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(Courtesy of Brad Boad)

The leader in eCommerce is making a wave in warehouse efficiency. Amazon.com has been opening up new fulfillment centers at a brisk pace and introducing robots and other high technology features to make their operations more efficient.

One example is the warehouse center in Tracy, California. There are about 1,500 full-time laborers working in 1.2 million square feet and they are getting a hand from about 3,000 robots that gracefully glide along coded stickers on the floor and receiving and decoding commands sent wireless from one central computer.

These squat orange gizmos look like the stones that curlers navigate across ice using brooms that we see at the winter Olympics every four years. They are specifically designed to slide under and stop directly below the shelves.  Then they are strong enough to lift four feet wide shelves that have 750 pounds of merchandise piled on them.

The bar codes on the floor direct the robots to the proper shelves where the items they are commanded to look for are stacked.  And, since they can travel under the shelves, the shelves can be stacked closer together, which means that the 1.2 million square foot warehouse can hold more of them and, therefore, more goods.

The system allows the warehouse to accommodate 20 million items or about 3.5 million different products.  More than 700,000 items are shipped from there each day.

The robots are manufactured by Kiva Systems in North Reading, Massachusetts, which Amazon acquired specifically for this purpose. A warehouse using this system can save 20 percent in operating costs. It is not designed to take jobs away from people, but rather to work with the human staff and makes the job for human’s more tolerable. Humans are used to do the more sophisticated tasks including shelving, packing and monitoring for damaged goods.

Amazon claims that it hasn’t eliminated jobs as it continues to introduce the Kiva robot system. Matter of fact, it claims that it has added jobs, but did not say how many.

The human employees seem to be fine with it. A feeling of fraternity with the robots is encouraged and as many as 87 robots have been named after many of the human workers –- the names written to the outer shell of the gizmos.

The humans and robots cooperate during a normal day. Human laborers unload boxes from trucks, put them on to a conveyor belt, unpack the boxes and place the goods in carts that go to other workers who sort the items onto shelves.

One might think that since there are 3,000 robots scurrying along the floor they are always bumping into one another. That’s not the case because each machine includes sensors that allow them to talk to one another.

The robots have been known to break down. However, the warehouse staff includes engineers who fix them within two or so hours.

The bottom line is that previous to the system, it took hours for Amazon warehouse employees to walk and pick products from rows and rows of shelves. Thanks to the robots the routine takes just a few minutes.

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Editor’s Note: In today’s Thursday Feature, we look at the reasons behind the recent multi-billion expansions of the Suez and Panama canals and how they could ultimately affect the ordinary consumer.

Photo courtesy US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Public Domain)

Photo courtesy US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Public Domain)

The Suez Canal is in the middle of a $6.8 billion expansion project that will nearly double its capacity and allow super oil tankers to pass through it safely.

Meanwhile, the finishing touches are being put on a $5.25 billion upgrade to the Panama Canal that will finally allow supersized cargo ships from Asia to pass through and dock at ports up and down the East Coast for the first time.

As a result, ports on both US coasts and in Europe are investing billions more on upgrades, including new facilities and deeper trenches to accommodate these new monster-sized ships.

The question is: Why now?

Catching Up with the World Economy

Both the Suez and Panama canals have been operational for more than a century. Both shave thousands of miles off of the journies of sea-going vessels, allowing tankers, cargo container ships, and other vessels to reach their final destinations faster and more cheaply.

Yet for the past several decades, both canals have been operating well below capacity.

The Suez Canal — which links the Red Sea with the Mediterranean — is the primary waterway connecting the Indian Ocean with the Atlantic. But in some parts the 145-year-old canal is so narrow that vessels are not able to able to pass through in either direction at the same time. So wait times for ships seeking to pass through the canal averaged 11 hours.

But in some parts the 145-year-old canal is so narrow that vessels are not able to able to pass through in either direction at the same time. So wait times for ships seeking to pass through the canal averaged 11 hours.

Plus, the Suez Canal couldn’t accommodate super-sized tankers transporting crude oil from Middle East oil tankers. Oil companies were forced to use either smaller sized ships or make the longer journey around the Cape of Good Horn off the coast of Africa in order to reach US and European ports — both of which pushed transportation costs higher, were then passed on to consumers.

