Warehouse layout directly affects the day-to-day efficiency of any business operation, from manufacturing and assembly to order fulfillment and more. Throughout my 16+ years of building and managing an ecommerce company, I set up a number of warehouses, from tiny 10’x20’ storage units to expansive 7500 square-foot office/warehouse spaces. I learned early on that warehouse planning is essential to a smooth daily workflow. So I always had a solid plan in writing before we ever set up a single shelf.
Whether you’re planning a shipping operation or designing your space around manufacturing equipment or assembly stations, a sound warehouse layout is the place to start. By the end of this guide, you’ll be fully prepared to tackle warehouse planning for your own small business, plus have the tools you need to create a detailed warehouse schematic like this:
We’ll walk you through every step of the warehouse layout and planning process, from space utilization, to storage options, to aisle layout, to production area workflows. We’ll even look at sources for different types of warehouse shelving and other key equipment you might need.
In particular, we’ll cover four areas that any good warehouse layout must address:
- Creating a Warehouse Layout Schematic
- Space Utilization Planning
- Warehouse Storage & Work Area Equipment Options
- Efficient Traffic Flow Strategies
Before we dive in, if you’re an ecommerce company and are considering running your own warehouse, we have a great article that explains the entire order fulfillment process here. Or, if managing fulfillment yourself is daunting, outsourcing your stock storage and order fulfillment can be good option. See what fulfillment partners can do for you, plus find the right-sized service for your storage and shipping needs here.
Now let’s take a look at the first step in warehouse layout planning: Getting it down on paper.
1. Creating a Warehouse Layout Schematic
Your new warehouse space is a blank slate. How will you transform it into a productive workspace?
A good warehouse layout always starts with putting it all down on paper first, no matter the size of your space. The easiest way to do this is to use a copy of your warehouse blueprint, especially if your space is large or not a standard rectangle shape. If you’re renting, your landlord might be able to provide one.
If you can’t get your hands on a blueprint, it’s easy to draw up your own warehouse schematic on grid paper. I generally use one square = one square foot on my schematic, like this:
You can also use a computer program to create your warehouse layout schematic. To create the images shown here, I used Inkscape, a free graphic design program with an optional grid background. Or you can try online layout tools such as FloorPlanner and SmartDraw.
If using a paper schematic, attach it to a piece of poster board or foam core. Then overlay a piece of tracing paper. This lets you sketch and play with different shelving and equipment arrangements without marking up your original. I’ve even used paper cutouts to represent shelving and work tables and moved them around to test different layouts.
If you use the online layout tools above, you’ll be able to move these elements around on your screen, then print out your plan.
Whichever method you choose, make sure you’re working with accurate measurements. That means measuring off the interior spaces yourself. Why is this important? In warehouse space planning, which we’ll discuss in the next section, you need to take every inch into account.
If your measurements are off by as little as six inches in spots, when you start installing your shelving, equipment, or workstations, you’ll end up with some tight areas. Losing those inches here and there can impede traffic flow and hamper productivity. So pull out a distance tape measure or rolling tape measure to take accurate measurements from the start.
Once you have a printed or online schematic with measurements drawn to scale, note any stationary features such as columns or supports, office area build-outs, installed equipment, overhead doors, etc., that you’ll have to work around.
In my warehouse, the office build-out takes a chunk out of the middle that I have to plan around. I even note that the office door opens out into the warehouse so we don’t accidentally block it. Plus, as a shipping operation, the overhead door locations are key for my shipping and receiving workflows, so I note them for those uses:
Once you have your schematic ready, with your major features noted, it’s time to start planning your space.
2. Space Utilization Planning
How you lay out your warehouse space depends on how you’ll use your warehouse. So give your usage and processes plenty of thought as you look at your schematic and plan your work areas.
Are you a manufacturing operation? Stock and ship? Light product assembly? Whatever your business, your warehouse layout is going to be based around three things that you and your employees need to get work done:
Now let’s take a look at how your business needs dictate your warehouse space allocation for these elements.
1. Equipment and Surrounding Workspace
In planning your warehouse layout, your first step is identifying your key units. These are the things that take up most of your space and/or are the center of your production zones. For example, as an ecommerce company that stocks and ships goods, my key units are pallet rack and metal shelving. As you can see below, shelving takes up the majority of space in my warehouse:
Your key units might be equipment or workstations. Whatever they are, you need to identify and place these elements on your plan first.
