It’s harder to make the case for new yard storage then it is for, say, upgrading the computer system, replacing clipboards with iPads, or providing workers with smartphones. Storage is a big investment, and a lot of dealers have been using the same racks in the same layouts for years. It’s working, so why fix it?

One reason to consider an upgrade is that the efficiencies gained can ultimately save money. Dealers who have modernized their storage and material handling systems say that the benefits include better merchandising, less damage to materials, and the ability to squeeze more stock into less space. With the right equipment and layout, stocking and material handling can be done in a fraction of the time, so fewer workers are needed. “Smart equipment and smart layouts will help dealers control their biggest cost, which is labor,” Travis Darnell, president of CT Darnell Construction, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based firm that specializes in lumberyard design and construction, says.

Rethinking Layouts

The benefits of upgraded storage are most apparent when building a new facility. Margaret Price Sims, president of Ridgefield Supply Co. in Ridgefield, Conn. is in the midst of redeveloping her 4.5 acre lumberyard from the ground up, giving her the luxury of incorporating efficient design, 

new technologies and new equipment. She believes it will make it easier for customers to use.

For many dealers, however, adding new buildings or expanding existing facilities is out of the question. But that doesn’t mean they can’t adjust their operations to be more efficient, productive, and profitable.

“Everyone knows that the way you operate today is not the same as 50 to 100 years ago,” said Matt Kuiken, owner of Kuiken Brothers, which has eight locations in northern New Jersey and southern New York. He says that a lot of owners of older yards haven’t revisited their layouts in years, even though workers constantly have to move materials around.

A good place to start is to map the current layout, analyzing how much time it takes for employees and customers to get what they need, then use the information to consider how those processes can be improved. Consider pick patterns. Some patterns make instant sense while others may end up with people zig-zagging around. An attitude of “we’ve always had plywood here and framing lumber over there” will cost frustration for the customer and increased labor costs for the dealer. 

US LBM, the prosales Dealer of the Year, gave forklift drivers at one yard an app to track the time required to build each load, then using the information for layout changes that reduced forklift driving distances by 30% for most loads, improved traffic flow, and cut labor distribution costs as a percentage of yard revenue by 23%.

“It’s not uncommon to see one forklift operator in an organized yard doing the work of three operators in a poorly laid out, or disorganized yard,” said Sean Denison, owner and president of Granger, Ind.’s Timberline Rack.

There are additional benefits to better organization. Lumber that’s handled less often is less likely to get damaged. Putting materials under cover keeps them dry, making it less likely they will get stained or warped. The obvious benefits are less waste and fewer returns.

Denison points our that in order to stay competitive, some dealers are carrying larger inventories, giving customers more material choices. If there’s no room to expand, the dealer needs to store a large number of SKU’s in smaller quantities. “As stage suppliers we need to find ways to help customers fit more products into the same amount of space,” he says.

Denison also says that denser storage can be accomplished by incorporating pallet racking into a pigeonhole system. “In this configuration, items are stored horizontally one on top of the other. In many cases, the top of the racking can then be covered and used as additional storage space.”

If the facility doesn’t include a drive-thru set up for customers, Darnell suggests that the owner consider adding one. This approach is more common in big box stores but is worth considering where space permits. Research by the Farnsworth Group, a market research firm, shows that a drive-thru differentiates a company, giving it a competitive advantage. Allowing the customer to pull up and load “sets up efficiencies for picking and loading and also makes it more customer friendly,” Darnell says.

Equipment Upgrades

It’s obvious that the right powered equipment can also make an operation more efficient. Take forklifts. Piggyback forklifts that ride on the back of trucks have been around for a long time, but now side-loading forklifts are getting more popular. These have wheels that rotate so the machine can move sideways, making it possible for the operator to move long boards down narrow aisles. This gives the dealer more storage options.

Less common but growing more popular are racks in which goods and be rolled in and out. Sunbelt Rack’s Power Bin system includes bins equipped with heavy-duty rollers and a powered loader deck that fits onto a forklift. The forklift can roll a stack of materials into or out of the slot as a unit, eliminating the need to hand load and unload individual boards and moldings. Kuiken has found it to be a huge time-saver. “What in the past took a couple of workers an hours now takes one forklift operator a couple of minutes,” he says.

Kuiken is also a fan of the Lumber Buddy, a portable racking workstation for a forklift. “It keeps the load straight and at waist height so workers don’t have to bend over. This allows them to stage loads more efficiently,” he says.

But Kuiken and others stress that cutting-edge equipment will best earn its keep in a well-designed facility. “Cantilever racking and pallet racking are not going anywhere,” Denison says. “When used correctly, they can have huge impacts on a dealer’s bottom line.”