Asian Mega Ships 

Meanwhile, the Panama Canal, which connects the Pacific with the Atlantic oceans, was too shallow. New super-sized cargo ships had a displacement that was too deep to make it through the 50-mile long canal.

So they could only dock at West Coast ports, once again resulting in higher transportation costs for the Asian-made products they carried that were bound for the central or Eastern US.

Although Panamanian and Egyptian officials have known for decades that their canals weren’t big enough to deal with modern sea traffic volumes, it wasn’t until this decade that they finally bit the bullet and decided to make the massive necessary investments.

Two things prompted this: The booming Chinese economy and the increasing dangers associated with traveling along the coast of East Africa.

China’s Massive Exports

Although the People’s Republic of China technically remains one of the few remaining Communist countries, since the death of its founder Chairman Mao Tse Tung in 1976, the giant Asian nation has been inching ever closer to capitalism. It currently has a mixed economy with an increasingly open market environment.

Thanks to a combination of having both the world’s largest population and a sustained annual economic growth rate of 11.2%, China has become a leading world power and one of the biggest global manufacturer of durable goods, including clothing, shoes, electronics, and housewares.

Most of these products are sold to the West, where they are shipped on ever-increasingly larger cargo container ships. But up until recently, Asian cargo ships could go no further than West Coast ports without having to make the arduous and costly trip around Tierra del Fuego on the tip of South America.

21st Century Pirates

Meanwhile, ships bound for the West from the Middle East and the Indian Ocean that were too large to fit through the Suez Canal had to travel through increasingly dangerous shipping lanes along the coast of East Africa, where they were potential prey to bold and desperate pirates from Somalia and Ethiopia.

Widening and deepening the Suez and Panama canals offers a solution to both problems. Plus, the operators of the canals can pay for the improvements quickly by collecting higher fees from the increasing number of ships that will be passing through them.

The real winner, however, is the consumer who can now get better access to cheaper goods more quickly, something that is critical now that the world economy is shifting to web-based ordering in which consumers demand near-instantaneous delivery.

 

 

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Protect yourself from noise pollution by having acoustic blankets on your working or living space.

Protect yourself from noise pollution by having acoustic blankets on your working or living space.

The Second Harvest Food Bank, in Springfield, Ohio, is manned mostly by volunteers. But executive director Keith Williamson was having a hard time retaining unpaid workers because of conditions at the charity’s warehouse.

Because of the 58,000 square foot warehouse’s open floor plan, volunteers packing boxes of food to be distributed to the area’s needy were frequently exposed to loud noises from industrial machinery, blasts of freezing air whenever the freezer doors were opened, and the constant flow of traffic as forklifts, trucks and other vehicles loaded and unloaded pallets all around them.

In some instances, volunteers literally had to shout at each other just to be heard over the din of the warehouse.

Improve Conditions or Lose Volunteers

Williamson knew he had to do something increase the workers’ safety and comfort, or else there would be nobody to handle the more than 6 million pounds of food the charity distributes each year to 90 area soup kitchens, shelters, and food pantries.

But given the charity’s small budget, building permanent walls to block off the areas where volunteers worked from other parts of the warehouse was not practical.

That’s when Williamson learned about fabric curtain walls.

Noise and Temperature Resistant

Curtains are temporary, portable walls that dampen noise and block temperature variations so that the workers can be safer and more comfortable while working in the warehouse.

They define the volunteer work space, provide temperature separation, and even help buffer loud noises coming from other parts of the facility.

The walls installed at the Second Harvest warehouse are made of fire-retardant industrial vinyl that’s wrapped around anti-microbial polyester batting. They can provide up to 40 degrees of temperature variation from adjacent spaces and reduce noise levels by up to 25 decibels.

They feature three custom vinyl strip doorways — one for foot traffic and two fitted to accommodate pallet jacks and forklifts.

Williamson said the fabric curtain walls have made a big difference and he is now able to keep volunteers longer because working conditions are greatly improved.

Many Types of Curtain Walls and Temporary Doors

Curtain walls are used in many industrial applications. And they can be made of many different materials.

Bahrns offers many different types of temporary walls and doors, including clear plastic temporary curtains, strip doors for dock doors or semi-trailer hatches, and even acoustical blankets.

