Efficiencies and logistics in today’s racking and delivery equipment delivers increased productivity and profitability for LBM dealers.
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when lumberyards consisted of little more than stacked piles of materials arranged outside and left to weather the seasons. As well, the machines used to move materials within the yard and ultimately deliver them to the customer hadn’t advanced much past the simple forklift and flatbed trailer. But those days are gone. LBM dealers aren’t in the construction supply business any longer. They’re now in the logistics business, and that includes racking and delivery.
With companies working to make their operations as lean as possible, the way that materials are stored and delivered deserves a spot at the heart of that effort. We interviewed companies that make warehouse racking systems and companies whose products move, transport, and deliver materials to learn the best practices for increasing efficiencies, and one thing is clear—it’s about working smarter, not harder.
Efficiency is key to racking and delivery
Back in October of 2008 during the Great Recession and the downturn of the housing market, new privately-owned housing units by building permit were a mere 708,000. By April of this year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that privately-owned housing units authorized by building permits were at a seasonally adjusted rate of 1,296,000.
In many cases, LBM dealers are struggling to keep up with the pace of growth. “Back in the day, many dealers were still rebuilding the balance sheets,” says Travis Darnell, president of CT Darnell Construction & Sunbelt Rack. “But right now, it’s just too damn busy. They’re getting by, and they know they can do better, but they don’t have the time. Now that business is back, they need to create more capacity.” Investments in racking and delivery equipment enable dealers to achieve that needed capacity and help them work more efficiently.
When it comes to modern racking systems, there are tremendous benefits to be had. Materials can be better organized, better stored, and out of the weather. There is reduced materials damage and reduced handling. Because the materials are stored in a protected environment, sun bleaching, warping, plus rain and snow damage become a thing of the past. And perhaps most importantly, safety is improved. “There are all sorts of safety benefits when the material is in the right kind of rack,” says Darnell. “The staff is picking and pulling properly, thus reducing workers comp claims.”
Picking and pulling is further improved through the utilization of a well-thought-out racking system, one that increases efficiency. As Darnell explains, “Invest in a storage layout plan; that way you’ll have the fast movers up front and the slower moving things in the back to reduce travel time during the pick pattern. If you do that with some real thought and analysis you can reduce lots of wasted time.”
When it comes to delivery and material handling equipment, the benefits are similar to racking systems. Today’s narrower equipment allows for increased indoor and outdoor storage capacity without the need for additional warehousing. They maximize safety when handling materials, and they minimize or altogether eliminate product damage. They increase efficiency by enabling faster and more accurate material handling, and they reduce fleet size through innovative, multi-purpose design.
Gearoid Hogan, vice president of sales and marketing for Combilift, points out his company’s four-way steering system as an example of innovative design that increases efficiency. “LBM dealers incur expense in moving material from A to B,” he explains. “It is part of the business but the ultimate goal should be to handle this material as efficiently as possible especially with longer product such as EWP. Combilift forklifts are equipped with a unique four-way steering system that allows the units to travel sideways with long product. This system gives the user multi-directional capability.”
Racking and delivery safety
For today’s LBM dealer, being efficient with racking and delivery, and working smarter also means working more safely. “Safety is becoming more and more part of the discussion,” says Hogan, “especially in areas with high pedestrian traffic such as in a packing or strapping area.” To that end, product manufacturers are incorporating more safety features than ever into their product offerings. Operator presence systems, blue light pedestrian warning lights, and hydraulic scales to indicate if a forklift is overloaded are now commonplace and help increase both operator and bystander safety.
Safety doesn’t stop once the materials are loaded and ready to go. Delivery trucks themselves now also are equipped with features that increase safety. For example, rather than utilize open flatbeds that require time-consuming tarping of materials or dangerous crawling over loads, LBM dealers can instead turn to curtain-side trailers. These trailers allow for easier loading and unloading, and because the driver doesn’t need to tarp the materials, he or she can stay safely on the ground, resulting in a decrease of potential injuries, insurance costs and claims.
Thinking outside the racking and delivery box
If there is one arena in which state-of- the-art racking and material handling systems truly enable LBM dealers to work smarter, it is through enabling the dealer to think outside the box and find unique solutions for dealership problems. For example, side loading lifts like those from Combilift can operate in narrow aisles, thus allowing the LBM dealer to potentially increase the number of racks without changing the overall footprint of the warehouse. “At Combilift, we will not just tell LBM dealers what our expertise can bring to their business, we will show them,” says Hogan. “We offer a free warehouse planning consultancy service to help the LBM dealer see the potential Combilift can unlock within their existing or new footprint.”
Travis Darnell echoes Hogan’s comments regarding racking and delivery planning. “If an LBM dealer will let us come in and look at the overall facility, we can help create a cohesive plan,” he explains. “Too often a warehouse was put together piecemeal over the years rather than organically as a whole. We may actually scrap some racks that aren’t obsolete but lay it out with a true planning around the picking order and plans, getting the fast moving items up towards the loading docks.”
