Small Warehouse Layout: How to Design a Small Space

A small warehouse layout is challenging to make efficient, but by focusing on the “3 F Process”, you can make the most of a tight space.

A successful warehouse layout has a direct impact on your bottom line. An efficient space can save you time and money, while a poorly designed one can cost you both. If you’re running a small operation, though, you might not have the luxury of a lot of space to work with. Here are some tips for making the most of what you have.

A small warehouse space

Start With Our Warehouse Layout Guide

Have you read our guide about warehouse layout? If not, then jump over there first before following the steps below.

Table of Contents

The "Three Fs" in Small Warehouse Layout

When considering how to layout your small warehouse space, I find it easy to break down the components into 3 easy to remember aspects. These are the “three F’s” of small warehouse design:

Function: Understand The Main Use of the Warehouse Space

There are many types of warehouses and many types of activities that occur in warehouses. These include things like kitting, cross-docking, storage, assembly, manufacturing, basic storage, and more. Different kinds of activities require different workflows, equipment, and overall layouts. So, before determining the right layout for your small warehouse, you first need to get clear about what functions you will perform.

Form: Measure the Available Space

You need to know how much volume of usable space you have to work within your warehouse. In a small warehouse layout, every cubic inch of space is valuable.

To do this, you first need to know the total volume of the warehouse. You can find this by multiplying the length by the width in feet. This value is your total square feet. Then, multiple the total square feet by the ceiling height clearance. The resulting value gives you the total cubic volume of your warehouse floor plan. From here, you can subtract the space devoted to other activities such as office space, bathrooms, or other areas.

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Pallet Storage Capacity Calculator

The pallet storage capacity calculator quickly determines the total number of pallets your warehouse can store based on rack configuration.

Figure Out Density Requirements

Once you know exactly how much space is available in your small warehouse, you can figure out how densely packed it needs to be. Not all racks are created equal and different configurations can hold more or less storage in the same amount of space. For example, a gravity flow rack can usually store a lot more pallets in the same space as a standard rack with standard aisle widths.

Square Feet Consumption Per Pallet
Pallets High
6' Aisle

Pallets Deep

9.5' Aisle
13' Aisle

The data above assumes standard 40″ x 48″ pallet dimensions, 96″ long load beams, and 4″ uprights. A 25% common-area allowance, and an average 85% warehouse utilization has been added to the pallet dimension calculations to reflect real-world warehouse requirements.

Consider Necessary Equipment

Once you have an idea of what kind of storage density you need for your small warehouse, then you should have a better picture of the right equipment to meet that need. Examples of typical equipment include storage racks and shelves, material handling tools (e.g. pallet trucks and forklifts) packaging stations, packing materials, and security systems. Depending on the type of material you store, or specific services, you may also need specialized types of equipment. These can include specialized racks or climate-controlled storage.

A great example of storage density leading to the requirement of specialized equipment is specified racking type and aisle width. Smaller aisle widths allow for more racking to exist in the same amount of space. However, the smaller aisle also limits the amount of traffic that can move between the racks. Additionally, a different type of forklift is necessary to pick pallets in smaller aisles. Sometimes these adjustments limit the carrying capacity or maximum reachable height of machinery.

Example of good shipping area design and flow

Flow: Establish Clear Material Flow

As illustrated in our warehouse layout article, establishing good flow is a critical part of designing an efficient warehouse. This is even more important in a small warehouse. The reason for this is that small warehouses tend to suffer from more bottlenecks and congestion due to the lack of extra walkway space. Therefore, small warehouses must spend extra time considering how material moves and look for strategies to remove bottlenecks wherever possible.

Generally speaking, the material should flow from the receiving area in one direction into storage. From the storage area, it should move in one direction to the shipping or outbound area.