Temporary curtain walls can be custom-built to fit any sized area. And they are available in a variety of materials to fit specific requirements, whether it’s temperature control, sound deadening or other uses.

They also are a much more affordable option than building renovation or installing permanent walls. Plus they offer the versatility of being able to be moved from one location to another whenever you want.

As for Williamson, he said his warehouse’s new curtain walls have made all the difference. Volunteers can now work in more comfort and security.

 

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Here’s a special sneak preview of some of the stories you will find this week on the Bahrns blog:

  • If your warehouse or factory is too loud, too hot, too cold, or too anything, you could undergo an expensive renovation project, or … you could choose a different solution that’s cheaper, faster and just as efficient. We’ll tell you what that is …
  • Both the Panama and Suez canals are in the midst of multi-billion dollar upgrades. But why now? The answer may surprise you …
  • Plus, selecting the proper shelves for your warehouse should not be taken for granted. We’ll tell you how to make the right choice based on your specific needs

All this and much, much more can be found this week on the Bahrns blog … so stay tuned!

 

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Don’t Take Shelves For Granted

18 May 2015

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There are a number of things to consider when selecting shelves for a warehouse including weight rating, size, and height. (Courtesy Flickr)

There are a number of things to consider when selecting shelves for a warehouse including weight rating, size, and height.
(Courtesy Flickr)

Whether you are managing a brand new warehouse or one that’s been around for years, the one thing you can’t take for granted is shelving. The shelves you select need to be able to hold the amount of weight piled on them; they must allow easy access to the items they hold; they must be sturdy enough to take abuse from forklifts that ram into them; they need to be visually appealing; they need to hold a lot of items and be safe to use; and on and on.

You need to understand how the warehouse operates; what type of products are being stored, whether or not the physical construction of the shelves assures efficient picking and loading, whether its size fits in with the physical layout of the warehouse, and on and on.

Here are a number of things you need to consider when inspecting shelves either in person at a store or online.

·      The weight rating of the shelf. Keep in mind that the rating is based on the even distribution of items on a shelf. So if a shelf has the capability of holding 400 pounds, then it is best for holding 10 items of 40 pounds spread evenly across the entire surface. It probably wouldn’t hold one 400 pound item positioned in the center of the shelf.
·      The shelf needs to accommodate what is being stored. If you expect to store 12-inch wide boxes in a configuration of three across, then a quick calculation tells you that you will require a shelf that is 36-inches wide. However, such an arrangement could make a box awkward to take off or put on and adversely affect a laborer’s productivity
·      The height of the shelf must properly fit in the warehouse. Select shelves that fit within the confines of the warehouse and still allow you to pile inventory on the top shelf.  Make certain that the height of the shelf doesn’t encounter lighting fixtures, pipes, a sprinkler system, or any other objects that might be attached to the ceiling.
·      Consider buying a stock sized shelf. Shelves come in a number of stock sizes one of which could prove appropriate to your specific situation. Common standard sizes include 18-inches by 36-inches, 18-inches by 48-inches, 24-inches by 36-inches and 24-inches by 48-inches. Height varies from 72-inches to 96-inches. It’s best to consult with a supplier who can answer questions concerning this.

Shelves come in three basic styles  – rivet, steel clip, and wire.

If you are looking for a multipurpose shelf that is strong and easy to assemble, you may want to consider the rivet shelf. These shelves have a weight capability of up to 1,850 pounds, offers easy access, and good stability. It is made of solid steel frame and features 5/8-inch particleboard, wire, plywood, or a solid steel deck.

Advantages include easy installation, the most sizes, and higher weight capacities. Disadvantages include its visual appearance, and its weight. Moreover, it costs more to ship.

Steel shelving is ideal for high-density applications and is offered in open and closed styles. Back and sway braces keep it steady. It is easy to customize and accessorize and include built-in bin; and multiple types of dividers, doors, and modular drawer inserts. These shelves are more expensive than the other options, and they are a little more difficult to install.

If cosmetics and accessibility are important to you, then you may want wired shelves. This style of shelf has open construction and open back and sides so there is access from all four sides.

Advantages include easy adjustability and several configurations. However, it is more expensive than rivet and metal shelving, there are a limited number of sizes, and its maximum weight capability is about 1,200 pounds.

