The roots of the modern high-density warehouse can be traced back to the invention of the narrow-aisle turret truck. Rather than having to turn to point its forks into the racks like a standard lift truck, the turret truck always faces down the aisle and only uses its pivoting and extending forks to reach into the racks. The resulting economies of motion and space increase storage and retrieval rates (pallets per truck per hour) dramatically, and because the aisle widths are much smaller (6 versus 12 feet), the critical ratio of rack volume to building volume goes up by nearly half. The racks also can be much taller, and because the trucks must be steered by rails or guide wires, the safety and orderliness of the entire operation is greatly improved.
First introduced to North America in the early 1970s by Harry Halket of the British firm Lansing-Bagnall, this radical innovation is still driving the construction of the high-bay, high-speed, high-density warehouses that make modern product distribution and retailing possible.
There was just one hitch. Weight and stability considerations required the trucks’ axles to be hard with no springs or shocks. So for the system to run at full speed, the floor had to be much flatter and more level than existing construction technology could produce—or even measure and specify for that matter. The ineffectual old “1/8 inch in 10 feet” straightedge spec was the best the concrete flooring industry had to offer, and not surprisingly, there were a number of spectacular early failures, and lawsuits, where new floors were so bad that trucks could not make it down the aisles without hitting the racks.
At about the same time, the worldwide market for oil tankers collapsed and with it the need for a new commercial shipyard under development on the island of Curacao. These events led this entrepreneur-minded graduate of Webb Institute to pull the plug on my shipbuilding career and return to Norfolk in 1975 to join my father, Sam Face, in Tidewater Flooring Systems—the family’s concrete floor coating and topping business.
Within just a few months the new father/son team was approached by Art Robinson of Western Electric to go to Montgomery, Ala., to repair the floor in his brand new and inoperable 23-acre narrow-aisle distribution center. Upon inspection, the elevation differences across the 52-inch-wide load-wheel tracks in all the aisles were found routinely to exceed 3/4 inch, so that whenever the operators tried to drive trucks above crawl speed, the mast tops even when fully collapsed would sway side-to-side far enough to strike the uprights. That the current warehouse construction industry could fail so completely on so large a scale proved to be an even more profound career changer.
Much to Art Robinson’s relief and Harry Halket’s excitement, we were able eventually to engineer a technique for overlaying the aisles with an acrylic cement topping flat and level enough to permit the trucks to operate at full speed. Halket’s enthusiasm was prophetic: “The concrete floors in these new buildings are never flat enough, but now that you can fix them, I’ll get you all the work you can do.” And he did.
From the outset, however, our bustling new corrective topping business was oddly conceived, because its future success would depend upon the never-ending incompetence of the original concrete floor installers. It became obvious that rather than waiting for another warehouse disaster, a technology should be devised that could ensure the adequacy of the original concrete floor construction. In 1977, the Edward W. Face Co. (named for my grandfather’s grandfather) was born, and it developed the Face Floor Profileograph, the Superflat Concrete Floor, and the F-min System. More about each of those in the next two columns.