For the dealer that is extremely space challenged, specialized equipment can allow for higher stacking—a benefit especially when a large number of SKUs are involved. “A lot of lumber yards in the northeast, in the Caribbean, in Manhattan and other urban areas are extremely space challenged and the only place you can go is up,” says Sunbelt Rack’s Darnell. “Our Power Bin system lets you do just that—go up. And it’s great where there are a lot of SKUs of very specialized stuff—every piece of redwood for example, a different bin for each piece of redwood. It’s expensive material that can’t be stored outside.
Ernest Hemingway once quipped, “Never mistake motion for action.” Those words could easily be used when talking about the challenges of material storage and movement for the LBM dealer. For in the end, it’s not about storing or moving materials.
Today’s LBM dealer needs to solve problems that transcend mere logistics. Innovative storage solutions solve problems such as creating faster picks, preventing damage to materials, and being able to store more material under one roof. The results of these solutions are increased productivity for the LBM dealer and better satisfied customers.
The same holds true with material movement and delivery. By creating mobile solutions that enable the LBM dealer to more quickly and more safely get materials from the yard to the job-site, today’s vehicles, cranes and trailers increase efficiency, productivity, and in the end, profitability.
GPS and Mapping Solutions
Imagine a world where you as an LBM dealer had such complete control over your delivery fleet that you could proactively schedule preventive maintenance, and track deliveries to ensure the fastest times and best use of fuel, all while increasing both efficiency and customer satisfaction. With GPS tracking and mapping systems, you can. More and more, lumber fleets are turning to these technologies to help solve their individual challenges to become more efficient than ever.
“Having access to vehicle location information is crucial for providing best is class customer service,” explains James Stevenson, an executive at Trimble MAPS, a maker of GPS-based mapping and data software platforms. “With GPS technology, you can retrieve dynamic, precise ETAs in real-time and share that information directly with customers. The cost and resources of a ‘where’s my delivery’ phone call can be substantial to a business.”
Stevenson goes on to explain that by pairing GPS technology with mobile solutions, an LBM dealer can geocode locations that may not appear on maps for easy future returns to that delivery destination. As well, drivers can be navigated with safe, turn-by-turn directions on commercial vehicle-specific roads, and they can get proactive notifications on planned versus actual stops.
Embrace the change
As with any technology, there is always a reluctance from some to embrace its potential. Concerns seem to especially arise from long-time employees who might be reluctant to change, as well as from those who see this type of technology as an invasion of privacy or an indicator of a lack of trust. In these cases, it is vital to effectively communicate the benefits to be had.
“A common concern we hear from lumber dealers regarding fleet solutions has nothing to do with the actual technology,” explains Jenny Shiner, marketing communications manager at GPS Insight, a developer of GPS-based fleet software. “They are concerned with the best way to introduce the technology to their veteran employees. To experience success, we recommend open communication with employees about why you are using it, as well as addressing their concerns from the start.”
Stevenson agrees with Shiner regarding employee pushback, and suggests stressing the technology’s ability to increase customer service as a method for overcoming those fears. “The key is selling it as a customer service tool rather than a ‘big brother’ technology to watch drivers,” he says. “These technologies can help drivers with work efficiency— receiving manifests electronically, feeling safe with commercial vehicle navigation that can help them navigate around unexpected delays, and being provided instructions at each stop.”
It’s more than dots on a road
It is important for LBM dealers to not see GPS and mapping technologies as simply a means to track trucks on the road. While many dealers initially gravitate towards that functionality, there are more efficiencies to be had. “Many invest in the technology only to have it become ‘Where’s my dots’ on a map,” explains Stevenson. “They need to complete the circle by choosing a partner that integrates with back office planning and dispatch tools to ultimately provide superior customer service that differentiates them from the competition.”
“LBM dealers are using fleet technology to address their drivers’ exposure to risk on the roads, inefficient practices that waste time and money, and a lack of visibility over their mobile workforce,” adds Shiner. “To have the most significant outcome using fleet technology, LBM dealers should focus on what their specific challenge is currently, and work with a provider that can help guide them to the right features and use cases to deliver measurable results.”
Integration is easy
While new technology can seem daunting, the makers of GPS mapping systems make it as easy as possible to integrate the software into an LBM dealer’s business and racking and delivery processes. As GPS Insight’s Shiner points out, “We understand it’s about more than just offering the right features; it’s about providing the tools our lumber customers need to experience success with our technology. We combine our fleet solutions with an active partnership approach to help our customers connect their strategic goals to the data they receive from our platform. Our account management and support teams have received numerous accolades for their dedication to customer success and problem-solving.
Likewise, Trimble MAPS also offers an array of services to LBM dealers. “We provide implementation and training services to every new customer as well as a follow up program called Value Optimization for existing customers,” says Stevenson. “In addition to a wide variety of professional services, which include onsite training, we also focus heavily on continuous improvement to ensure optimal usage and return on investment associated with the software for the long-term.”