Warehouse Layout Design Planning in 2023: Steps + Examples
This article is part of a larger series on Retail Management.
The efficiency of any warehouse operation highly depends on its floor plan’s layout and design. Key steps to an efficient warehouse layout design include schematic creation, space optimization, equipment selection, implementation of sound workflow strategies, and traffic flow testing.
Before starting the layout planning process for your warehouse floor plan, consider your needs—from space utilization, storage options, and productivity equipment to aisle layout and production area workflows. Also, keep your business inventory management systems in mind, as your layout will impact your ability to manage inventory effectively.
Follow the steps below in planning your warehouse layout:
Step 1: Create a Warehouse Diagram
An effective warehouse layout starts with an accurate 2D visualization, which you can plan for using physical paper schematics or design software.
The easiest way to create a physical design is with a copy of your warehouse blueprint. If you’re renting, your landlord might be able to provide a blueprint you can use. If you can’t get your hands on a blueprint, drawing up your warehouse schematic on grid paper is easy.
When drawing your layout, plan as though one square on the grid paper equals one square foot in your warehouse. That way, the spatial relationships on your project will match your actual space.
Layout software is a digital option to develop and experiment with your warehouse floor plan schematic quickly.
Some specialized online layout tools offer specific features for warehouse design—such as SmartDraw. Plans start at $5.95 per month, and the program allows you to experiment easily with different layout approaches by dragging and dropping elements around your map.
Whether you use a physical diagram or design software, remember to:
- Take the most accurate measurements to prevent errors during shelving and equiment installation.
- Label fixed areas such as doors, stairways, sloping floors, beams, outposts, offices, and restrooms. Identifying where they are positioned helps you decide on the next steps, such as spatial planning.
Step 2: Optimize Your Warehouse Space
You need to determine the amount of space your warehouse can hold to plan your warehouse floor better. First, you should calculate your storage area. Then, you can plan for equipment, create production and workflow zones, and establish storage areas.
Know Your Warehouse Space Utilization
To know your current space utilization, you need to calculate your total warehouse size and potential storage area size. Using these metrics helps establish limits on how you store products and lets you know when your warehouse is at full capacity.
To calculate total warehouse size:
- Identify the total square footage of your facility.
- Subtract office space, restrooms, and any other space that isn’t used for storage.
- Multiply the remaining square footage by the clear height of your warehouse (distance from the floor to any overhead object).
To calculate your potential storage area size:
- Multiply the length and width of the outside dimensions of your racking by the height of the highest load in that area. This results in the cubic volume for your storage area size. Your potential storage space or maximum storage space is based on your current setup.
There will be instances when the highest load height isn’t uniform throughout the warehouse area. If this is the case, calculate them separately and add them all after.
If you are using a warehouse management system (WMS): Get the total volume of all products stored in your warehouse, as this is reflected in your WMS already. Divide the total volume of all products by the storage area size and multiply by 100.
If you are not using a WMS: Divide your storage area into possible sections (like stacking rows). Estimate the percent utilization of each row. Next, add the results and divide by the number of each section or row.
Designate Essential Warehouse Setup Areas
Here are some essential areas your warehouse should have. They are present in the warehouse layout designs we feature below.
- Storage and inventory areas: These are critical as they can either make or break your warehouse traffic flow and employee workflow.
- Inbound receiving dock: This area is for receiving products and pallets from delivery trucks. Incoming products arrive with detailed documentation and are unloaded from the receiving dock, counted, and prepared for shelving.
- Picking and packing areas: Used to prepare incoming customer orders, these areas are where the entire order picking process takes place. When an order is received, the warehouse pickers retrieve the products and packs them.
- Outbound shipping dock: This area is where the packed orders are placed onto pallet racks and loaded onto trucks for delivery. Forklifts are usually used to transport them into trucks.
- Employee space: Designate ample space for warehouse staff to take breaks, eat, and rest which are separate from work areas. Also consider offices for on-site warehouse management teams.
Plan for Equipment & Surrounding Workspace
Once you have calculated your storage space, the next step would be to plot your workspace and plan for equipment.
- Identify your key units. These things take up most of your space and/or are the center of your production zones. A business’s key warehouse units, such as manufacturing equipment or workstations, will vary based on the facility’s primary goals. While equally important, storage spaces are secondary in your plan—their locations depend on where you position your equipment.
