In an 1888 letter to American novelist and literary critic William Dean Howells, Mark Twain wrote, “The thing which has made labor great and powerful is labor-saving machinery, and nothing else in the world could have done it.” To the LBM dealer, Mr. Twain’s insights should come as no surprise—if it weren’t for devices such as forklifts and stacking systems, labor would be the same back-breaking task now as it was in the 1800s.
“I’ve been hearing for years about lumberyard owners having a hard time trying to find guys who were willing to do physical labor,” says Clint Darnell, senior account manager for Sunbelt Rack/CT Darnell Construction. “I don’t want to put it on the millennials, but that seems to be when it all started. That generation doesn’t seem to mind getting on a forklift or using automated loading devices, but they’re not too keen on physical labor by hand. If you ask them to move materials by hand, they’re going to seek gainful employment somewhere else.”
Real-world examples show how dramatic the impacts of improved material handling and storage can be. Chris Krauter, president of Krauter Auto-Stak, shares a recent example of how those improved efficiencies can pay off. “We did a project for a wholesaler who was struggling to get all orders picked and shipped with his current staff of 20,” he explained. “Employees were working overtime and weekends to keep up. After we installed an Auto-Stak System, the result was an efficiency that not only enabled weekly job tickets to get executed on time without additional daily or weekend hours, but 10% of the workforce was either reduced or assigned to other responsibilities. The payback on the system was a short 18-24 months.”
If there’s a prevailing trend among manufacturers of material handling equipment and storage solutions, it’s the willingness to see past the obvious and search for new ways to utilize equipment to increase efficiencies. “We’re constantly working to improve material handling and storage and to provide options and solutions,” says Sunbelt Rack’s Darnell. “We’re designing more and more structures for millwork storage and distribution. Years ago, doors and windows were always a hand-loaded item. These are high-margin items for dealers, and they’re the most fragile items in their yard. We’ve now gone to automated handling that requires far less back-breaking work and causes far less damage.”
By thinking of material storage and material handling as two sides of the same coin, LBM distributors can use one to augment the other, both in the yard and on the jobsite. “We have seen an increase in the use of forklift-able welded stacking frames for doors, windows, cabinets, MDF trims, rolls of rubber roofing material, and the application for doors and windows has been explosive,” says Krauter. “Custom orders, which come in off a trailer, are immediately stored within a series of these stackers that are then stored within the warehouse in an extremely high-density fashion, one next to another, one or two atop each other, until the call to deliver is issued. The entire stacking frame with product aboard is then loaded onto a trailer and taken to the jobsite where it is set generally in the garage of the residence under construction and unloaded and the stacker returns for another cycle. Given that the lumber dealer has flatbed transportation and a tail-mounted forklift, this becomes a one-man operation.”
And as innovative methods for storage become more prevalent, so too does the use of more innovative materials handling equipment such as lift trucks that can operate in multiple directions rather than in a mere linear fashion. “As companies deal with labor shortages, the efficient use of a dealer’s forklift fleet has never been more critical,” points out Gearoid Hogan, vice president of sales and marketing for Combilift. “LBM dealers now need to do more with less and this requires a strong focus on becoming lean. A dealer now needs to better utilize the labor available and one great way to do this is to make that employee more efficient when handling or storing product by operating four-directional forklifts.”
Michael Worsley, industry manager for Hyster, stresses the importance of utilizing material handling equipment in a planned, managed fashion. “Consolidation is a common trend, especially prevalent in the southeast,” he explains. “This can result in greater dependency on a smaller number of trucks. The risk is that using equipment longer than its useful life can result in maintenance disruption, downtime and bottlenecks. To help address these challenges, a fleet management program can help right-size the lift truck fleet, help establish an appropriate maintenance plan and help extend the useful life of equipment.”
If benefits in efficiency and profitability weren’t reason enough for LBM dealers to be taking a hard look at how they handle their materials, the current COVID-19 health crisis is inadvertently lighting the fire for distributors to take a hard look at solutions to minimize common touch and increase overall safety in the yard. “In light of the recent health crisis, we see LBM dealers looking deeper into ways of becoming more efficient,” says Gearoid Hogan, vice president of sales and marketing for Combilift. “In most cases, efficiencies can be gained through a change in how that dealer handles or stores their products. When an LBM dealer is handling product, be that offloading, storing or loading, they should be asking themselves, is this the best use of our resources, are we being efficient in both our handling and storage and if not, what can be changed?”
