Mobilizing the bottom line

by Array

Flint Packaging had a challenge. As far as problems go, it was the good kind, but it was still a situation that was less than optimal.

Based in Vaughan, Ontario, Flint Packaging takes corrugated cardboard and turns those sheets into custom-made boxes for clients in a wide variety of industries. And while it may not seem that boxes are items that would need to be available in rush or on-demand order situations, they are.

“We would be looking at approximately 20 clients who carry a large amount of inventory on our floor at any given time. It generally turns within 30 days. It’s available for the customer 24 hours a day seven days a week,” says Flint sales manager Don Archibald.

“I do have some customers for which I must keep something on the floor otherwise they could be in a spot where their lines might go down. And we’re willing to do that. I just needed to be able to do it under one roof,” adds Flint vice-president Karina (Kari) Mattila.

The “under one roof” requirement presented difficulties. The company, which has sales of $10 million annually and a workforce of 43 employees, found itself out of warehouse room in its own building, so it was forced to rent space in nearby facilities.

Aside from the hassles involved in handling and managing materials stored in multiple locations, off-site storage meant increased costs, a situation that made no financial sense and required a solution.

“We were leasing warehouse space. At one point it was 20,000sqf. Then we had it down to 10,000sqf. The idea was to remove it all together,” says Mattila. “I was tasked with the requirement of no more leased space. If we wanted to warehouse our inventory items, it would need to be done here and I needed a solution for it.”

Mattila decided the only solution was to make more efficient use of Flint’s existing space, so she began looking for storage solutions that would turn dead, unused space into storage areas. While much facility’s floor space is taken up with manufacturing equipment—machinery that cuts, shapes, glues and bundles the boxes—the space above the equipment was empty.

To see MM&D video of Flint’s mobile pallet racks click here.

“If you stand back and look at the plant you see dead space above everything. We’ve seen enough Ikea commercials to know that empty space isn’t good,” says Mattila.

“You can always utilize ‘up’ in the plant. Just because you only have 65,000sqf of floor space, if you can utilize what is up above, you can basically double your plant floor space under the right conditions,” says Archibald.

Originally Mattila thought installing a narrow-aisle mezzanine or storage platform would be the answer to Flint’s warehousing problem, so she began searching online for vendors that could give Flint a usable second floor. As part of that process, she came across the website for SSI-Schaefer where she saw mention of the company’s mobile pallet racking.

“One of the case studies had a tractor trailer bed with huge roles of paper, similar to what our corrugated sheet suppliers may use. So if they were capable of building racking or storage solutions for big rolls of paper like that I thought certainly they know what they are doing and they’d be able to help me find a way to store some skids of corrugated.”

What Mattila didn’t know at the time, however, was that while mobile pallet racks were popular in Europe, SSI-Schaefer had never built and installed one in an already existing facility in Canada.

At the initial meeting between the Flint team and Bob Trojnar, sales manager for the materials handling division of the Brampton, Ontario-based Canadian division of SSI-Schaefer, a number of solutions were discussed, including storage platforms. However, it wasn’t until Mattila brought up the possibility of mobile pallet racking that Flint’s storage solution began to take shape. Even then, it wasn’t as simple as placing an order for some stock racking. Because every mobile pallet racking system is custom-designed,  Trojnar first had to understand just what Flint needed and how the system would be used.

“I had to learn about the capacities and the weight of cardboard,” says Trojnar. “I spent a fair amount of time in their manufacturing facility, learning their production—their runs, how big they are. I really learned a lot about the corrugated cardboard manufacturing process because I had to. I had to understand if this was going to work because to propose a system and make sure it is going to work you need to do your due diligence and learn about what they do. That was a challenge too. It was something totally new. I would expect to go to a distribution centre with that kind of system, not to a cardboard manufacturing facility. To us it was all new.”

For example, Trojnar originally proposed a system that was three bays high, but after some research and consultation with Flint, it was determined the cardboard was light enough—a 102cm (40in) by 122cm (48in) skid weighs approximately 272kg (600lb) unless it is tightly fluted and therefore much heavier—that the system could support a four-bay high configuration.