- Allow sufficient space so that any equipment used—from hand trucks to forklifts—can navigate the warehouse aisles easily. Again, this will vary greatly depending on the products you sell, as different types of products require handling equipment—which, in turn, affects your aisle spacing. For example, a forklift will need more space than a pallet jack.
Create Production Zones & Workflow Areas
After addressing primary units like equipment, stock shelving, and assembly stations, the next step is thinking about how workers, materials, and goods move in and around your key elements.
Consider the space necessary for safe production work. Safety should be a prime consideration in all warehouses—though it may be more complex in manufacturing, where movement occurs around equipment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers detailed publications to review in planning your warehouse safety initiatives.
Organize Storage Areas & Aisle Spacing
Storage is another key factor to consider in your layout. In fact, for pack and ship (and some assembly operations), efficient arrangement of storage areas is likely your prime concern.
What you’re storing dictates the type of storage you need to plan for in your layout, along with the space you need to reserve in and around storage areas—like aisle widths between shelving and clearance areas for moving goods in and out of storage.
Your warehouse storage needs may take many forms, including:
- Small assembly items housed in bins on light-duty shelving
- Pallets with machinery parts
- Boxed goods for pick, pack, and ship
- Overstock items
- Raw materials for manufacturing
You can organize these in different ways, namely:
- Vertical storage: There are many methods of doing vertical storage. Stacking is commonly used only on solid loads, like bags of soil, and for rigid packages like cardboard or plastic boxes.
- Dynamic vs static storage: Another way is to separate popular products and products that tend to sit on shelves for longer periods. Popular products go into the dynamic storage area, while the less popular ones are assigned to the static area.
If your warehouse plans involve 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 these cases, your shelving aisles will likely need to range between 3.6’ to 4’ wide.
If you use a pallet jack or forklift to move pallets or equipment in your storage areas, you’ll need generous space between shelves or around other units. For example:
- Pallet jacks need a minimum aisle width of 4’ to 5’ to navigate between shelving.
- Forklifts require aisle widths between 11’ to 13’, depending on the type of forklift you plan to use.
Before using forklifts in your warehouse operation, thoroughly review all manufacturer recommendations for the machinery you procure. Additionally, before operating a forklift, familiarize yourself with OSHA’s rules regarding forklift use and follow all mandated forklift training requirements.
Don’t forget overhead spaces. Most small warehouses easily accommodate 8’-tall shelving, while larger facilities can house shelving that is 12’ and taller.
If you need overstock areas for large stock purchases or materials storage, high shelves are a great way to preserve your warehouse floor space for production activities.
Step 3: Choose Your Warehouse Equipment
When planning your warehouse layout, the size and type of storage, shelving, and workspace equipment all come into play. Common warehouse solutions include pallet racks, heavy- and light-duty shelving, cantilever racks, and bins.
Warehouse Storage & Shelving Options
Type of Storage/Shelving
Common Sizes and Space to Allow in Your Warehouse Layout
Midweight to heavyweight storage needs
4’ deep x 8’ long per unit
Lightweight to midweight storage needs
3’ to 4’ deep x 6’ to 8’ long per unit
Lightweight storage needs
18” to 2’ deep x 4’ long per unit
Cantilever rack and specialty shelving
Specific storage for oversized items
Varies by need
Bins, boxes, and hoppers
Loose parts and materials storage
Varies, common allowance is pallet size: 40” x 48”
Small parts and assembly bins
Storing small items in limited space
None, usually used on shelves, carts, and/or workstations
You can buy storage and shelving options from a dealer or from Alibaba—which offers steep discounts. Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowe’s are great options for small quantities. Pre-owned equipment is also an option.
Here’s an explanation of when to use each of these popular equipment options:
Best for: Midweight to heavyweight storage needs like boxed stock, work materials, and finished goods
Pricing: Expect to pay between $120–$350 per set for new, heavy-duty warehouse racking
Pallet racks are assembled using end units called uprights, adjustable crossbars called rails, and heavy-duty particleboard or metal wire grid shelves called decks. You can assemble many shelves or just a few on each unit.
Pallet racks can be freestanding, though they’re designed to interconnect for long shelving runs. When used this way, it’s the most cost-effective shelving solution for large warehouse storage areas.
