This article is part of a larger series on Retail Management.
The efficiency of any warehouse operation is dependent on its layout and design. From manufacturing and assembly to order fulfillment and shipping, a sound warehouse floor plan will help you minimize costs and maximize productivity.
Before launching your warehouse design and layout planning process, 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.
Here’s how to tackle the steps of planning your warehouse layout:
1. Create a Warehouse Schematic
An effective warehouse layout starts with an accurate 2D visualization—no matter the size of your space. This can be done using physical paper schematics or digitally through design software.
The easiest way to create a physical design is with a copy of your warehouse blueprint (especially if your space is large or an atypical shape). 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, it’s easy to draw up your own warehouse schematic on grid paper. 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 plan will match your actual space.
When using a paper schematic, attach it to a piece of poster board or foam core so you’ll have a sturdy platform on which to design your layout. Then overlay a piece of tracing paper—this lets you sketch and play with different shelving and equipment arrangements without marking up your original.
Alternatively, you can use paper cutouts to represent equipment and move them around to test different layouts.
Layout software is a digital option to easily create and experiment with your warehouse floor plan schematic.
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 easily experiment with different layout approaches by dragging and dropping elements around your map.
Whether you choose to design your warehouse layout on grid paper or with an online layout tool, it’s important to ensure that the warehouse measurements you’re using are accurate.
In spatial planning (which we’ll discuss in the next section), every inch must be taken into account. Failure to do so can lead to disaster once you start investing in shelving and warehouse equipment—which may not fit if your warehouse measurements are inaccurate.
You don’t want to be making last-minute warehouse layout changes that can be easily avoided with proper planning—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, sloping floors, stairways, installed equipment, and overhead doors. These areas will place restrictions on your warehouse floor plan, so you want to accurately note them on your layout schematic.
Many warehouse operations set space aside for offices. A rough block-out is all you need—but be sure to note when office doors open out into the warehouse. If you omit this detail, you could accidentally block door access.
In the example below, an office space and receiving and shipping pickup doors have been noted on the layout. Most warehouses require special areas for receiving and shipping inventory, so be sure to include these entrances and exits on your design schematic if they apply.
Once you have noted major features on your warehouse design schematic, you’re ready to start planning your warehouse layout.
2. Optimize Your Space
To create an efficient floor plan, begin with a thorough consideration of how you intend to use your warehouse.
You might be designing a layout suitable for manufacturing or light product assembly, or for a product storage and shipping facility (a common warehouse design for ecommerce businesses). Your unique business needs will dictate how you allocate your space and configure your warehouse layout.
Plan for Equipment & 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, if you run an ecommerce company that stocks and ships goods, your key units would be pallet racks and metal shelving. You can see what this layout looks like in the image below.
A business’s key warehouse units, such as manufacturing equipment or workstations, will vary based on the primary goals of the facility. Whatever your key units 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 equally important, are secondary in your plan—their locations are dependent on where you position your equipment.
The warehouses of most ecommerce companies focus on receiving, storing, picking, packing, and shipping items. In these instances, stock storage units are the primary equipment (as shown below). Storage units used are typically either shelves or bins, but the size, shape, and weight of these units vary greatly.
For ecommerce companies, other activities that impact the overall warehouse floor plan include order packing and shipping as well as receiving stock. It’s important to provide ample space around your various work centers so that employees can perform these tasks effectively.
Also allow sufficient space so that any equipment used—from hand trucks to forklifts—can navigate the warehouse aisles easily.
If you do light assembly paired with some shipping, assembly stations or light manufacturing equipment are likely to be a significant focus. After that, you’ll need to address storage space for parts and finished goods, plus adequate packaging, packing, and shipping areas.
It’s important that you conduct a thorough review of your needs before embarking on any warehouse floor planning process. Failure to consider the full scope of your needs could result in ineffective warehouse design.
Create Warehouse 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. You also need to consider the space needed for your production work to safely occur.
Safety needs to 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 that you should review in planning your warehouse safety initiatives.
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.
In manufacturing, you need to allocate space for workbenches, bins, tools, and safety stations needed for production. Plus, you need to reserve adequate production zones around equipment for workers to move materials and safely produce goods.