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File:Hard Hat Worker HHW01.JPG

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia and in the public domain

Hard hats are standard personal protective equipment that are required to be worn in most construction sites, as well as many other industrial settings.

They usually are made of a high-impact plastic material and are designed to absorb most of the force should something collide with your head. They are responsible for many avoided injuries, as well as saving countless lives.

When Do You Need a Hard Hat?

In most instances, specific job site work rules will determine whether or not a hard hat must be worn. If so, signs typically will be posted notifying personnel that they are not allowed in the area unless they are wearing the appropriate head protection.

But how can you tell if a hard hat is required if you don’t know the job site work rules or no such rules exist?

Hard hats should be worn to protect your head whenever there is a risk of:

  • Impact and/or penetration from bumping your head
  • Impact and/or penetration from falling tools or materials when there are workers, machines, conveyor belts, and other work-related things above you
  • Impact and/or penetration from objects being carried or swung nearby
  • Electrical shock or burn hazards

Modern Hard Hat Design

The first hard hats were made of tin or some other lightweight metal. While they provided some protection from workers, today’s modern hard hats are specifically engineered to resist blows and absorb shocks.

Most feature a one-piece outer shell that protects the head from blow or penetration. A headband and strap are fitted between the outer shell and the head to further absorb the shock of an impact.

On some hard hats, a chin strap is used to keep the securely fitted to the head in the event of a fall, collision, or windy conditions.

Properly Wearing Your Hard Hat

The only way to ensure that you receive maximum protection from your hard hat is to make sure it is fitted properly to your head. Adjust the headband so that the hat fits snugly on your head and that none of hat’s hard exterior is in contact with your head.

The hard hat should fit comfortably, but it should not be so loose that it is allowed to move freely. A loose hard hat can slide forward and inhibit your field of vision, creating unsafe working conditions.

If you are wearing a hard hat in cold weather, you should wear a hard hat liner over the hard hat, rather than wearing a hat inside the hard hat, which can prohibit you from getting a good fit.

Hard Hat Maintenance

Hard hats should be inspected daily for cracks or dents. They also should be checked after any type of collision or impact.

Things to watch for include:

  • Headbands that are stretched or worn should be replaced
  • Hard hats that are cracked, broken or punctured should be discarded
  • If a hard hat has taken a heavy blow, it should be taken out of service even if it doesn’t show any obvious damage

When not in use, hard hats should be stored in a cool, safe place. Leaving it in the sun can cause the hard plastic material to deteriorate more quickly.

 

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3pl cold storage solutionsEditor’s Note: In today’s Thursday Feature, we take a look at the unique problems faced by cold storage warehouses, and how technological improvements are providing new solutions.

Cold storage warehouses are used to store more than $200 billion worth of refrigerated and frozen food products each year. But they also are commonly used in the pharmaceutical, petrochemical, and high-tech electronic industries.

On the face of it, the objective of a cold storage warehouse seems straightforward: Keep the facility cold so that the temperature-sensitive products that are stored there aren’t ruined.

Different Temperature Zones

But maintaining a cold storage warehouse is actually a lot more complicated than that. For example, different areas of the same warehouse need to be kept at different temperatures based on the type of products that are stored there: Fresh produce should be held at 55 degrees F, dairy products need to be held just above freezing at 34 degrees F, meat should be stored just below freezing at 28 degrees F, and ice cream should be held at -10 degrees F.

Changing Zone Sizes

At the same time, the size of these temperature-zoned areas often needs to be expanded or contracted, depending on the amount of products that are being held there. In a traditional warehouse, reconfiguring the layout is relatively easy: You can just move pallets of materials around or stack them up until they fit.

But with cold storage facilities, temperature has to be taken into account. One solution is to use a modular curtain wall system. This low-cost option gives operators the flexibility to expand or contract temperature-controlled storage areas at will.

That’s important because refrigerating air costs more than heating it. So when curtain walls can be used to instead of building entirely new storage areas with aluminum-covered insulated walls, cost savings can result.

Cold Temperatures Sap Battery Power

Another problem is that extremely cold temperatures sap power from electric batteries. When operating in cold storage facilities, the average forklift battery can decline between 20% and 50% faster than it would in a standard warehouse environment. So a battery rated for eight hours of continuous work might only last four to six hours in a refrigerated or frozen environment.