Best for: Light to midweight storage in smaller warehouses, storage units, and garages
Pricing: Expect to pay $75–$200 for a new HD shelving unit
Heavy-duty (HD) shelving is the pallet rack’s baby brother. The name is a bit deceiving, as pallet racks generally hold more weight than HD shelving. Pay attention to the weight ratings on the shelves you purchase; for safety reasons, it’s important to adhere to weight stipulations assigned by the shelving unit’s manufacturer.
Best for: Garages, small retail storerooms, and residential storage areas like utility or craft rooms (small businesses or one-man businesses, hobby or side hustle)
Pricing: Expect to pay between $40–$100 per shelving unit
A notable advantage of light-duty (LD) shelving is that most units come with five or six adjustable shelves, which gives you helpful versatility if you’re storing various items of different dimensions. Light-duty shelving works well with stacked parts bins (discussed below) for stocking small items and assembly parts.
Take note, though, that if you want to maximize the height of your warehouse for extra storage space, you won’t be able to do that with LD shelving, as these units are usually only 6’ to 7’ high.
Best for: Specific storage for oversized items
Pricing: Custom quote
Cantilever racks can handle your pipe, lumber, panels, and oversize material storage needs. Sizes and costs vary by need and type of material stored, so you’ll need to contact a used warehouse dealer or online vendors—like Alibaba or Shelving.com—to get a quote for your warehouse.
Best for: Storing and transporting loose materials, often involved in assembly operations
Pricing: Expect to pay $100–$200 for the caliber of box
Warehouse-caliber (metal and heavy-weight plastic) boxes, hoppers & barrels are common in manufacturing and assembly operations. They are receptacles used to store, transport, and dump materials. Most businesses move these on pallets using pallet jacks, but some bins and hoppers are wheeled. You can purchase these in various sizes and materials that are capable of holding even heavy items.
Best for: Small, loose assembly parts for packing
Pricing: Small parts and assembly bins usually cost $1–$10 each
Small parts and assembly bins are usually handy and stackable, making it ideal for storing small items for all sorts of needs—including 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, and they can be easily color-coded.
Workspace Equipment Options
In addition to storage units, your warehouse might need work-area equipment. Here are a variety of options:
Type of Workspace Equipment
Common Sizes to Allow in Warehouse Space Planning
Multi-use tables and workbenches
Manufacturing, assembly, picking, and packing
Varies. Common sizes run 3’ deep x 5’ to 8’ long
Specialty manufacturing assembly stations
Manufacturing and assembly needs
Varies. 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
Dedicated shipping station table
Operations shipping parcels regularly
Varies. Common sizes run 3’ deep x 5’ to 8’ long
You may not need all of the equipment listed in the above chart, but be sure to give careful consideration to the various work stations you need in your warehouse and what types of tables or equipment will be required for those stations to operate effectively.
Material Handling Equipment Options
You also must think through how you’ll move stock and materials around in your warehouse and secure the appropriate equipment necessary for transport.
Popular options include:
Type of Logistics Equipment
Common Sizes to Allow in Warehouse Space Planning
Stock carts and pallet jacks
Operations that move goods within the warehouse
Allow around 3’ wide x 5’ long for storage
Operations that store volume stock on shelves over 8’ in height
Approx. 4’ wide x 8’ long
Operations that are performing light assembly
Varies, 18” by 30” width and lengths of 2’ to 24’ are common
Operations that move heavy loads within the warehouse
Approx. 11’–13’ aisle clearance
Step 4: Use Efficient Traffic Flow Strategies
Now that you have an idea of the types of equipment and storage solutions you will use for your warehouse and a sense of where everything will fit into your layout, it’s time to zero in on your detailed schematic. The goal of a warehouse schematic is to arrange every element to create an efficient, productivity-boosting traffic flow.
Think about your operation by exploring the following warehouse usage needs:
- Consider how much time you and your employees will spend in various locations in your warehouse.
- Determine around which elements—manufacturing equipment, storage areas, or work tables—most work will center.
- Explore different needs you and your employees will have regarding movement within the warehouse, how items will be gathered from various warehouse locations, and what items need to be kept close at hand to complete daily tasks.
Warehouse Setup Project Plan Examples
Here are some warehouse setups that consider the functional elements of a well-designed floor plan:
- The busiest production zone—the packing area—is centrally located between stock shelves, with two aisles directly feeding into it.