If manufacturing is your business, then your primary concern is designing your space around equipment and adjacent production workspace. Storage spaces, while important, are secondary in your plan, and dependent on where you place your equipment.
If your warehouse is primarily stock and ship, like my ecommerce company, then stock storage units are your primary equipment, as shown above. These, usually in the form of shelving or bins, likely will take up the majority of your space. After that, allocating workspace for order packing and shipping, and stock receiving are your major concerns.
If you do light assembly paired with some shipping, assembly stations or light manufacturing equipment are likely to be your your primary focus. After that, you’ll need to address storage space for parts and finished goods, plus adequate packaging, packing, and shipping areas.
Next we’ll examine the things you need to consider to create an efficient workflow around the key elements in your warehouse.
2. Production Zones and Workflow Areas
After addressing primary units like equipment, stock shelving, and/or assembly stations, the next step is thinking about how workers, materials, and goods move in and around your key elements. You also need to consider the space needed for your production work to safely occur. This is especially important in manufacturing, where you have materials movement around equipment. But safe workflows apply to all types of operations, so it’s important to include adequate production zones and workflow areas on any warehouse layout plan.
For manufacturing, that’s the work area around each piece of equipment. You’ll need to allocate space for any workbenches, bins, tools, safety stations, etc., needed for production. Plus you’ll need to reserve adequate production zones around equipment for workers to move materials and safely produce goods.
For a stock and ship operation like mine, one primary work area is the aisle space between shelving units, as shown below. This is where you or your employees need adequate space to stock received goods and pick items for orders. You’ll also need to allocate workspace for employees to move goods into, around, and out of the production zones, which are your packing, shipping, and receiving areas.
Here, I set up shelving areas with generous 4’ wide aisles that are easily accessible from the packing table workspace:
Assembly operations often combine the space needs of manufacturing and stock and ship. Assembly stations and related equipment make up the heart of your production zone. These can include workbenches or specialized stations, plus any needed bins for parts and finished goods. Like manufacturing, you’ll need to allocate ample production space around these areas. Then, like stock and ship, you’ll need to reserve space to efficiently package, pack, and ship finished goods.
Next, we’ll look at how you’ll keep all of your materials and/or salable goods organized and readily accessible.
3. Storage Areas
Storage is another key factor to consider in your warehouse layout. In fact, for pack and ship and some assembly operations, the efficient arrangement of storage areas are your prime concern. Storage is important for manufacturing too, but usually secondary to equipment needs.
To determine the storage space you need, and the shelving or other storage units you’ll use, you first need to consider what you’re storing. This can take many forms:
- Small assembly items housed in bins on light-duty shelving
- Pallets with machinery parts
- Boxed goods for pick, pack, and ship
- Overstock items
- Large raw materials for manufacturing
The list goes on and on. The important thing to know is what you’re storing dictates the type of storage you need to plan for in your warehouse layout. It also dictates the space you need to allow in and around storage areas, like aisle widths between shelving and clearance areas for moving goods in and out of storage.
I have a simple rule of thumb that helps me determine storage access spaces:
How you move materials and/or goods around in your warehouse dictates aisle spacing.
If you use a pallet jack or forklift to move pallets or equipment in your storage areas, you’ll need very generous space between shelves or around other units. Jacks need a minimum aisle width 4’ to 5’ feet to navigate between shelving. Forklifts require much more. If you’re moving large loads, check that you meet any required OSHA standards during your warehouse layout planning.
But if you’re just hand-stocking small boxes for assembly or pack-and-ship, hand-held bins or rolling carts are all you need to stock and pull stored goods. In that case, your shelving aisles can be about 3’6” to 4’ wide in most cases.
And last, don’t forget your overhead spaces. Most small warehouses easily accommodate shelving that’s 8’ tall or more. Larger warehouses can house shelving 12’ tall and even more. If you need overstock areas for large stock purchases or materials storage, going up is a great way to preserve your warehouse floorspace for production activities.
Speaking of storage and production spaces, now let’s take a look at your many choices in shelving and workspace fixtures and equipment.
3. Warehouse Storage & Work Area Equipment Options
Most small business warehouse operations, whether manufacturing, assembly, pack-and-ship, or a combination of all three, need some form of storage and workspace equipment, such as assembly tables or packing stations. Here you have many options and, as stated above, the storage you need greatly depends on what it is you do.