Equipment such as forklifts can help minimize physical contact with the product, but what about multiple-employee contact with the equipment itself? Manufacturers are ahead of the game and are introducing innovative ways for equipment operators to stay safe and healthy while not missing a beat of efficiency. “Concerns about the introduction and spread of COVID-19 are a real consideration for materials handling operations in the lumber industry,” says Worsley. “To help address those, the Hyster Company has developed a virus safety initiative with its dealer network—a lift truck sanitization program designed for all aspects of forklift activity, including daily operation and service calls.”
Hyster is also looking at ways technology such as telemetry can be used to maintain a safe and healthy environment for equipment operators. “Some telemetry solutions have a digital checklist feature, originally created to digitize the OSHA-mandated forklift safety check at the start of each shift,” explains Worsley. “This checklist can be customized to add questions like ‘Are you wearing proper eye/hand/ face protection?’ or ‘Do you have a fever or COVID-related symptoms?’ Also, lift truck telemetry can control operator access to equipment so that each individual can only use a specific truck, helping reduce risk of cross-contamination.”
No matter how good an LBM dealer thinks he or she is doing, and regardless of how efficient their business seems to be, there is always room for improvement, and investments in better storage and improved handling equipment can make the difference between a dealer who is doing “OK” and one who is excelling. And according to manufacturers, just as important as investment is involving staff to help identify areas of potential efficiency.
“Keep challenging your people to get good, qualified numbers in regard to shrinkage, damage and loss materials,” says Sunbelt Rack’s Darnell. “Once you identify those percentages, that’s the time to look at how you can reduce those numbers. Some of the easiest ways to improve the bottom line is to simply eliminate damaged material by unnecessary handling. Everybody has a ‘feeling’ of where they are, but once you have actual percentages, it’s becomes easy to say identify problems and solve them.”
The successful LBM distributor will always be looking for ways to improve safety and storage while increasing efficiency, and one of the easiest ways to achieve all three is by working directly with the manufacturer to come up with customized solutions. “When Combilift is working with an LBM dealer, we are always looking to address these three areas,” says Combilift’s Hogan. “With labor shortages and rising overhead costs, it has never been so important for an LBM dealer to review their operations to see where improvements can be made, and Combilift is happy to share best practices.”
LBM distributors need also to constantly evaluate how they are using space and analyze if there are better ways to stack and move material. Aisles are storage killers, points out Chris Krauter, and he stresses the need to maximize storage density in any given area. “Take a look at how you’re storing dimensional lumber, composite decking, HardiPlank, and other long length items,” he says. “If these are bing stored in cantilever racks, the Auto-Stak System will reduce this footprint and increase efficiency. If product is stored outside and simply in bulk piles, look to either a cantilever rack canopy system or again, an Auto-Stak. This will increase your SKU count without having to look to expand real estate and associated construction costs.”
In looking at the entire landscape of material storage and handling, one thing that stands out is the importance of training, for both safety and efficiency. “Operator training is an important consideration,” says Hyster’s Worsley, “and combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, training becomes more complex due to the need to follow social distancing protocols for health and safety.”
In order to make up for understaffing issues and for the new challenges brought on by COVID-19, dealers and their staff need to be at the top of their game, and manufacturers stand ready to help. For example, Hyster offers free lift truck operator training video content to help businesses adhere to current health and safety protocols as they onboard the necessary labor to keep operations moving as the economy reopens. Businesses can also work through the Hyster dealer network to get checklists and expert advice on how to use the videos in OSHA-compliant lift truck training programs, including what additional instruction must be provided for operators to be fully certified.
In the case of Combilift, its free warehouse planning consultancy service lets dealers visualize 2D and 3D models of their space to see where efficiencies and storage capacity can be found. “At Combilift, we won’t just tell an LBM dealer what our expertise can bring to their business, we’ll show them,” says Combilift’s Hogan. “Combilift’s innovative, four directional forklift technology coupled with over 20 years of experience in volume optimization means we’re experts in making dealers’ space work harder.”
If there’s a benefit to the current market challenges, it’s that it allows LBM distributors the opportunity to evaluate, analyze, and invest in more efficient ways to store their product and move it around the yard and ultimately to the job site.
“Constantly ask questions,” says Krauter. “Is the product readily accessible or does the employee have to dig it out? Is the current storage area utilizing the most vertical space available? Is the product protected from weather damage? Is the area set up with the maximum efficient layout? Is the area ‘cut up’ with stored product running mutually perpendicular instead of linear?” These are the questions successful dealers will be addressing.