- This warehouse layout allows staff to quickly access or “pick” the product on either side of the packing tables. Each employee is assigned a specific section to pick and maintain, which keeps them from bumping into each other.
- Stock storage areas are maximized by using a 12’-tall pallet rack that allows ample overstock space on upper shelves—out of daily workflows.
- Hand-carried bins and small carts are used for restocking and order picking among the shelves.
- Shelving is not used against the end walls. Instead, this warehouse runs 2’-deep shelving along the perimeter for smaller items, allowing pickers to move from aisle to aisle without backtracking and pick small items along the way as needed.
Packing & Shipping Workspace
- In the central packing area (B), the warehouse layout includes 8’ and 6’ utility tables that can be moved and rearranged as packing needs dictate.
- This warehouse layout pattern has shipping boxes and packing materials in easy reach of the packing tables. Once packed, parcels 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.
Generous Receiving & Shipping Areas
- Ample room is available in this model for shipping and receiving, thanks to the large overhead doors (C).
- Allowing room to store received stock before unpacking is essential. Plus, it’s helpful to keep receivables separate from daily outbound parcels to prevent confusion and carrier pick-up mistakes.
Warehouse Equipment Storage
- This warehouse setup uses two rolling staircases to safely store and retrieve large numbers of lightweight overstock boxes from its 12’ shelves.
- Since the rolling staircases take up warehouse floor space, their storage must be considered in the warehouse layout. The spaces marked (D) near the receiving and shipping areas store the rolling staircases.
- If you plan to use high shelves in your warehouse, be sure to develop a way to access items that are overhead securely. In this example, rolling staircases work just fine. In other warehouses, heavier equipment, such as forklifts, are needed to transport and access items stored overhead.
Step 5: Test Your Warehouse Traffic Flow Plan
The last step before installing equipment, shelves, and tables is to test your warehouse traffic flow plan. To do this, measure off the space and apply masking tape on the floor to mark the positioning of your main units—whether they’re equipment, tables, or shelves. You don’t need to do this for every piece, but it’s important to mock up key workflow and production zone areas.
Then, walk the space as though you’re conducting key tasks that will be performed in the warehouse:
- Practice performing work functions: Carry boxes, tools, or materials while you test your warehouse design. Make sure you have plenty of clearance in all directions. Roll carts or pallet jacks through the warehouse layout to ensure items navigate easily along the planned paths—even when heavily loaded down.
- Get employees to test your floor plan: If you have employees, get them involved in acting out work processes. If you don’t have employees, enlist some family or friends to help roleplay key warehouse actions. Make sure your staff has ample room to conduct the tasks they will be required to perform.
- Check hard-to-change layout areas multiple times: If you have large spaces within your warehouse layout that will house heavy equipment or large shelving units, test these areas multiple times. It’s far better to make traffic flow corrections at this stage (while changes can be easily made) than to move heavy fixtures and equipment once installed.
Common Warehouse Layout Designs
There are a few basic and standard warehouse floor plans—U-shaped, I-shaped, and L-shaped.
1. U-shaped Design
Best for: Any warehouse size
Shaped like a semi-circle, the U-shaped design idea usually has the loading and shipping areas next to each other. The reception area is usually behind the loading and picking area (behind shipping).
The storage area fills out the back of the warehouse. The most popular products are placed between the less popular ones (at the center of the U-shape).
2. I-shaped Design
Best for: High-volume warehouses
This type of warehouse floor plan has the loading and unloading area and shipping area at both ends, with storage space designated in the middle.
3. L-shaped Design
Best for: Small to midsize warehouses
Traffic flow is shaped like the letter “L” for this design layout. Loading and reception areas are positioned on one side, while shipping and picking areas are on the adjacent side. The other areas are filled with product storage.
From manufacturing and assembly to order fulfillment and shipping, an efficient warehouse layout design will help you minimize costs and maximize productivity.
Effective warehouse design starts with identifying your needs—including the tasks to be performed within your warehouse and the equipment that will best support them. When you take the time and effort to create an efficient warehouse layout, you pave the way for saving time, money, and hassle for years to come.
If running your own facility is cost-prohibitive, you can outsource your warehousing to a third-party fulfillment provider with specialized infrastructure. This option is more economical for many startups, small businesses, and growing ecommerce operations.
ShipBob is a small-business fulfillment service with a nationwide warehouse network of 13 facilities. Get a free quote today.