When planning your warehouse layout, the size and type of storage, shelving, and workspace equipment all comes into play. Here’s a look at the most common types of shelving used for various small business warehouse needs. We’ll discuss each option in detail below.
Popular Warehouse Storage & Shelving Options
|Type of Storage/Shelving||Best For:||Common Sizes & Space to Allow in Planning|
|Pallet Rack||Midweight to Heavyweight storage needs||4’ deep x 8’ long per unit|
|Heavy-duty Shelving||Lightweight to midweight storage needs||3’ to 4’ deep x 6’ to 8’ long per unit|
|Light-duty Shelving||Lightweight storage needs||18” to 2’ deep x 4’ long per unit|
|Cantilever Rack & Specialty Shelving||Specific storage needs for oversized items||Varies by need|
|Bins and Hoppers||Loose parts and materials storage||Varies, common allowance is pallet size: 40” x 48” but can be smaller or larger|
|Small Parts & Assembly Bins||Storing small items in limited space||None, usually used on shelves, carts, and/or workstations|
Now let’s take a look at each option to see which best fits your operation’s storage needs:
- Best for: Midweight to heavyweight storage needs like boxed stock, materials, and finished goods
- Space to Allow in Warehouse Plan: Available in various sizes, most commonly in sections 4’ deep x 8’ long, and 8’ to 12’ in height
- Average cost: $-$$ — A used freestanding unit is about $175 – $250, but is most economical in long, interconnected runs
- Where to buy: Best deals are from local used warehouse rack dealers. Online sources include Uline, Amazon and Shelving.com
Pallet rack is useful for many business needs. It’s called pallet rack because it’s designed to store pallets of goods. But it’s also great for stocking all sorts of products and materials, large and small. One nice thing about pallet rack is that large goods can take up the full shelf depth, while smaller goods can take up a portion of the depth. This makes it useful to run aisles down either side for small stock storage, which is how I use it in my warehouse.
Versatile pallet rack is assembled using end units called uprights, adjustable crossbars called rails, and heavy-duty particle board or metal wire grid shelves called decks. You can have many shelves or just a few on each unit. Pallet rack can be freestanding, but it’s really designed to interconnect for long shelving runs. Used this way, it’s the most cost effective shelving solution for large storage areas. If you have storage space of 1000 squate-feet (around 20’ x 50’) or more, two long rows of pallet rack can provide ample storage at a reasonable cost.
- Best for: Light to midweight storage needs
- Space to Allow in Warehouse Plan: Available in various sizes and weight ratings, in sections 3’ or 4’ deep x 6’ to 8’ long, and 6’ to 8’ in height
- Average cost: $-$$ — A single unit new runs about $150-$250
- Where to buy: Muscle Rack and similar brands are sold at Amazon, Uline, Northern Tool, Home Depot & Lowes
This is pallet rack’s baby brother and is a great shelving choice for light to midweight storage in smaller warehouse spaces, storage units. and garages. It usually comes with three adjustable heavy-duty particle board or metal wire grid shelves. Heavy-duty shelving is a good choice to combine with stacked parts bins, discussed below, for stocking small items and assembly parts.
- Best for: Lightweight storage needs
- Space to Allow in Warehouse Plan: Available in various sizes in sections 18” to 2’ deep x 4’ long, and 6’ to 7’ in height
- Average cost: $ — A single unit new runs between $50-$150
- Where to buy: Light duty Gorilla Rack Shelving and similar brands are sold at Amazon, Uline, Northern Tool, Home Depot & Lowes
This shelving is commonly used in garages, small retail store rooms, and residential storage areas like utility and craft rooms. It’s an inexpensive choice for light storage in small warehouse spaces, storage units, and garages. It usually comes with five or six adjustable shelves. Light duty shelving also works well with stacked parts bins, discussed below, for stocking small items and assembly parts.
Cantilever Racks for Pipe Storage & Other Specialty Needs
- Best for: Specific storage needs like pipe, lumber, or panels
- Space to Allow in Warehouse Plan: Varies by need, size, and material
- Average cost: Varies by need, size, and material
- Where to buy: Best deals are from local used warehouse rack dealers. Or find online on Amazon, Uline or Shelving.com
Cantilever rack, shown above, can handle pipe, lumber, and other oversize material storage needs. If you have a storage need that regular shelves or cantilever racks can’t handle, or need a unique size or wall-mounted solution, contact a used warehouse shelving dealer. They have an amazing array of unique storage solutions. Most sell both used and new stock, too, and can even custom-cut shelving to fit specific needs.
