Space Exploration: How Totes Maximize Cube Utilization in Distribution Centers, Warehouses and Factories

Space is trending big time today. You could say we’re heading to Mars and back to the moon to find more of it.

Considering today’s high industrial real estate costs, space exploration is every business’s prerogative. With rents up well over 7% just in the last year, it’s enough to make any business want to flee to another planet.

There’s no escaping though—not the way businesses are growing these days. According to McKinsey, industry leaders say they’re adding 50% more business every year than they did two to five years ago.

The move toward onshoring manufacturing and warehousing is also adding to the demand for industrial space and inflating real estate costs in the U.S. The trend of establishing operations in the U.S. to mitigate supply chain risk is expected to continue. According to a KPMG trends report, 60% of global organizations expect geopolitical instability to have a detrimental impact on their supply chains in the next three years.

With space likely to remain in short supply in the foreseeable future, it makes sense to maximize every square foot you have before thinking about a new facility or adding onto the one you have.

The team at Flexcon is in and out of some of the busiest and biggest factories and fulfillment centers for everything from start-ups to mega online retailers. As tote engineers and suppliers, we’re in on a lot of conversations about space—the lack of it and how to best optimize it.

Here’s a tote’s-eye view of what to know about the role of totes when it comes to making the most of every square foot in factories, warehouses and distribution centers.

Trouble Spots—Know the Space Wasters

The plain truth is that if you’re not squeezing value from every square foot of space in your facility, you’re wasting money. Here are some top offenders when it comes to space-wasting.

Cardboard: Cardboard boxes aren’t strong enough to be stacked efficiently. Opt for plastic totes that can be safely and neatly stacked to store more per cubic foot. While it’s common to use cardboard shipping boxes to store inventory, this can lead to a hodge-podge of sizes that don’t optimize space. Plus, unlike plastic totes that last 50-times longer, cardboard boxes degenerate, sag and create dust as they wear out.

Angled totes: Nestable totes are great for lots of purposes. But on the shelf, their angled walls leave a triangle of wasted space between them. To maximize cube, choose a straight wall tote.

Space-wasting empties: Totes that can’t be nested or collapsed when stored empty waste major space—especially when you have a lot of them sitting idle for a long time.

Non-uniform sizes: Totes that aren’t an exact match can leave gaps on shelves. They might not stack in a sturdy fashion. And when it comes to automation, even minute variability can thwart sensors, cause conveyor pile ups and crash systems.

Standard sizes: With molded totes, there are a limited number of stock sizes to choose from. The problem with this is that you want a tote that is made for what it stores. Otherwise you can’t achieve a precise use of space. A close fit—or best yet—a customized fit is key to maximizing space.

Slack stacks: Totes that can’t be stacked well because of poor design features or weak construction limit your ability to maximize inventory density. The ability to go high enables you to lower carrying cost per unit because you store more per square foot.

Explore Space—Opportunities to Conserve or Maximize Every Square Foot

Remedying or avoiding space-wasting practices like these just mentioned and embracing totes that maximize cube utilization is a winning strategy. And when totes optimized for cube utilization are combined with other space-saving strategies, the space gains can be compounded.

Here are five frontrunners in the space race:

  1. One of the biggest opportunities is to use the top half of your building’s height if you’re not already doing so. Consider optimizing overhead space with a vertical lift or another means of automation. Depending on your facility and budget, you may also be able to expand your useable space through racking or mezzanine levels.
  2. Automation also conserves warehouse space. Conveyors shorten the space between inventories from different areas and picking or packing stations that can be located far from each other. Overhead conveyors do it without taking up any floor space at all.
  3. Automated mobile vehicles (AMVs) are robots that move products throughout the warehouse without sacrificing any square footage to conveyors.
  4. Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RSs) dramatically improve inventory density by retrieving products or pallets located overhead automatically.
  5. Robotic arms put products located high up on shelves within “arms reach.”

The Space Multiplier—Totes Enhance Space-Saving Technology

Technology is leading the big developments in outer space as well as warehouse space optimization today—and totes are an integral part of the process in both arenas today. (Space agencies are heavy users.)

Automated systems like these in the preceding list rely on precision totes. An example is that when tote dimensions are off by as little as a millimeter, they can crash a robotic arm causing delays as systems are reset.

Tote divider systems are being used to optimize many forms of automation systems from AMVs and AS/RS systems to Carousels and A-Frames. Dividers multiply the number of cells within a tote. Every cell within a tote can contain an order. Divided totes can contain many orders and this enables systems to process many more orders with less totes.

Flexcon’s bot totes are a perfect example. They allow up to 16 divider cells to be configured. Multiple cells mean more orders can be picked to a single tote, reducing the number of trips back and forth to pick stations and a serious boost to efficiency of fulfillment operations.

Space on conveyors can also be optimized by totes. In many operations, product sizes vary widely. That means conveyor totes have to be big enough for the biggest items. That can be a waste of space when a large number of the products traveling in totes are small. Flexcon recently came up with a solution to conserve conveyor space by creating an expandable tote that could be transformed from two feet in length to three with the push of two buttons.

Space Close at Hand—Many Businesses Keep It Basic

There are plenty of space-saving strategies for businesses who don’t have the cash for CapEx projects like conveyance or AS/RS. In fact we’re seeing a trend of businesses opting for basic strategies for solving space challenges without costly CapEx or expansion.

Making existing totes more efficient was the tack taken by a major online retailer and client of Flexcon. Our team retrofitted a drop-in divider system for the retailer’s standard totes. The challenge was that the nesting-style containers had sloped walls as well as attached lids. After successfully piloting a prototype, Flexcon applied the divider system to thousands of containers. In addition to saving the customer from ordering all new containers, the dividers are improving productivity immensely.

Space-multiplying racking systems seem like a natural for storing inventory, but installing racking takes time and significant CapEx—two things growing companies don’t always have a lot of. Flexcon is working with a growing number of companies that are keeping it basic with economical warehouse bins made of corrugated plastic. These can be combined into sturdy makeshift shelving units or stacked onto pallets for a transportable versatile solution.

Space Invaders—Control Empty Totes to Preserve Profits

While it’s crucial to have adequate stores of spare totes to meet volume surges, storing empty totes costs real money because of the real estate they occupy.

For companies that must store empties for significant amounts of time, stack them in low traffic areas away from pick stations or other high traffic and high value areas in distribution centers, warehouses and factory floors.

Decrease their footprint as much as possible by using collapsible or nestable totes. Space-saving totes free real estate for revenue-producing work and decrease your need to expand your facility or move. Collapsible or nestable totes also decrease shipping costs when you need to move them between facilities.

Nestable totes are designed to slide into each other when not in use. This vastly reduces the footprint of the totes when they’re not in use. Flexcon makes a stackable & nestable tote that has a rim feature that enables totes to be nested in one position or stacked when the tote is rotated 180 degrees.

Collapsible containers have hinges that allow you to fold them and store them flat. This enables them to be easily stacked and stored on pallets where they occupy a fraction of their assembled square footage.

Make It Your Mission to Be First in Space

Looking forward, space will continue to be at a premium. For that reason totes that conserve space while optimizing efficiency will remain a priority. In New Jersey, the home of Flexcon, rents are at their highest in ten years despite the construction of 12.5 million square feet of new industrial space on the way according to NJ Spotlight News.

That gives us a front row seat to the most space-constricted region in the country and an ideal market for testing our innovations. Reach out if your growth is ready for liftoff and you could benefit from our insights on making the most of the square footage you have.