That’s why electric forklifts that are used in cold storage warehouses often have higher voltage batteries. For example, when a forklift is fitted with a battery rated for 12 hours, even if the cycle reduction due to temperature is 25% it will still be operable for an 8-hour shift.

Keeping Workers Warm and Productive

And then there’s the human factor. People who work in cold storage facilities need to bundle up to keep warm.

But when operators are wearing thick gloves, it’s harder for them to press the buttons on scanning devices and other tools. That’s why special equipment is often used that features oversized buttons that are large enough to be pushed easily by workers dressed for the extreme cold. Similarly, tablets with touchscreens need to be adjusted so that they are sensitive enough to respond to the touch of a glove, rather than a naked finger.

Similarly, tablets with touchscreens need to be adjusted so that they are sensitive enough to recognize the cool touch of a glove, rather than the warmth of a naked finger.

Effect of Cold on Electronics 

The battery life of these devices also is affected by the cold. So some devices designed for use in cold storage conditions include seals that can withstand frequent temperature changes as they are moved between zones.

Some also include heat sources inside their housings to prevent their electronics from freezing.

Maximizing the Cold

It’s more efficient to chill smaller areas than it is larger ones. So cold storage facilities are often designed to maximize the amount of products that are stored in temperature zones. This typically includes high-density storage that features deep and tall racks to maximize cube capacity and minimize the zone’s footprint.

It’s also critical to conserve cold air as much as possible. Anytime a door is open or a curtain is pulled back, a heat exchange occurs, increasing the temperature of the zoned area. Restoring the zone to the required temperature costs money, so minimizing the amount of warmer air that enters a temperature controlled area is critical.

A solution used by many cold storage facilities is automated storage and retrieval systems that allow for pallets to pass in and out through a small opening that can be instantly sealed once the products have passed through.

Maintaining Product Temperature

Finally, there’s the temperature of the products themselves. Every time a product is removed from a freezer to warmer area — such as when it needs to be picked and palletized for shipment — it heats up. So when it is returned to the freezer, its heat signature raises the temperature of the zone slightly. Plus, passing from cold to warm and back again can cause moisture buildup on the products, which can cause ice crystals to form when they are sent back into colder zones, potentially affecting product quality.

But new robotic technology allows palletizing to be don inside freezers. They feature special seals, energy supplies, and temperature-resistant lubricants.

The operators of cold storage warehouse face unique challenges. But new technological solutions can improve efficiency and reduce costs.

 

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File:The break room (3817585873).jpg

Photo courtesy of Kristin Dos Santos via Wikimedia Commons

Providing a clean, modern and attractive break room is one of the easiest ways to improve employee morale and boost job satisfaction. It also can reduce employee turnover and the associated costs of hiring new workers.

Break rooms are more than simply a place for your employees to eat during their lunch break. They can be the social hub of your workspace, allowing people the opportunity to interact with others and recharge their batteries so they can be more productive when they get back to work.

And now that most states have outlawed indoor smoking, employees can enjoy their break time in a healthier, smoke-free environment.

Choosing the Best Break Room Furniture

When it comes to selecting the best furniture for your employee break room, there are three primary considerations: Size, design and cost.

Size is by far the most important factor. If you furnish your break room with tables and chairs that are too big, or too much furniture for the size of the room, it can have the negative effect of what you intended.

Crowded rooms inhibit the free flow of people, increasing frustrations and compromising the relaxed atmosphere you are trying to create.

Break Room Furniture Design

When it comes to break room furniture design, there are many options to choose from, including picnic-style tables and benches, cafeteria-style seating with permanently affixed benches, booths, and freestanding tables and chairs.

One consideration when making your selection is cleanliness. It’s important that you provide your workers with a break area that is easy to keep clean. Break room furniture that is permanently affixed or is difficult to move could make it harder to keep the break room tidy.

Tables and chairs that are not connected to the floor or to each other also can be moved around, allowing workers to push tables together or arrange their seating as they see fit, which can improve worker morale.

Choose furniture that is easy to wipe clean and features timeless design and neutral colors so they won’t go out of style.

How Much Should You Pay?