Bins, Hoppers & Barrels
- Best for: Parts and materials storage
- Space to Allow in Warehouse Plan: Varies by footprint, common allowance is a pallet size: 40” wide x 48” long x various heights. Comes in smaller and larger sizes.
- Average cost: $-$$ Varies by unit, size & material. Pallet-size wire bins like the one below start at around $150
- Where to buy: Global Industries & Uline
Bins, hoppers, and barrels are very common in manufacturing and assembly operations. Many businesses move these on pallets using pallet jacks, but some bins and hoppers are wheeled.
Small Parts & Assembly Bins
- Best for: Storing small items in limited space and easy-access areas
- Space to Allow in Warehouse Plan: None. Stacks on shelf units or on workstation tables
- Average cost: $-$$ Varies by unit, size & material. Stackable parts bins range from under $1/ea. to more than $10/ea.
- Where to buy: Amazon, Global Industries, Northern Tool, Uline
These handy stackable bins are ideal for storing small items for all sorts of needs; materials for manufacturing, parts for assembly, and small goods for pack and ship. Plus their easy-access design makes them an efficient alternative to stocking small goods in closed boxes.
We’ve covered a full range of storage options that suit most businesses’ warehouse storage needs. Now let’s look at some work area equipment that you might need in your warehouse, and the space you’ll need to allocate during planning:
Popular Workspace Equipment Options
|Type of Workspace Equipment||Best For:||Common Sizes to Allow in Space Planning|
|Multi-use Utility Tables & Workbenches||Manufacturing, assembly, picking & packing||Varies by need. Common sizes run 3’ deep x 5’ to 8’ long|
|Specialty Manufacturing Assembly Stations||Manufacturing & assembly need||Varies by need. Common sizes run 2’ to 3’ deep x 5’ to 8’ long|
|Dedicated Packing Stations||Daily shipping needs||Common size is 3’ deep x 6’ to 8’ long|
|Pallet Packing Freight Scale Station||Operations shipping truck freight regularly||4’ x 4’, or 4’ deep x 6’ long, including optional easy-load ramps|
|Dedicated Shipping Station Table with Parcel Scale & Labeling Equipment||Operations shipping parcels regularly||Varies. Common sizes run 3’ deep x 5’ to 8’ long|
|Stock Carts and Pallet Jacks||Operations that move goods with the warehouse||Allow around 3’ wide x 5’ long for storage|
|Rolling Staircases||Operations that store volume stock on shelves over 8’ in height||Approx. 4’ wide x 8’ long|
So, we’ve explored the major space considerations in warehouse layout planning, namely the various equipment, storage units, and workspace fixtures you might use in your operation. Whether your business centers on manufacturing, assembly, or pack-and-ship, or a combination of all three, you’ll likely include some combination of these elements on your warehouse schematic.
Next it’s time to see how to combine these elements together in your warehouse layout to create an efficient workspace with a sensible, productive traffic flow.
4. Efficient Traffic Flow Strategies
You have a good idea of what’s going into your warehouse space, and a rough idea of where it can all fit in your warehouse layout. Now it’s time to really drill into your warehouse schematic to arrange every element into an efficient, productivity-boosting traffic flow.
For this, you need to really think about your operation, and answer these three questions:
- Where do you or your employees spend the most time in the warehouse?
- Around which elements — manufacturing equipment, storage areas, or worktables, does most work center?
- What things do you or your employees need to move, gather, or have close-by to complete daily tasks?
The answers to these questions will help you lay out work areas and traffic patterns within your warehouse. Every business need is different, but here’s an example of a good traffic pattern based on my company’s pick, pack, and ship workflows. Below, I’ll note the key traffic features I address during planning, and why my warehouse layout solution works.
A. Aisle Pattern & Layout
As a pick, pack, and ship operation, my packing area is centrally located between stock shelves, with aisles (A) that directly feed to our busiest production zone, the packing area:
This allows warehouse staff to quickly access product on either side of the warehouse. Plus, each employee is assigned a specific section to pick and maintain, which keeps them from bumping into each other. All of this culminates in an efficient traffic flow.
