Every year in the United States (and around the world, for that matter) vast quantities of material, organic and inorganic, are mined, caught, grown, stored, transported, processed, packaged, shipped, warehoused, shipped again, shelved, and eventually sold to the retail buyer who has a need for that product. It is a constantly moving stream requiring physical equipment designed to facilitate the flow of that material through its life cycle, including carts, trucks, workstations, assembly lines, packaging machines, and of course old fashioned human lift-and-carry labor. But there is one other item that should be included in that list—because it is so simple and common as to be invisible, and yet ingenious—and that is the manufacturing flow rack.
Flow Racks? Where?
Exactly. They’re everywhere. And for that very reason most people aren’t even aware of their existence. Yet every time you buy a cruller from your local doughnut vendor, grab a carton of milk or a six-pack of beer from a commercial refrigerator, pick up an order from a fast-food kitchen, or select an item from a grocery or drug store shelf—the quality of which depends on its freshness—you are more than likely interacting with a flow rack of one sort or another.
There are all kinds—flow chutes and angled shelves and spring-loaded dispensers—but in all, the principle is the same: first in, first out. Once you start to notice them, you realize that flow racks are used in most every manufacturing and distribution environment imaginable. And the one thing they all have in common is their ability to improve the efficiency of material flow.
Flow Racks Defined
As the name implies, flow racks facilitate the flow (i.e., movement) of products or materials from one side of the flow rack unit to the other. They also go by other names (depending on the application), such as gravity feed racks, point-of-use racks, live storage racks, and flow chutes, among others.
Flow racks are ideal for:
- storing materials with expiration dates
- storing materials that vary in size
- freezer/cold storage applications
- high-volume case-pick and piece-pick applications
How Do Flow Racks Work?
That’s the ingenious part. Thanks to angled shelves, rollers, springs, and/or wheels with ball-bearings, the “flow” aspect of these mechanisms takes advantage of the laws of gravity and principles of inertial force. As long as there is a flat surface allowing free movement, no external power source is normally required, and the rack functions quite adequately with minimal human action.
The “machine,” such as it is, can be described as simplicity itself. The side where the item is loaded into the rack is called the loading aisle; the other side, where the loaded item is picked up and removed, is called the picking aisle.
And what do these flow racks do? They are typically designed to move, in an orderly manner, anything from unpackaged parts and cardboard boxes to bins, pallets, or almost any other kind of material or material container. Flow racks can be custom-designed to accommodate various dimensions, different numbers of lanes and levels needed, with or without lane dividers, forward and backward motion, and other adjustments to fulfill specific functions.
The Purpose of Flow Racks
Within the worlds of manufacturing and distribution, flow racks serve three important functions:
- Boundary areas are well defined:
By creating a separation between the delivery zone function (“loading aisle”) and the work zone function (“picking aisle”), the material distribution is made smaller, faster, and more efficient.
- Material flow is controlled:
A finite line of palettes to be processed in a flow rack is more manageable than an inchoate, random pile in the middle of a factory floor. With the right procedures in place, flow racks support material logistics and production control.
- Presentation is improved:
Without overwhelming the operators with too much visual data, flow racks help them manage material movement and quantity accumulation without resorting to off-the-cuff guessing and slow, stressful physical interaction.
Benefits of Using Flow Racks
- Humans are visual creatures who are naturally inclined to organization. Flow racks make it a simple matter to view at a glance the current state of inventory and production without wasting a lot of time searching for things or calculating quantities.
- In the category of produce, medications, and other products where freshness is of prime importance, the benefits of first-in-first-out (FIFO) inventory control are priceless.
- The less lifting, shifting, bending, and moving an operator has to do, the better for that worker ergonomically. Wasted movement is wasted money. Flow racks all but eliminate that waste.
Best of all, Framing Tech manufacturing flow racks are fully customizable. Our basic gravity-fed flow rack is a boon to companies focused on lean manufacturing. Built with our 40 series 10mm T-slot aluminum extrusion framing system, it is very lighweight. The roller rails are constructed out of our 40×40-10RP (roller profile) with snap-in rollers. Each roller rail mounts to our T-slot extrusion, with the height offset slightly to allow the product to roll from one end to the other. The lower end of each rail features a stop that prevents the product from sliding off the end. The L × W × H dimensions can all be adjusted, as well as the number of rails. Various floor mount and caster options are also available. Contact us and let us know the specific materials, processes, and operator’s needs you would like us to accommodate.