The cost of furnishing your break room should be seen as an investment in your employees. Providing a neat, clean, and well-appointed breakroom is an employee benefit. And like other benefits, it can help improve job satisfaction, increasing retention and reducing turnover.

Durable, commercial-grade break room furniture can withstand years of heavy use before needing to be replaced. So your initial investment can be amortized over a long period of time.

Other Break Room Needs

If you aren’t going to provide food service or vending machines in your break room, you can at least offer workers a refrigerator, microwave oven, toaster, and a coffee pot with a hot water spout.

There also should be a sink where dishes, utensils, coffee mugs and storage containers can be rinsed. Cabinets and a countertop will help keep your break room organized and efficient.

Providing a well-appointed break room that is kept clean and orderly shows your workers that you care about their comfort and convenience.

 

BARRICKS Tables

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The key to a more productive warehouse is to limit the amount of wasted time. (Courtesy: EvansDist)

The key to a more productive warehouse is to limit the amount of wasted time.
(Courtesy: EvansDist)

Business majors learn early on that an efficient operation leads to greater revenue and higher profits. This is true for any business including the warehouse trade.

Everyone knows that efficiency of operation cannot be achieved by accident. You need a plan. Here are some ideas.

·      Prioritize SKUs. The popularity of an SKU may depend on the season. As an experienced warehouse manager you know which SKUs are popular in the fall, winter, spring, and summer. Re-arrange the SKUs according to seasonal changes putting the most popular in the most accessible location. Such a plan will reduce wasted travel time for order pickers.
·      Use the most optimum picking method for your operation. Methods of picking include single order, multi-order, batch picking with a single picker, zone picking, etc. Analyze your current method to determine if it is ensuring optimum productivity. If not, determine what method does and execute it.
·      Use software to arrange orders.  Creating an order of picking can save a lot of time. You should use warehouse management software that organizes workflow and ensures the best performance.
·      Locate the most popular SKUs in one location. Employ the 20-80 rule. Collect the 20 percent of SKUs that fill 80 percent of orders, put them in one specific area of the warehouse and create a zone that can handle a large amount of activity.  You’ll discover that picking will be a lot more efficient.
·      Use proper storage for slow moving and fast moving items. The slow moving goods go into bin shelving and the fast-moving stuff can use carton or pallet flow or some other suitable storage choice.
·      Develop a “wheelhouse” area for your pickers. You can store your fastest-moving SKUs there for better productivity.
·      Use only two or three types of standard shipping boxes. Fewer carton options means faster packing, better shipping costs, and reduced trash.
·      Consider automating. Pickers experience a lot of wasted time carrying items or moving product around. Automation can limit that.
·      Use newer equipment. They will run faster, break down less, and show employees that you are serious about the business and making their jobs easier.
·      Know about technology alternatives. There are a plethora of technology options that ensure greater efficiency. For example there are bar codes, radio frequency, pick-to-label, pick-to-light, voice activation, etc. These gadgets can make picking faster resulting in enhanced productivity and accuracy.
·      Motivate workers. One way to get pickers to work faster is to offer incentives.
·      Don’t ignore the metrics. Do you know the benchmarks concerning productivity and cost on shipped orders, cost per box, what do errors cost, what do returns cost, etc.? Know the critical metrics so that you can create benchmarks to meet or exceed. This allows you to measure performance and initiate improvements.
·      Make managers accountable for better efficiency. Better management affects costs, employee morale, and productivity.
·      Don’t stop improving. Always assess, make plans, and set objectives. The process of improving is never-ending.
·      Be flexible. Expand the warehouse as your business expands.

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Here is a special sneak preview of some of the stories you will find this week on the Bahrns blog:

  • Drones, robots, and automated systems … these are a few of the things you probably will find in warehouses of the future. We’ll take a look at how warehouse automation could improve workplace efficiencies.
  • For many businesses, break rooms are more than just a place for workers to eat lunch. The are the heart and soul of the operation. We’ll show you how a few small improvements to your existing break room can lead to huge financial benefits for your business.
  • Baby, It’s Cold … Inside? Cold storage warehouses are a fast-growing solution as an increasing amount of companies require temperature-controlled environments. In our Thursday Feature, we’ll take a look at some unique challenges that the operators of these sub-freezing spaces face.

All this and much, much more can be found this week on the Bahrns blog … so stay tuned!

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