Not only did Trojnar and SSI-Schaefer need to figure out a system that would work for Flint, they also had to find a partner to help provide components for the system. In the end it incorporated carriages from Spacesaver Solutions Inc into the racking.

Before the shelving could be put up, the plant floor had to be prepared. The surface was ground down and epoxied (to ensure it was level) and guidance tracks were cut into the floor. That took three days. Then Trojnar’s team spent four days installing the racking. The power tools used by the installers required Flint to temporarily install heavy duty power feeds, but the racking itself has a much lighter energy demand.

“The system is driven by the motors. These are very, very low voltage 88-volt motors. Each bay has its own motor. And it’s driven by the chain drive. It’s unique, but it’s a pretty simple drive system. The whole system operates on 110-volts. It doesn’t use much power. Because you have those 88-volt motors, they have very low power consumption. Your stove in the house consumes more than that whole system,” says Trojnar.

The system has two stationary racks at each end and three movable units of bays. The bays on both the fixed and the mobile racks run three long and four high. The racks are designed so more products can be stored in a smaller space than traditional stationary racks would use.

In their tightest configuration, the three mobile racks move toward one of the stationary racks. They come to a rest tightly spaced together—much like the closed accordion bellows—allowing no access to most of the products they store.

The only way to reach the pallets on the shelves is via the space between the last of the mobile racks and the stationary rack on the far end. That distance is a standard aisle. When access to the inner bays is needed, the mobile racks separate and slide into a position that creates an empty aisle in front of the required bay.

SSI-Schaefer’s mobile pallet racks come with a number of safety features to ensure foreign objects cannot be crushed or trapped between the racks as they move together. In addition to the AC power, they can, in emergency or power outage situations, be  run off a portable battery.

“The backup battery is in a little briefcase. In case we get a significant power outage then we have to insert a key—it looks like an electronic meat thermometer—and press the button. You have to do it manually because there are no advanced safety features when it’s running from backup battery power. In lieu of the advanced safety features, they insert the human element, which is you have to be standing there physically holding it order to make it go,” says Mattila.

While operating under normal conditions, the rack movement can be activated in one of two ways. The operator can push a button on the rack control panel, or drivers operating one of Flint’s five tow motors or the lone reach truck, can push a button on their vehicles and trigger the movement remotely. The racks move at a speed of one metre per minute.

When the plant is closed, the racks move into a night-park position, says Archibald. “All of the racks will separate to a certain extent. They will spread across the whole area. That’s in case of a fire, to allow the sprinklers to do their work better.”

The area covered by the racks formerly held stacked corrugated sheets and boxes. While there is still a small area where the cardboard is sitting on the floor and not on shelves, the mobile pallet racking takes up most of the available storage space.

“The racks are roughly 31ft by 54ft. They hold 240 to 360 skids, depending on whether we get two or three to a bunk. The comparable space need for non-mobile racking would be 31ft x 106ft (including room for aisles) and we would only get 180 maximum because we would only be able to go three high” says Archibald.

So far Flint Packaging is very pleased with how the racks are working. The company gave up its extra leased warehouse space in August 2012—as soon as the racks were installed—which means the racks, which cost Flint in the low six figures, are well on their way to paying for themselves. According to Mattila’s calculations based on the cost of rental space the racks will take her either eight months to pay off (assuming they are taking the place of a 20,000sqf lease) or just over 14 months (assuming a 10,000sqf lease).

Not only are the racks a financial success, they are also helping to make Flint’s operations more organized, says Archibald.

“It has given us a visual flag to improve our efficiencies. We have a unique date-coding system. If everything was stacked up on the floor, we wouldn’t be able to see the little tags and see when things were manufactured, especially if we had a quality issue with the customer. So the visibility of it is really good. It has just worked.”

Even though they’ve only been in place for a few months, the mobile pallet racks have already caused the Flint team to start speculating about future applications.

“I want another set of racks out there, another row of them. Honestly I can see us having three more areas of mobile pallet racking,” says Archibald. “I think mobile pallet racking on its own can expand our floor space utilization by 60 percent. I don’t think that’s out of the question. You’re adding an extra layer. You’re getting rid of all the aisles. If you stick in more mobile pallet racking, it almost compounds the usage area.