When it comes to manufacturing equipment and production processes, there is no one-size-fits-all rule for what’s considered adequate space. Pay close attention to equipment manufacturing instructions, as each piece of equipment will come with complete directions for safe operation.
For a stock and ship operation, 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.
Assembly operations often combine the spatial needs of manufacturing and stock & ship.
In these cases, assembly stations and related equipment make up the heart of your production zone. These can include workbenches or specialized stations, plus bins for parts and finished goods. Like manufacturing, you need to allocate ample production space around these areas. Then, like stock and ship, you need to reserve space to efficiently package finished goods.
Establish Warehouse Storage Areas
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.
To determine the storage space you need as well as the type of storage units you’ll use, you first need to consider what you’re storing.
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
What you’re storing dictates the type of storage you need to plan for in your layout, as well as 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.
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 generous space between shelves or around other units. Pallet jacks need a minimum aisle width of 4’ to 5’ to navigate between shelving.
Forklifts require much more open aisle space. If you plan on using a forklift in your warehouse, your required aisle width will need to be between 11’ to 13’, depending on the type of forklift you plan to use.
Before using forklifts in your warehouse operation, make sure you thoroughly review all manufacturer recommendations for the machinery you procure. Different machines have different use requirements. Additionally, before operating a forklift, familiarize yourself with OSHA’s rules regarding forklift use and follow all mandated forklift training requirements.
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.
When creating your warehouse floor plan, 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, using high shelves is a great way to preserve your warehouse floor space for production activities.
3. Choose Your Warehouse Equipment
Most small business warehouse operations—whether manufacturing, assembly, pick-pack-and-ship, or any combination of the three—need some form of storage and workspace equipment, such as assembly tables or packing stations.
When planning your warehouse layout, the size and type of storage, shelving, and workspace equipment all come into play. Pallet racks, heavy- and light-duty shelving, cantilever racks, and all types of bins are common warehouse solutions.
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
Your warehouse storage equipment can be purchased through a specialized dealer in your area. Purchasing preowned equipment is a popular and accessible alternative to buying new hardware—just make sure the condition and equipment type suit your facility’s needs.
Other options include buying equipment from importers such as Alibaba, which often offers warehouse gear at steep discounts. Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowes are also good sources for standard equipment—especially when needed in small quantities.
Here’s an explanation of when to use each of these popular equipment options:
Pallet racks are designed to store pallets of goods, but they’re also used for stocking all sorts of products and materials, large and small. Pallet racks are best for midweight to heavyweight storage needs like boxed stock, work materials, and finished goods.
Pallet racks are available in various sizes—most commonly in sections 4’ deep x 8’ long and 8’-12’ in height. Costs of equipping your warehouse with pallet racks vary depending on how much racking you intend to use. Expect to pay between $120-$350 per set for new, heavy-duty warehouse racking. You can sometimes save by contacting pre-owned warehouse equipment merchants to find deals on used pallet racks and other storage items.
Pallet racking is 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. If you have storage space of 1,000 square feet (around 20 x 50 feet) or more, two long rows of pallet rack can provide ample storage at a reasonable cost.
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, but HD shelving is a cost-effective solution in many warehouse designs.
Heavy-duty shelving is best for light to midweight storage in smaller warehouses, storage units, and garages. These types of shelving units come in various sizes—usually from 3’-8’ long and 6’-8’ high. 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.
You can expect to pay $75 to $200 for a new HD shelving unit. If you just need a few units, you can buy these shelves anywhere shelving hardware is sold, including Home Depot, Amazon, and Lowe’s.
Light-duty (LD) shelving is commonly used in garages, small retail storerooms, and residential storage areas like utility or craft rooms, but there are instances in which they’re a good option for warehouse use. Light-duty storage is an inexpensive choice for small warehouse spaces and storage units. Sizes vary, though 18” to 2’ deep by 4’ long is common.
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.
A notable advantage of LD shelving is that most units come with five or six adjustable shelves, which gives you useful versatility if you’re storing various items of different dimensions. Light-duty shelving also works well with stacked parts bins (discussed below) for stocking small items and assembly parts.
You can buy light-duty shelving anywhere shelves are sold, including Home Depot, Lowes, and your local hardware store; expect to pay between $40 and $100 per shelving unit.
