warehouse. This can usually be done easily in your WMS system where it might be, for example, “Replenishment Bay B.”
- Layout Design - Lay out space in the same way, whether or not you expect to use racking. You may simply be placing pallets on the ground, but there is no reason they should not be assigned to spaces outdoors the same way they are assigned to aisles and racks indoors.
- Space Allocation - Lay it out with named “aisles” identified with lines marked on the pavement. If you are dealing with products in large standard crates, cages or bags that can be stacked, then treat each one as its own “bin”. So, each crate can be assigned an aisle, a “rack” (location within the “aisle” and a “bin” (e., 1, 2 or 3 from bottom to top.).
- Labeling Solutions - Deploy the same Auto-ID solution to the outdoor space as well. If you are using a standard-variety barcode label for your inside storage, you may want to consider getting an additional printer using outdoor-grade labels that are some combination of water-proof, cold-resilient, etc. with a ribbon that resists fading in sunlight. Depending on your geography your label will differ. Don’t forget you might need a bigger label or one with a specialized adhesive for the type of surface you will be applying it to.
- Signage – Given that the space will appear very differently from the indoor storage areas, and often not have the benefit of actual racks and bay and ceilings to attach signs to, consider using color codes or large letters/numbers painted on the ground to guide a lift driver easily by sight (provided your WMS can account for this too).
- RFID Options – In some cases, this is also a typically good place to implement a simple RFID solution with reader-equipped gates. It provides not only a simple way to instantly take inventory (using an antenna-equipped cart or drone), but adds another layer of security.
- Special Equipment – Finally, depending on the climate and environment you are working in at your facility, you may need to look at getting different devices that are made to withstand the elements. Not only rugged devices but items like printer carts and pallet trucks don’t always have wheels that will perform well on outdoor surfaces if they were designed for smooth, concrete floors.
If you are dealing with some uniquely large or odd-shaped pieces that move in and out of your space frequently, then a Yard Management System may also be an option worth considering.
Yard Management Systems and RFID
Like the more basic warehouse structure above, yard management is often fraught with chaos and disorganization. The same concept applies here too – get your basic processes in order, and the low-hanging fruit can be captured easily and solve most of the asset visibility challenges. Implementing a Yard Management System (YMS) on its own can improve yard visibility without necessarily implementing RFID or drones. As a guide for yard drivers and yard dispatchers as well as carrier drivers, its system of providing directives will generally reduce detention fees and improve turnaround times. Given the shortage of drivers, getting a YMS that can link to your WMS and provide gate check-in processes, up to date views of asset locations, workflows, and directives for drivers is not only a way to deliver better efficiency but also a way to retain drivers.
RFID can be added in these situations too, but are not always necessary. Private fleets, high-value items, or long-term storage lend themselves well to implementing with YMS with RFID. RFID allows not only for easy tracking of movement and other metrics like length of time in a location.
While drones are often mentioned in the same discussion as YMS, they are not a simple option as outdoor drones require a line-of-sight operation by an FAA-certified operator.
Don’t Skip the Process and Barcode Option
Whatever your current situation is, start out simple and make sure you have all the basics checked off. If you have been using an outdoor storage area that grew organically out of space constraints but now a permanent part of your storage landscape, it is likely you can generate a positive improvements by revisiting the original intention and re-designing the process to work within the framework you already have. Then add on the pieces that create unique challenges either because of the environment or the added distance or other factors. Sometimes just extending your current process and barcode solutions to the new area are all you need.