15 Considerations for Ecommerce Fulfillment Center Space Planning

As you define your company’s ecommerce fulfillment center and distribution requirements for the future, not only do you have to accurately plan your space needs but find a facility that meets most of your requirements needed for growth.

Regardless of the acquisition option – lease, purchase or build to suit – identifying the detailed space requirements is the crucial first step before touring buildings.

Here is a 15-point checklist to help you identify your current ecommerce fulfillment center space use and future growth requirements:

Clear Stack Height

Clear stack height is the useable height for storing products, supplies or inventory within racking and shelving. It is critical to know your maximum pallet height, the total number of pallets you are planning to store, and the minimum clear height.

A low ceiling building obviously requires many more square feet of footprint space to have the same cubic capacity. Most municipalities require at least 18” to 36” of clearance from the sprinkler heads so check your local building code requirements.

Warehouses built in the 1960s average 24 feet in height, and current buildings average about 40 feet high. High-reach equipment allows space higher than 40 feet.

Total Square Feet

Be sure to take into account how much space is needed for all department functions. These include:

  • Receiving, checking, marking and quality assurance
  • Product storage
  • Staging pick vehicles
  • Packing stations
  • Staging outbound shipping
  • Returns
  • Kitting, personalization or other value-added services
  • Facility maintenance
  • Common areas for aisles
  • Offices, bathrooms and breakrooms
  • Conveyors and automation

These are detailed below.

To determine bulk storage in relation to clear height, as well as picking of inventory if you require a dedicated picking module or pick zone. By taking the number of SKUs, the inventory being held and the number of bulk and picking locations and the clear span, you can determine the cubic foot of storage that is going to be needed. Determine the current SKU counts and how the SKU growth and on-hand inventory growth will impact the number of bulk locations and pick bins are required in the facility. Will inventory turns be constant, or changing, how will this impact the storage space required?

Wholesale distribution and manufacturing typically requires much larger outbound docks and staging awaiting routing for LTL and TL shipments, while DTC businesses can typically live load small parcel trailers.

Dock Doors

Dock doors are often undersized. How many will you need for inbound, considering future growth, and how this might be impacted by container shipments? For outbound docks, what carriers do you currently ship with, and how might that change in the future? How many different sorts are required? Will carriers drop trailers, impacting useable doors? Also, consider dock doors by type and height (i.e., for large equipment, trash compactor, ground height doors).

Dock Equipment

For preexisting facilities, consider what dock equipment is required. These include shelters/seals and pit, dock lights and locks and hydraulic dock levelers. This minimizes hot or cold air from entering the facility as well as dirt, rain, bugs and rodents. Are all dock doors and equipment in good working condition?

Electrical Requirements

If you’re using lift trucks and stock pickers, does the facility have enough capacity to support the charging requirements? Consider electrical requirements for conveyors, automation and other equipment. Lifts often require 480V three phase; every facility may not have this capacity.

Building Shape and Footprint

Understand how a building’s shape will have an impact on layout, workflow and productivity. Buildings that are “L” shaped or long and skinny can negatively affect the flow of merchandise, productivity, congestion and travel time. Buildings with multiple tenants, where expansion is linear, create problems with workflow, travel time and cost.

Truck Yard

Determine your needs for inbound and outbound trailer staging. How will this change? Will you have inbound carriers dropping trailers or containers impacting the building operation? Are there trailers of corrugated boxes or merchandise that should be in the building? Multi-tenant facilities may have minimal yard capabilities.

Floor Condition

As buildings age, forklift and order picker traffic can break down the floor’s surface. This makes it can be harder to keep facilities clean, minimizing dust and dirt from the floor. Consider the overall floor condition and maintenance. Can the floors be sealed and repaired prior to occupancy?

Working Environment

Most fulfillment centers are not air-conditioned spaces, so sufficient airflow and ventilation is critical. Will your fulfillment center be acceptable to work in during temperature extremes? Do you require climate controlled or humidity-controlled space? In existing facilities new layouts of the work floor and rack designs often requires moving lighting to be sufficient to read pick documents and racking labels.

Safety and Fire

Understand the product classification, product stack height restrictions, sprinkler and storage requirements in the county where your facility is located. Is there correct sprinkler head placement, sufficient water flow and capacity for the building? Regarding employee safety, how long does it take to exit the building?

Employee and Visitor Parking

How many parking spots are needed through the life expectancy of the building? Will this be a multi-shift operation with overlapping shifts? How does this impact the number of spaces required?

Breakrooms, Bathrooms and Lockers

Based on the number of employees, what will be the requirements? Typically, bathrooms and breakrooms are undersized. Are there multiple bathrooms in a large facility? Will there be requirements for company employee meetings?

Transportation Access

What requirements are there for truck traffic including local roads and proximity to interstates? How about proximity to ports or rail access?

Facility Expansion

Once you have determined what your space needs are, look at the building in terms of expansion. Is there sufficient acreage for parking and truck transportation? Was the building designed in terms of “knock out” walls and docks?

An earlier blog discusses how mezzanines can add storage and throughput capacity to a fulfillment center.

Action Plan for Facility Evaluation

Itemize by year for the time horizon the building needs to last. Leases, purchases or build-to-suit of buildings are most likely at a minimum 3-5 years up to 10-20 years in length. Some businesses are growing very fast and outgrow the space with years left on the contract.

From these detailed space requirements, develop a spreadsheet to allow a succinct side-by-side comparison of each facility and how well it meets your requirements. A prior blog discusses forming an action plan for the project and a move plan for the facility you select.

Moving fulfillment into a new facility is a major investment and expense. Planning teams often end up under-sizing the new facility and run out of space faster than expected. These planning steps will improve space planning accuracy.

Brian Barry is President of F. Curtis Barry & Company