Adopt a Picking Strategy

To gain the most efficiency in your small warehouse space as possible, you will need to choose the right picking method. Each of the 4 main types has its advantage and disadvantage, so it depends largely upon what kind of products and the total number of orders in your business. Here are the main 4 types:

Implement a Digital Control System

A warehouse management system (WMS) and a warehouse control system (WCS) will greatly simplify managing your small warehouse layout. When you rely upon manual record-keeping, a few problems arise. First, it can take an extensive amount of time to keep track of changes in inventory or other processes. Second, errors can easily creep in due to a lack of input control and human variation.

A WMS clears up these two concerns with digital inventory management and a process system that is controlled by software. A good WMS will look for the most efficient way to perform a task, whether it’s the route a worker takes from a pick list or the flow of material through the warehouse. It also relieves warehouse management teams from manually tracking data which reduces or eliminates costly errors.

Implement Continual Improvement (Lean) Practices

Lean warehousing is a 5 tiered approach to continually optimizing your warehouse processes. Lean is all about streamlining processes and shedding unnecessary components along the way. Applying lean principles to supply chain management eliminates activities that bring nothing of value to the table and focuses on improving efficiency without compromising output quality. The result? A faster, more profitable process!

It’s hard to understate how vital this is for a small warehouse layout. While larger facilities may have some room to expand and contract various segments, a small warehouse does not. Thus, it’s vital to eliminate unnecessary activities in favor of the greater priority.

warehouse staff being trained on proper use of workspace equipment and equipment storage

Don't Ignore Safety

The bottom line about warehouse safety is that it tends to require more space to properly ensure. For example, establishing walking lanes vs. forklift lanes adds additional room that may not be readily available in a small warehouse. So the temptation is to de-emphasize safety concerns to increase capacity. Do not do this! Not only are there ethical concerns with ignoring safety measures, but losing an employee to injuries (or worse) significantly reduces the throughput of your operations. This is especially true in a small warehouse.

Safety should always be the priority in any warehouse – small or large. The good news is, ensuring safety doesn’t mean that you need to significantly limit the capacity of your space. However, it does require the devotion of some amount of space to properly implement.

Summary: Designing a Small Warehouse Layout

When designing a small warehouse space, remember the 3 main factors: Function, Form, and Flow. Creating a warehouse space can be challenging, but by taking the time to plan and consider these factors, you’ll ensure the long-term efficient operation of your small warehouse.

Small Warehouse FAQ

The key considerations when designing a small warehouse layout include the main function of the warehouse, the size and shape of the warehouse space, and the flow of material through the warehouse. Other important things to consider are things like the type of material handling equipment that will be used, the number of staff required to manage and maintain operations, and the safety and security needs of the facility.

To ensure efficient storage and retrieval of goods in a small warehouse setting, you must first determine what kind of storage infrastructure (racking, etc.) is best suited for your type of materials. For example, it may be more beneficial to use vertical solutions such as shelves or racks instead of horizontal ones. Efficient storage requires careful planning and organization, such as labeling all items clearly and ensuring there is appropriate aisle space for easy access. Finally, automated systems such as barcode scanners and warehouse management systems can significantly increase efficiency for the storage and retrieval of goods in a small warehouse setting.

There are several types of shelving or racking systems that can be used for a small warehouse layout. These include fixed systems with horizontal shelves made from metal or wood as well as adjustable systems such as pallet racks. These adjustable systems have horizontal beams that can accommodate different sizes and weights of items. Another type of shelving or racking system is a type of mobile system which can move around the warehouse for different uses.

The safety measures that should be taken when designing a small warehouse layout include staff training, clearly marking barriers or hazards, and installing adequate lighting and ventilation. A comprehensive fire safety plan should also be in place that includes smoke alarms, sprinklers, and a well-maintained fire extinguisher system.

You can optimize the workflow in a small warehouse environment by starting with an overview diagram of the space. Starting with the receiving area, trace the flow of material as it enters the docks, through storage, and finally the outbound shipping area. This basic step should allow you to identify any areas that could use improvement either by allocating more space or shifting the arrangement so that congestion is reduced or eliminated. Automated technologies such as robotics are costly, but greatly help optimize the workflow of a small warehouse.

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