Mattila agrees with the desire to buy more equipment. “I know I want at least one more for sure.”

As much as they’re enamoured of the racks, Archibald says he can see the next set being slightly different from the original installation.

“We’ve learned a few things we’ll probably change a little bit for the next one. We’d change the rack length. There is a lot of wasted space in there right now. Instead of 120in long, maybe we cut down to 105in or 106in, but we’d have to talk about that.”

As to when the company will be ready to install another system, that’s still up in the air.

“I don’t have any projected dates for that,” says Mattila. “Now that I know it exists, as soon as I’m in a spot when I have enough going through my plant to require the rental of storage trailers—or the space on my floor is taken up and my volume goes so high I don’t have room to move due to incoming and outgoing material—I’ll do it then. Just as soon as it hits that point, because I will not go and lease space. No. There’s no need. I know this is in our toolkit, in our arsenal now. I won’t get caught back up in that again.”

Not that Flint has any plans to relocate in the future, but the fact the racks are portable is just one more reason they appeal to Archibald.

“One of the beauties of it is if we ever decide to move, you can pick it up and take it with you, whereas a mezzanine is a sunk cost that stays with the building.”

Archibald also noted that because the racks were just pieces of equipment, and not considered to be structural changes to the building as a mezzanine would be, there were no building permits required.

The mobile pallet racks do represent a significant investment for Flint, so Mattila is determined they will be well cared for. The tracks are swept out or vacuumed on a regular basis to remove any stray bits of wooden pallets or cardboard fibres. She says the company even purchased equipment specifically to use in conjunction with the racking.

“The forks on our other trucks were too long and we didn’t want to have to retrofit something. I wanted to be able to go with something as small in the aisle as possible, and we had somebody here who had the skill set and was quite good at using reach, so we bought a reach truck. Is it possible to get the tow motor in? Yes, it’s a little bit of a dance if you put the shorter forks on it, but again, it’s an investment. I don’t want to ding the racks. I would rather use the reach. It’s easier to turn.”

So far, maintenance on the racks has been easy. Because they are so new, they haven’t required any attention. Eventually Trojnar expects to see Flint’s racks on a six month inspection schedule. At that time the chains will likely be greased, just to prevent wear and tear, but he says that will probably be the extent of any servicing.

While Flint’s racks maybe the first of their kind in the country, so far that hasn’t proven to be an issue. In fact, their newness has even led to some of Flint’s customers asking for demonstrations. Mattila says she enjoys obliging their requests, as it gives her a opportunity to connect with people and talk to them outside of a sales meeting environment. Besides, she loves talking about the technology and the project.

“It’s awesome to be first.”

Racking meets barcoding

As is evidenced by Flint’s quick adoption of the mobile pallet racking, company executives aren’t intimidated by technology, especially when it makes sense.

Now that the storage problem has been solved, Mattila and Archibald are ready to turn their attention to the next piece of technology that can add efficiencies to Flint’s processes: barcodes.

“I would love to see us have each bunk space barcoded and as a skid gets put into the rack it would be scanned in and scanned out of that position,” says Archibald.

According to Mattila, Flint already has some barcoding capabilities, but they’re being underutilized, in part because the corrugated box software that runs Flint’s equipment and acts as its ERP system didn’t have the ability to incorporate barcode information. At least it didn’t until very recently.

“I’ve checked into it, I’ve pushed the limits of our existing software provider’s development team and it’s definitely do-able. The capability exists. It did not a year ago, but I’ve quietly pushed for what I need.”

She envisions a system where every operator has a tablet on the tow motor and the ability to scan items directly to the tablet and feed the information into the main software system.

“They could have a list and every slot could have its own unique location ID. They’d be able to scan the load tag for every skid into a slot. So if the girls upstairs want to know where something is, they would know we’ve got 2,000 pieces of that item—500 in each of four slots, and know which slot numbers.”

While Flint has no specific plans to roll out a big barcoding project, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

“If it makes sense it’s really hard to keep me away from it,” says Mattila. “Water wears down the stone.”

Photos by Stephen Uhraney