It would be impossible to pinpoint the moment the concept of “storage and handling” was invented, because as long as humans have had possessions, we have been storing and handling them in both rudimentary and sophisticated ways. But storage and handling as it pertains to the material handling industry has come a long way since the first primitive humans devised shelving out of rock or wood.
Safe, efficient storage of materials is a necessity in any industry, and advances in storage and handling walked hand-in-hand with other important material handling concepts in the World War II era. With the design of the first universal pallet during the war, and, consequently, the creation of the predictable unitized load, came standard forklift trucks and storage racks to replace shelving. The Material Handling Institute of America notes that even today, the U.S. Department of Commerce classifies racks as metal furniture because they replaced metal shelving as a storage device.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, many businesses made the switch from wooden storage containers to those incorporating steel, and adjustable steel shelving began to come to the forefront. Consumer demand through the years has shaped the shelving and racking industry, affecting everything from the types of storage modules offered to the way shelving systems are put together and adjusted. Today, shelving has progressed far beyond its wooden origins to encompass wide span shelving, rivet rack shelving and a host of other options tailored for end-users’ distinct needs.
As the years progressed, racking moved beyond the back room of the mom-and-pop shop to the industrial sector, and storage equipment evolved beyond shelving into drawers and cabinets that made parts storage more convenient. The benefit lay in efficiency: Storing parts in compartments and drawers rather than on shelves eliminated the unused space that came with placing objects on shelves that were by necessity a certain distance apart.
In the latter half of the century, the focus shifted increasingly toward utilization of air space, which brought not only taller and larger racking and shelving systems, but advances such as mezzanines and rack-supported buildings, in which the siding of the building is attached to the rack. Whereas a “big” job 30 or 40 years ago may have been around 16 feet tall, today it is not unusual to find frames 30 or 35 feet tall in large distribution centers. With height, though, come ever greater structural concerns manufacturers continue to address, and further safety issues that cannot be compromised.
Racking and other storage equipment have evolved through the years in accordance with safety standards to protect people and facilities in hazardous situations ranging from fires to earthquakes. For instance, wire mesh decking came about as a material handling solution three decades ago as a result of fire codes. Warehouses used to incorporate particle board or solid boards in their shelving systems, and with sprinkler heads up in the ceiling, that presented a potential danger. If there was a fire below, the solid shelving prevented the heat from rising and often kept it from setting off the appropriate sprinkler head. Even when the correct sprinkler was activated, the solid shelves could prevent the water from falling directly on the fire. As a result, fire codes were established that required that a shelf have a minimum 70 percent opening so heat could reach the sprinkler, and the water could reach the fire. The openness also had the advantage of allowing more light to filter into the facility.
In the intervening years, safety requirements have been codified by standards and codes. In the early 1970s, the Interim Specification for the Design, Testing and Utilization of Industrial Steel Storage Racks by the Rack Manufacturers Institute (RMI) was adopted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and, subsequently, by the Uniform Building Code (UBC), the governing document for the western United States and parts of the Midwestern states. Such building codes usually are written by building officials with the assistance of structural engineers to address technical items like seismic forces and design loads. Safety standards in all corners of the industry remain stringent, and manufacturers are always conscious of the need to be prepared for any possible concern relating to safety, from regional building codes to seismic requirements in earthquake-prone areas that call for double columns and other precautions.
Today, storage and handling equipment isn’t just hidden in industrial warehouses or kept tucked in storage rooms. Racking increasingly can be found out in the open in warehouse retailers like The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Sam’s Club, and even large stores like Wal-Mart or Sears. The convenience of shelving and racking allows consumers more open access to the products they want and creates an atmosphere of industry and efficiency, and a broader array of color options makes retailers more favorably inclined toward the look of racking. However, rack and shelving sales to smaller companies remain a vital component of overall storage and handling equipment distribution. A small plumbing company might not have the storage requirements of a Wal-Mart, but that doesn’t diminish its need.
Storage and handling equipment remains a necessary component in material handling operations the world over, and as end-users’ needs change, so too will the material handling industry’s offerings. The past century has seen the variety of equipment grow by leaps and bounds, and as the U.S. and world economy continue to evolve, the material handling industry stands ready to meet the world’s storage needs.