Bowker Group was founded in 1919 and has grown into one of the largest independent third party logistics (3PL) service operators in the North of England.
Today, Bowker provides a range of contract distribution and dedicated and shared user warehousing services from three strategically located facilities at Preston, Leyland and Hull.
The company has a diverse client base and stores and distributes anything from hazardous chemicals to food stuffs.
After taking the decision to re-evaluate materials handling operations across all three sites, the company has introduced a fleet of 12 Flexi articulated forklift trucks from Narrow Aisle. Five Flexis are in service at both the Leyland and Preston facilities, with a further two trucks working at the Hull site.
Throughout the business Bowker has standardised on narrow aisle widths with some block stacking capacity at each of its facilities. Although the Flexis can operate in aisles as narrow 1.8metres wide, Bowker chose to set the aisle widths at 2.0 metres because it was felt that the extra space would allow the most efficient speed of throughput.
"A significant part of our business is about achieving a quick turnaround," explains warehouse manager, Stuart Greenwood. "Quite simply, we felt that by narrowing the aisleways too much we would restrict the speed at which the forklifts can travel between picking locations.
Stuart Greenwood continues: "While I know that, when using an articulated forklift truck it is technically feasible to pick up and turn pallets in aisles as narrow as 1.8 metres, in applications where high throughputs need to be achieved and faster travel speeds are required, the speed at which the truck can be safely operated will be reduced if there is insufficient clearance in the aisleway."
2.0 metres was agreed to be the optimum aisle width for Bowker following a period of close consultation between key personnel from the company and the warehouse planning team at Narrow Aisle Flexi, who offer a free warehouse design and layout service to ensure the success of any space saving project.
Interestingly, while articulated forklift suppliers have stressed the benefits of keeping aisle widths to a minimum for many years John Maguire, sales and marketing director at Narrow Aisle, believes that some companies are in danger of adversely affecting the efficiency and productivity of their forklift fleet by attempting to squeeze too many racking runs into any given storage cube.
"At fast-moving operations like Bowker where speed of pallet put-away and pick is essential, the speed at which a truck can safely operate in the aisleways is more important than the need to narrow the aisleways," he says.
John `Maguire continues: "I think that this is sometimes forgotten at the warehouse planning stage. For example, I recently visited a site where the wide chassis articulated trucks specified in the operation have no choice but to travel at less than half of their top speed within the aisles because clearance each side was too small so there is very little margin for error on either side of the truck. This is clearly counter productive to any benefits the user may have derived by being able to add extra pallet positions by cutting the aisle dimensions."
By going to 2.0 metre wide aisles, the articulated truck option was still far more space efficient for Bowker than using reach trucks. Furthermore, the Flexis are easier to drive and faster in operation than reach trucks and remove the need for double handling inside and outside the store.
At Bowker’s Leyland facility incoming vehicles arrive at a covered goods in area and Flexis are used to unload incoming trailers and deliver pallets directly to the racking. At Hull and Preston a combination of Flexis and counterbalanced machines are used for unloading.
Bowker’s Flexi fleet is comprised of G4 models from the Narrow Aisle range. The Flexi G4 is the most popular articulated truck in Europe. Built on a standard platform it offers low maintenance costs and low rental costs. Its unique twin load wheel drive offers safe traction in all conditions especially when laden.
An electric-powered truck, the Flexi G4 is powered by a heavy duty battery for long shift working. No chains or slings are required during battery change over operations – which can be difficult for a forklift driver to carry out safely. The Flexi battery is removed simply and efficiently at low level from the rear with the driver using a hand pallet truck or another forklift. This process is very fast and eliminates the risk of the battery being dropped from height.
"The Flexis and the new warehouse layouts introduced across out sites have made a big difference to our operation," says Stuart Greenwood. "One of the most interesting things has been the reaction of our operators to the trucks. One driver in particular had not even seen an articulated truck before and had only ever operator reach trucks. However, within a few days of using the Flexis he was converted and now refuses to drive anything else!"