The concept of a distribution centre has grown out of the warehouse which grew out of the stockroom. This isn’t just a matter of size but the whole way in which the operation is approached.
Buildings for these purposes have become more specialised initially just being part of the factory or shop, and have responded to demands such as to being customised for transport operations.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the Distribution centre design is the amount of space that is not used directly for storage. If a warehouse is being designed for long term storage of items with no turnover, such as perhaps documentary archives, then storage space could predominate. Otherwise however, the important feature of a distribution centre is the ability to move material around. The areas allocated to the fundamental processes of the distribution operation, the bringing in of goods from outside, moving goods around the storage locations, providing area for any processing or value adding activities and then moving the goods on again to the outside, all this requires space.
The early innovations in materials handling, such as the unit load, the pallet or standard sized box for example, allowed dimensions to be standardised. This has led to a simplification in international trade with standard sizes utilised for containers, and road and rail vehicles. This standardisation has allowed for some certainty in designing aisle widths and storage location dimensions in the warehouse as well as the interface facilities for the transport medium.
Beyond those certainties however the distribution centre is a customised facility and careful design effort is required to ensure that the needs of the business are reflected in the layout. The fundamental concept, once static storage is accommodated, should be that the flow of material matches the requirements of the business and aisle-ways and interchange areas are sized accordingly. There is no doubt, however, that no business stays still and so flexibility to deal with changes must be built into the design. Even though this flexibility may allow layout alterations the original concept should be maintained and sight must not be lost of the original purpose of the design. Losing this focus on the purpose of the building and facilities can lead to problems with material flow when additional requirements are squeezed into every free corner and space in the building.
Distribution centres have been in the forefront in the need for increasing height in buildings, this is not just due to the need to reduce the footprint of building to minimise building and land acquisition costs. There can be good operational reasons for palletised or toted stock to be presented over a large area of length and height especially when automation is used. The need for larger and larger areas in the quest for efficiency has led to distribution centres being specially commissioned buildings, but they are not just large open areas covered by the largest span of roof possible. All the spaces in a modern distribution centre must support the core need to provide an efficient flow of materials.