Distribution centres are colossal facilities - the seven largest in the UK exceed 20 million square feet and Amazon alone has a global footprint of 150 million square feet. To manage sites of this scale, FM teams need to be highly skilled and meticulous with service delivery so that they are equipped to deal with consumer peak periods, precise distribution schedules and myriad logistical considerations. Bradford Keen reports
Turn the clock back two decades and facilities management in the distribution and logistics sectors would have been limited to waste removal and unblocking drains. Today's FMs are vital components of a well-oiled and increasingly automated machine.
Indeed, automation has had an impact not only on warehouse labour but on the duties of FMs too. For some, it presents an opportunity for FM team members to become more involved in overall operations.
"It makes the job more interesting compared to maybe 15-20 years ago when they were probably just being box-movers," says Matt Luke, head of logistics at Brammer Buck & Hickman, an industrial supplies specialist.
The past 10 years in particular have seen a surge in automation and digital technology, driven largely by the rise in e-commerce, says Jason Towse, managing director of business services at Mitie.
"As such, FM teams need to be able to maintain, repair, secure and clean this specialist equipment to ensure everything keeps running. On top of this, FMs have also had to learn how to operate these systems themselves, as well as how to flex workflows to conduct FM tasks at the most efficient time to minimise operational impact."
The automation of certain tasks has given FM new responsibilities, but it has also added "a significant level of complexity", says Jonathan Chadburn, vice-president of the Asset Management Centre of Excellence at courier firm DHL. "For example, in addition to traditional FM requirements, automatic guided systems and robotics, remote monitoring systems, and the growing use of predictive maintenance mean the FM team needs to be far more software-based than they would have traditionally been."
Not all warehouses are fully automated, of course. There are fully automated solutions that you'd expect to find in Amazon fulfilment centres, Stephen Roots, senior FM at retailer Matalan, explains. These use robotic processes to move goods to central distribution points. But more often, there is a hybrid solution of the automated and manual. Roots says Matalan uses conveyor belts and automated vertical and horizontal movement processes as well as physical handpicking of products.
FM's traditional service delivery
Granted, automation may be one of the newer responsibilities of FMs but it is just one of many mission-critical services the function must deliver. As with any site, FMs must ensure that compliance is met and the warehouse runs optimally.
"How FM fits within the logistics environment can vary greatly and depends on the product that is being stored and distributed," says Towse. "When working within a cold chain depot - within the food or pharmaceutical sectors, for example - the control, maintenance and repair of temperature control and refrigeration equipment is a critical component of the FM's role."
Planning cleaning to be delivered around continual warehouse operations is also key. It has to be coordinated with other business operations, says Roots, making FM's collaboration with operational teams essential. For instance, when one warehouse aisle is cleaned, several neighbouring aisles will be cordoned off for health and safety reasons. Scheduling cleaning so as not to affect access to products is important.
Catering is another important consideration. "Staff in warehouses and distribution centres often have physically demanding roles and catering needs to be able to stand up to their requirements," explains Pam Coulson, business director at Atalian Servest.
But FM's responsibilities in distribution centres are varied. Many FM teams oversee de-kitting and handling of loose equipment from trailers and transportation, waste, pick face management, pallet management, snow and ice clearance as well as landscaping, adds Coulson.
At Skygate - The Very Group's new 850,000 square feet fulfilment centre at East Midlands Gateway, which becomes fully operational later this year - the FM team "manages the provision of utilities, waste and recycling, equipment repairs and the management of generators and UPS systems that keep the site running at times of power disruption," explains Phil Hackney, chief operating officer at The Very Group.
FM's role in recruitment and retention of other operational staff in the business has also stepped up from previous years. "For example, the FM team at Skygate has been integral in the creation of a high-quality, 24/7 restaurant and gym, prayer rooms and multi-use games pitch, all of which support the culture we want to create at the site," says Hackney. FM, then, needs to be a "fully integrated partner, working closely with the operations team to jointly deliver the strategy of the business".
FM's relationship with other operational functions
FM reaches into multiple departments within distribution and logistics businesses, making the discipline's famed relationship building a particularly necessary skill. Take security as an example: it's integral to the FM offering in distribution requiring close collaboration with depot operations and stock management teams to stop internal and external theft, Towse explains.
"Security officers often double as gatehouse operatives, not only controlling access but also overseeing the management of visiting vehicles on site. This sees them combine their traditional role with responsibilities more in line with the warehouse's core business - not only checking vehicles on site, but also assigning loading bays, overseeing fleet licence compliance and ensuring the vehicle is heading to the correct location," adds Towse.
At Brammer Buck & Hickman, FM reports directly into operations. "FM is as crucial as any other aspect of an outbound logistics distribution to support the overall business strategy," Luke says. "FM in today's environment is really set up as an enabler
It has an immediate customer, which is the people in the functions and the operations working within the facility.
"My FM team is constantly moving and shifting to make sure that we are able to cope with the demands of our internal and external customers within our business and further afield," Luke says. "If you haven't got FM written in as part of your business strategy, you're certainly heading for a fail."
FM supporting logistics clients must be flexible enough to support business strategy in any direction it needs to travel, be it managing infrastructure projects or upgrading fire and security systems. Towse says: "The ability to quickly adapt ways of working, adapt cost proposals or the size of operations in line with customer needs is critical to ensuring FM supports wider strategy."
Ideally, the FM should be part of the distribution centre's senior management team, "playing an active part in forward planning, development of policy, business continuity and demand planning," Towse adds.
Clients often look at operational tasks independently of each other, Coulson explains. But FM, being fully integrated, "can maximise efficiencies and act as a single point for accountability across multiple services. This means that the client benefits from simplified decision-making, single invoicing, and more efficient service delivery".