I maximize our stock storage areas by using 12’ tall pallet rack that allows ample overstock space on upper shelves, out of the daily workflows. Plus, we use hand-carried bins and small carts for restock and order picking tasks among the shelves. 4’ aisle widths suit our large box and cart-moving needs. I leave ample space for pallet movement along the central aisles since we receive and ship palletized freight, too.
Note that I don’t place our shelving against the endwalls, and instead run 2’ deep shelving along the perimeter for smaller items. This enables pickers to move from aisle to aisle without backtracking, and to pick small items along the way as needed.
B. Generous Packing & Shipping Workspace
Packing and shipping is the primary goal of my ecommerce operation, so ample space is dedicated to these tasks. In the central packing area (B), I use a mix of 8’ and 6’ utility tables that can be moved and rearranged as packing needs dictate. This lets us handle daily parcel packing with room to spare, easily accommodates holiday volumes, and allows us to pack pallets for large freight orders.
As a pack-and-ship operation, we store shipping boxes and packing materials in easy reach of the packing tables. Once parcels are packed, they are quickly moved to the nearby shipping station table for weighing, sealing, and labeling. If you plan on shipping daily, allocating space for a dedicated shipping station is a real time-saver.
C. Generous Receiving & Shipping Areas
I allow ample room by our large overhead doors (C) for both shipping and receiving stock. As a pack-and-ship ecommerce operation, we receive numerous freight and parcel stock shipments daily. Allowing room to store received stock prior to unpacking is essential. Plus, it’s helpful to keep receivables separate from daily outbound parcels to prevent confusion and carrier pickup mistakes.
D. Equipment Storage
With 12’ shelves, we use a rolling staircase to safely manage large numbers of overstock boxes. So that’s a space consideration I have to include (D, by Receiving). Plus we handle palletized freight daily and use not one, but two, pallet jacks. These I tuck away in the reserved pallet storage areas. Thank goodness our neighbor has a forklift for our occasional needs, or I would have to allocate valuable space for that, too.
Rolling ladders and pallets jacks are things to keep in mind when planning your warehouse layout. If you don’t have them now, but think you might down the line, plan for it now. Believe me, once you get your equipment situated or rows of shelving installed, you don’t want to move them to make space for pallet jacks and such.
Last Step: Test Your Traffic Flow Plan in Your Space
The last step before you start installing equipment, shelves, and tables is to walk your finished plan. To do this, measure off the space and apply masking tape on the floor to mark the positioning of your main units, be they equipment, tables, or shelves. You don’t need to do this for every piece, but definitely do it in your key workflow and production zone areas. Then walk the space as though you’re working in it.
Carry boxes, tools, or materials. Do you have plenty of clearance? Roll carts or pallet jacks through the space. Can you make the turns? If you have employees, get them involved in acting out work processes. Do they run into each other?
If you have a large space that will house equipment or large shelving units, don’t skip this step. Believe me, it’s far easier to make traffic flow corrections at this stage before the heavy stuff arrives.
Your business’s needs likely differ greatly from mine. But if you put some thought into your planning and testing process, you’ll be rewarded with an efficient, productive space, no matter your size or operation.
The Bottom Line
Installing equipment and setting up aisles of shelves in a warehouse is quite a task. Believe me, it’s one that you don’t want to repeat because you didn’t start out with a sound layout. Warehouse planning doesn’t have to be difficult at all. Simply start with a scale-drawn schematic based on accurate measurements of the inside of your warehouse.
This is your blank slate. On this you can examine, move about, and test the placement of every element needed to do your work. And if you’re not already starting out with stacks of shelving, worktables, and equipment to fit into your new space, play around with our suggestions above to see what best suits your unique needs.
Then, when you know what you’re going to put in your warehouse, give plenty of thought to where it’s best positioned. Use your warehouse layout schematic to move equipment, shelves, and worktables around on paper. Test out different traffic flows.
Then, when you think you have a sound plan, take your schematic into your empty space. Measure and tape off your major elements and walk around. Move a cart. Carry boxes. Make sure your traffic patterns require as few steps as possible, and that you don’t encounter roadblocks. Once those shelves go up and workbenches are in place, you’ll be happy that you spent time planning and testing it all out. Then you can hit the ground running and get on with business.