At the ProMat 2006 Material Handling Show in Chicago, I visited every pallet rack manufacturer's booth trying to create interest in a new product line specifically for Specialty Tool and Fastener Distributor Association (STAFDA) members. The product is applicable to any warehouse that deals with various sized parts, pieces and cartons.

My opening line was, "How would you like to sell four times more wire decking?"

Every booth was essentially the same, with a few sections of pallet rack artistically displayed in yellow, green or blue. This is a mature commodity market. All the products, when properly specified and utilized will support loads that meet standards promulgated by the Rack Manufacturers Institute. The posts may vary in configuration or color, but everything does essentially the same job; hold up multiple horizontal beams with two or three pallets on each level. Ho, hum.

These vendors also featured wire mesh decking for hand stacking individual cartons. Decking is a comparatively new product developed to meet fire protection codes that demand a non combustible surface to replace the more traditional plywood or multiple wooden boards. In addition to reducing the fire load, mesh decks or perforated, formed metal decking, will allow water from overhead sprinklers to penetrate the rack system and minimize the spread of fire.

This is an obvious requirement for the insurance carriers to justify since it potentially reduces the property losses from a fire. From a code specifier's viewpoint this is an easy sell and therefore most building codes have readily adopted this requirement for all pallet rack storage.

So what?
Ideally, in a retail show room, product lines are displayed to address a customer's needs and context. This often means commingling large and small items. It places product in proximity to each other that are used together in the final build.

A similar situation arises in the warehouse. Product lines such as wheelbarrows, hand tools and power tools are often in less than full pallet loads. And they are too large to fit on the shelving. Physical size is not the only problem. Normally there are ancillary products that one would like to keep in an adjacent position, but small size wastes space, or the loose stuff gets lost in a sea of pallets and full cartons.

If pallet racks with mesh decking is used for storage, the full pallets and big stuff fit fine. The hand stacked material, however, costs space and time by requiring a full pallet position and a four-inch to six-inch thick beam to support the load.

Virtually every warehouse I have visited in the past year has experienced this same problem to a greater or lesser extent. Fastener distributors, for example, often store quarter kegs containing thousands of pieces on the same rack shelf with individual chipboard boxes of 100 pieces. Other distributors store quantities of products such as roll-formed strut that are useless without multiple SKUs of accessories. Even those who market sacks of concrete still need smaller storage units for additives and specialty products.

Look around your warehouse. You should be able to identify at least a dozen products or lines that have more space lost than inventory stored. Or, they require visiting multiple locations to complete every order.

The solution
The solution is simple. Start with any typical pallet rack section with uprights 10 feet to 12 feet high. Higher is even better. Now, set a pair of beams at the top of the posts and another pair seven feet off the floor. If all your loads are this high, it would be the end of this discussion. In reality, there is a need for also storing shorter loads. Normally this is met with more beam levels and wire mesh decking. But, this is not an optimal solution given the parameter discussed above. Here's where the new product line comes into play.

Adding more uprights that are seven feet high can subdivide a 96inch wide opening into two or three narrower openings. These intermediate posts can rest on the floor with appropriate anchors, or be fastened to the beams using a simple saddle bracket and self-drilling screws. Adding more beams that match this opening can save some space because a thinner beam is required to carry the same load on a smaller span. This could save an inch or two. So, that's a bit better but not really what is required.

The product line that I envision is nothing more than a steel angle punched to match the holes that are already in most rack posts. Mounting these angles on both sides of the opening, it then becomes a simple matter of sliding in a mesh deck, cut to an appropriate size and turned 90 degrees from its usual orientation. Add a pin or lock so that the deck cannot move and a shelf about one inch thick can now be hand stacked. Need more shelves? Add more angle iron and wire mesh decking on suitable vertical centers.

As this illustration shows, this is not a huge leap of engineering and manufacturing expertise. In fact, you could probably make this yourself with tools that you have on hand. The problem is that not a single pallet rack manufacturer offers this innovation in their product line.

Call your rack vendor and tell him about this idea. Ask him to mock up a few pieces for you to try. And show this to your staff. With a little creativity they will show you more places it will work to increase space utilization in the warehouse, while simultaneously enhancing their productivity by decreasing travel time through the warehouse.

This is a classic case of which comes first; product or demand. I for one am tired of waiting for someone to take the initiative. You need this equipment to stretch the walls of your warehouse and to reduce costs. Warehouse management systems have given us the ability to commingle products by dictates of the market, not by what limited products the vendor has in his catalog. It's time for pallet rack designers to update their thinking so that you can take full advantage of information technologies. It isn't often one gets to start a trend—let alone initiate it. Think of this as an overdue improvement to your facility.

Need more shelves? Add more angle iron and wire mesh decking on suitable vertical corners. You can probably make this yourself with slotted angle and tools that you have on hand.

Robert Footlik is CEO of Footlik and Associates, LLC in Evanston, Ill. He can be contacted at (847) 328-5644, or robert@footlik.com