"By taking a one-team approach, FM service providers can ensure collaboration between service lines and the wider business in terms of supporting peaks in demand, sharing resources and driving efficiencies. It means we can also work with clients to make the most of upskilling opportunities with a view to retaining employees in an environment known for churn," Coulson concludes.
Managing consumer peaks
The majority of warehouse staff work on shift, resulting in "pinch points during the start and end of shifts, and during break times", Roots explains, affecting welfare facilities and catering provision.
Peak consumer periods also call for FM's flexing powers to accommodate more workers on site. "We look at different shift patterns, working with our ops colleagues, to try and smooth the demand on the facilities over a wider part of the day rather than these key critical half an hour segments," Roots explains.
FM must implement robust measures to manage peak fluctuations. Chadburn says: "In particular the management of security and access to various buildings, as well as the ongoing requirements to ensure all staff are vetted and approved, is essential to ensure smooth running of a facility during a peak."
These peaks in consumer demand and labour requirements also require meticulous PPM. Luke says: "You have to be really aware of those times and more so around how you plan your facilities and maintenance - whether it be downtime repair work or development.
"I've gone through a significant change programme over the last three years, which is seeing changes within the building, within automation and mechanisation; you have to plan all of those changes around peak times and outbound volumes because, ultimately, you have to do it while still maintaining BAU." He says FM is fast becoming the same as IT: "People just expect it to work."
Team structures and required skills
How logistics organisations structure their FM teams, and the extent to which they outsource services, varies considerably.
"I know examples where it's completely in-house," says Roots. "It depends on the complexity of the assets. So if you've got a large automated system, then generally those are supported by third parties, by the manufacturers on a design-build-maintain basis.
"I have a facilities manager responsible for my distribution centres. He has shift supervisors and shift technicians, and the shift supervisors also coordinate and work and manage the third parties while they're on site on both a reactive and planned basis.
"When my shift supervisors aren't on site, in the event of emergency, there's a call-out process, but the operations manager of the warehouse is also given training and authority to carry out and supervise - such as signing off risk assessments and method statements. But there is always support for those individuals."
At Brammer Buck & Hickman, maintenance of automated infrastructure used to be handled by a third-party logistics partner, but Luke brought this responsibility in-house to reduce callout costs and lead times. His team is available 24 hours a day to deal with any breakdowns. He's also looking to add more skills to his in-house team such as hard-lining and patchwork, as well as cabinet-moving capabilities.
Upskilling is key. Luke regularly sends his team on courses with a view to bolstering skills to move away from an over-reliance on external contracts.
The short-term impact on cost pales compared with long-term gains in cost-efficiency, he says. Businesses are looking at where they can cut costs, and boost margins and overall profitability.
A third-party logistics partner is only valuable if it can deliver expertise or access to technology or geography that the organisation cannot do alone, Luke argues. But he's confident about the skills mix in FM to deal with current demands. There are the established engineers familiar with older equipment and younger workers with unique problem-solving capabilities and open minds, along with the taste for modern tech and monitoring tools. The latter is essential as PPM grows in significance to ensure business continuity.
Upskilling isn't only about improving operational expertise. Atalian Servest launched a learning and development service called Opportunity, which trains clients' staff in courses for career progression and basic skills such as our maths and English. "These initiatives help create a positive environment and contribute to a people focused culture that is vital for businesses today," Coulson says.
An area that all FMs could focus on is improving safety. Modern distribution centres are bigger, with an increasing range of activities happening inside of them. Employee safety thus becomes a more complex requirement.
"Ensuring all staff members are fully trained on these safety protocols, whether that's on slips and trips, or materials handling, is imperative, as is having nominated individuals acting as marshals in the event of an issue like a fire," Chadburn says. "In addition, the greater volume of employees has practical implications in the event of an evacuation, as more time needs to be allowed to ensure all staff are accounted for."
Energy and social initiatives
The scale of distribution centres makes them prime candidates for on-site renewable power generation. The obvious consideration is solar power panels across their large and low-angled roofs, which are ideal for PV panels. For new-builds, there will be an additional cost to reinforce the roofs to be strong enough to hold the panels. Older warehouse facilities are unlikely be able to retrofit solar panels because of weak roofs, says Luke.
There is also the option of wind turbines, which Luke says would be valuable at the very large-scale facilities that are equipped with a rail hub. Charging points for electric vehicles is another effective focus point.
Essentially warehouse operators are looking to maximise demand-side response - on-site energy generation and battery storage allows business owners to reduce their consumption from the grid during peak hours and rather consume from the grid at cheaper rates.
"Offsetting carbon footprint is no longer good enough. You've got to prevent that usage in the first place," says Luke.
There are also opportunities for distribution centres to incorporate social value initiatives. This usually happens before and during the building process, says Coulson, by "hiring contractors who commit to supporting local initiatives, making green space available, paying the national living wage and focusing on energy and sustainability performance".
"But there is still a lot FMs can do to promote special value once buildings are built. Warehouses and distribution centres tend to be out of town and any efforts the business can make in supporting green travel, such as encouraging cycle-to-work plans, ensuring electric car chargers are available and incentivising car sharing, can have a big impact on society," Coulson adds.
Matt Luke, head of logistics at Brammer Buck & Hickman
Phil Hackney, chief operating officer at The Very Group
Jonathan Chadburn, vice-president, Asset Management Centre of Excellence at DHL
Steve Roots, senior FM at Matalan
Jason Towse, managing director, business services at Mitie
Pam Coulson, business director at Atalian Servest