Building the Next-Gen Warehouse

Sept. 1, 2009
Material handlers have a chance to help create the worker-centric warehouse.

Traditionally, warehouses and distribution centers are designed for maximum productivity and cost effectiveness. One of the factors affecting those design decisions is the people who will work there. However, the people factor is not typically central to many design decisions.

Now, that brings up two questions.

First, is that the way DC design should work? We all know that the workforce is beginning to undergo a significant change as boomers retire. (It may not happen when the boomers had planned, but it will happen.) The challenge of finding enough people with the right skills to run productive, cost-efficient facilities makes employee retention all the more important.

And, that brings up a second question: What would a warehouse look like if the primary design consideration was worker satisfaction?

Groundbreaking Study

Without worrying about the first question for now, Kevin Gue is trying to answer the second. Gue is an associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Auburn University.

He makes it clear that the concept “is not to design an amusement park and call it a warehouse.” Instead, he simply asks, “Do we understand enough about good, healthy, satisfying workplaces in a distribution setting? Can we translate that knowledge into a real design about which all of us would say, ‘yes, that is a worker-centric warehouse,’ or even, ‘this warehouse is a better place to work than that warehouse’?”

Gue has already made some progress with seed funding from Material Handling Industry of America. That led him and his colleague Bryan Edwards of Oklahoma State University to apply for one of the major research grants awarded this year by MHIA. This $50,000-plus grant will allow the two academics to take their research to the next level.

But, they can't do it alone and would like your help. Gue and Edwards are looking for companies interested in letting them survey workers about working in warehouses. They already have four companies onboard, but a larger survey base will enhance the quality of the results. All names will be kept confidential, but companies will be able to see how their scores compare with those of other anonymous participants. For all the details, contact Gue at [email protected].

Hopefully, many of you will be interested. This is a groundbreaking effort to establish the state of the distribution worker. And from there, the hope is to have an impact on facilities, processes and equipment that enhance both productivity and satisfaction as the workforce changes.

Gary Forger is senior vice president of professional development for Material Handling Industry of America. Contact him at [email protected].

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