Tips for a smooth distribution center retrofit

ISE Magazine August 2018 Volume:50 Number: 08

By Dean Starovasnik

Planning and preparation

Every industrial and systems engineer knows that proper preparation and planning prevent poor performance. So avoid pitfalls with early and extensive planning at a corporate, facility and functional area level.

Proper attention at the necessary levels of seniority, such as the operations or logistics vice president or even chief operating officer or CEO level, is critical to ensure that the appropriate resources and energy are applied to developing the plan. Simply turning such planning over to the consulting or integrator firm is not sufficient. The intermingling of processes with implementation and the impact this will have on daily operations is too substantial to allow lower-level personnel to conduct all planning. Details and preparation should begin at the supervisory or managerial level, but executive level participation is essential to ensure that the implementation is properly managed.

 Lending a better hand

If a new pick module is to be added, the laydown space for the rack material may be considerable. Unless your budget allows for demurrage charges, thereby allowing you to hold the material in your yard, getting the material into the facility will be necessary. Furthermore, material in trailers is not particularly accessible even if it was shipped as a “buildable” mix, which will significantly impact both installation time and labor cost.

When mezzanine construction or facility expansion is required to start the retrofit, ensure the schedule accommodates local code enforcement’s requirements regarding permits, licenses and inspections.

While sometimes troublesome, these routine requirements can significantly affect the schedule or make such a tremendous impact on design that the business case supporting the retrofit may be altered.

Ensuring implementation can occur outside of operational hours is extremely helpful in preventing conflict along the lines of space availability, safety and noise concerns.

Just as a toehold is needed in terms of space, there will need to be a time toehold, perhaps in the form of expanded implementation hours, when installation can be conducted without interrupting the operation.

Perhaps a weekend, night shift option or long holiday period can provide this starting opportunity. These may be insufficient for the entire installation; however, these time periods can, for example, provide the needed opportunity to install a mezzanine over an operational area. So identify these opportunities early to ensure equipment lead-times and crew availability can be synchronized to these periods.

Estimate (and get approved!) the budget associated with temporary shifts, increased levels of manual labor and even additional security for off-shift work hours.

During the retrofit, the building will have more people than usual, and they will be there across longer hours than normal. This increased traffic will slow productivity, requiring more work hours to keep pace with normal operations. Support systems that normally enhance labor efficiency may be offline as well, either temporarily or permanently during implementation, requiring even more work hours. Since implementation work hours will likely differ from normal operating hours, increased head count for a limited period of time will likely be necessary.

In addition to temporary increases in labor, temporary access to additional utilities and other infrastructure may be necessary.

This may solely be for installation, as the crews will likely need power and compressed air in locations not normally served by such. Or it may be that the expansion space into which the equipment must go is not yet supported by power, light or other utilities. Temporary weather barriers may also be necessary until the expansion space is fully enclosed. Otherwise, the interior operational areas may face exterior weather conditions.


“A really great talent finds its happiness in execution,” according to the late German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Although planning and preparation is essential, none of it matters without well-coordinated execution. Even the most fastidious planning and preparation in the world can’t guarantee a successful retrofit without proper execution. Implementation is game time, and every action and move will determine whether the retrofit is accomplished seamlessly. These five retrofit execution tips will help ensure all of that planning and preparation pays off.

  1. Daily meetings between operational leadership and implementation managers are necessary to keep everyone informed about the day’s work and any changing circumstances. Setting up a cadence for such meetings and conducting them religiously even when there are “no changes” will ensure Murphy’s impact is minimized. Spend some time just reviewing what will be done each day to allow both groups to envision the day and identify conflicts early rather than too late.
  2. Identify all critical spare parts necessary to keep the new equipment operational during both startup and transition to an operational condition. Acquire these parts well ahead of time to ensure that long lead-times are not a factor. Since “cut overs” and ramps are usually more compressed and pivotal in retrofits, eliminating down time while waiting for parts requires having such spares on hand, even if on a consignment basis, during the go live.
  3. Ensure retrofit areas are properly identified and cordoned off as necessary. Temporary personnel, visitors, inspectors and such will be in the building. The longer the retrofit takes, the more likely this is. Be certain that even completely uninformed visitors can tell where it is safe and, more importantly, where it is unsafe for them to be.
  4. Communicate up and down the hierarchy of the organization. Ensure all decision-makers, even those outside the immediately affected functions, are aware of the plan, the progress and the projected completion for the retrofit. Their interactions with customers, suppliers and internal staff will be much more effective if they are kept apprised. This will also ensure that bad news is aired out quickly and with a minimum of impact. “Bad news never gets better with age” is a truism too often validated in the midst of a retrofit. By keeping senior managers proactively updated, they are less likely to intervene unexpectedly, a scenario that often brings distasteful results.
  5. “Plan the work. Work the plan.” Circumstances will change. Identify their impact on the retrofit and its subsequent completion. If possible, proceed apace with the plan as developed. However, the great benefit of extensive planning is that it makes improvisation so much easier. All the interconnected factors have been examined and understood and the various personnel are connected to the project, if only for information. To come back around to von Clausewitz, in this case his disciple, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, “No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Be prepared to change the plan when our common enemies, reality and Murphy, intrude as expected.

From the perspective of your customers, the ideal retrofit of a distribution center is one they didn’t know occurred. It’s not easy installing new equipment and processes in an operating facility, but with careful planning, preparation and execution, you can ensure a successful and seamless retrofit that is invisible to your customers.