If you read everything written about warehousing elsewhere in this issue, you will almost certainly believe that digitisation, automation and mechanisation are the norm across the industry. If what happens at the warehouse or fulfillment center level could be taken as representative of the situation even inside smaller sorting centers and delivery stations, we would only find robots picking up items for despatch, robotic cleaners vrooming between aisles, warehouse workers checking off tasks from digital checklists on their handheld devices, and no pens or paper anywhere in sight.
This is part of the truth, but not the whole truth. While it is true that warehousing and e-commerce giants have successfully introduced modern technology in their larger facilities, in many ways, their smaller facilities are still operating as they did a couple of decades ago. Technology is trickling down to them, but not quickly enough.
Mrigank Warrier, Assistant Editor, Clean India Journal spoke with an FM source in a leading e-commerce portal, about FM at the last-mile delivery center level. This person chose to remain anonymous (Let us call him ‘Mr Hero’). Why? Read on to find out.
The gentleman who shall remain nameless oversees facility management at scores of delivery stations. While warehouses and sorting centers form the first mile of the delivery chain, delivery stations are where packages are stored before they are sent out for final delivery to the customer.
These Delivery Stations (DSs) vary in area from 20,000-40,000 square feet (large DS) to 8,000-15,000 square feet (small DS). Considering the stratospheric growth of e-commerce and the urban density of Indian cities alone, one can imagine how numerous such facilities must be and the total area they occupy. And remember, every product ordered online must pass through them; the conditions inside have a direct influence on the state of the packages received by customers.
First, the good news
Warehouses are notorious for being hot, stuffy places that can adversely affect workers’ health. The person I spoke with said, “We strictly monitor heat. Based on this and on the physical design of a DS, we have put in tower ACs, air washers or just normal air coolers.”
The operations layout has changed too. Specially crafted two-metre separators have been introduced to maintain distancing. Even the pantry has been reconfigured to have smaller tables that can seat fewer people, accommodating separators in their design.
Single disc machines are deployed for floor cleaning at small DSs while ride-on or walk-behind machines are available at large DSs.
ULV misting is also regularly done. Depending upon the DS’s load and area, the frequency varies from daily, weekly to fortnightly. This must be based on the principle that the virus is particularly aggressive in high-load DSs but is cooperative and restful in the not-so-busy ones.
Whimsical cleaning SOPS
Storage facilities tend to have higher-than-usual walls and ceilings. Elsewhere in the supply chain, specialised service providers use boom lifts and automated machines to perform this dangerous cleaning service. My informant told me, “Large DSs have scaffolding, from where we use tiltable brooms for cleaning the roof”.
Let me break this down for you. What this means is that human beings are clambering onto metal framework that props up the roof and using tools to brush cobwebs off the ceiling. How safe this is and how much of the roof is accessible for cleaning is anybody’s guess.
Regarding wall cleaning, he said that it is done upto a minimum height of 15 feet. “Some small stations have high ceilings, so we don’t clean there as such”, he said. Enough said.
But wait, there is more. The most touched surfaces in a DS are the trolleys on which packages are rolled in and out of the facility by delivery associates. How are they cleaned? With a cloth. By hand. What cloth? Nobody knows. They are planning to use a portable vacuum cleaner for the same soon.
High-tech only for higher levels
“There is no automation or digitisation in warehouse FM at the DS level. This is done only at the first-mile”. This is how bluntly he put it.
Since he is responsible for housekeeping at multiple sites, all of which is outsourced, he would like to see a digitised attendance platform. “But we have given that burden to the housekeeping agency itself. They are still working on it, maybe”.
Then he dropped another truth bomb. None of the DSs has a housekeeping supervisor. Consequently, there is no way to track cleaning at any site. Someone visits each center once a week and ticks items of a physical checklist to make sure cleaning is being done. What the state of the facility is on the remaining six days of the week is the stuff that housekeepers’ nightmares are made of.
I leave you with one final fact he shared. “We have introduced air purifiers at every DS”. Wonderful! “But these are only for the conference room”.
It is not my intention to single out my source and castigate him for the state of affairs. He is only operating within the boundaries set for him by higher-ups, who are clearly more interested in FM at ‘showpiece’ warehouse facilities and least concerned at what happens lower down the logistics chain.
Meanwhile, workers suffer.