When installing light-duty shelving units, be sure to secure the shelving as directed. In most cases, LD shelves are to be secured up against a wall or another unit for stability and safety reasons.
Cantilever racks can handle your pipe, lumber, panels, and oversize material storage needs.
Cantilever rack 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.
Warehouse-caliber Boxes, Hoppers and Barrels
Metal and heavy-weight plastic storage boxes, hoppers, and barrels are common in manufacturing and assembly operations. They are receptacles used to store, transport, and dump materials.
Many 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. Expect to pay $100 to $200 for the caliber of box illustrated above.
Small Parts and Assembly Bins
These handy, stackable bins are 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.
Small parts and assembly bins usually cost $1 to $10 each.
If you have storage needs that regular shelves or racks can’t handle, you may need a unique size or wall-mounted solution. Contact a used warehouse shelving dealer—most have a vast array of unique storage solutions, and some can custom-cut shelving to fit specific needs.
Workspace Equipment Options
In addition to storage units, you might need work-area equipment in your warehouse. 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
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.
As you itemize what work will be done, who will be doing it, and the methods they will use, you will easily be able to layout work areas and predict traffic patterns within your warehouse.
Remember—every business need is different, so while you can learn from other warehouse layouts, you must keep your unique needs foremost in mind.
Here are how each of the functional elements of a well-designed floor plan come into play:
In the ecommerce pick-pack-and-ship warehouse layout below, notice where the aisles (A) for product storage are placed.
You can see how various elements were brought into the warehouse floor plan to facilitate efficiency in this warehouse model. The busiest production zone—the packing area—is centrally located between stock shelves, with two aisles that directly feed into it.
This warehouse layout allows staff to quickly access or “pick” the product on either side of the packing tables. 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 effective and efficient traffic flow.
Stock storage areas are maximized by using a 12’-tall pallet rack that allows ample overstock space on upper shelves—out of the path of daily workflows. Hand-carried bins and small carts are used for restocking and order picking tasks among the shelves.
Four-foot aisle widths suit this warehouse’s box- and cart-moving needs. Ample space is left for pallet movement along the central aisles since the warehouse receives and ships palletized freight.
Shelving is not used against the end walls. Instead, this warehouse runs 2’ deep shelving along the perimeter for smaller items. This enables pickers to move from aisle to aisle without backtracking and pick small items along the way as needed.
Packing and shipping is the primary goal of this example ecommerce operation, so ample space is dedicated to these tasks.
In the central packing area (B), the warehouse layout includes a mix of 8’ and 6’ utility tables that can be moved and rearranged as packing needs dictate. This lets warehouse employees handle daily parcel packing with room to spare, easily accommodates holiday volumes, and allows staff to pack pallets for large freight orders.
As a pack-and-ship operation, this ecommerce warehouse stores 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.
Order fulfillment and shipping can be a bit tricky. If you’re new to in-house fulfillment, research existing operations to take a look at how others perform fulfillment and shipping cost-effectively. Doing this type of homework can save money and hours of frustration.
Ample room is available in this model for shipping and receiving, thanks to the large overhead doors (C). As a pack-and-ship ecommerce operation, this company receives 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 pick-up mistakes.
This warehouse uses two rolling staircases to safely store and retrieve large numbers of lightweight overstock boxes from its 12’ shelves.
If you plan to use high shelves in your warehouse, be sure to develop a way to securely access items that are overhead. 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.
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 are used to store the rolling staircases.
Rolling ladders, moving conveyors, and pallet jacks are also things to keep in mind when planning your warehouse layout. If you don’t currently use them but think you might need to down the line, allocate warehouse space for these items now. Once you get your heavy equipment situated or rows of shelving securely installed, you don’t want to move them to make space for pallet jacks and other large items you had not considered.
5. Test Your Warehouse Traffic Flow Plan
The last step before you start installing equipment, shelves, and tables is to literally 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—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 actually 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 yet, enlist some family or friends to help role-play 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 they’re installed.
Make sure you put considerable thought into your planning and testing process and you’ll be rewarded with a cost-effective, efficient, safe, and productive space—no matter your size or operation.
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.