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The State of Automation

Technology and innovation inside the four walls are changing the face of inventory management and transportation operations. Are you ready for the brave, new world?
By Bob Trebilcock, Editor at Large
February 24, 2011

While labor remains the No. 1 reason for automation, several other variables are entering into the ROI justification.

One of those is flexibility, says Bill Casey, president and chief operating officer for SI Systems. “We have manufacturing customers that want the ability to pick a solution up and take their investment with them if they need to expand or move their operations,” Casey says. That is leading to an emphasis on technologies like automatic guided vehicles and carts in manufacturing rather than traditional conveyor or overhead handling systems that were bolted to the floor. “If something changes, they can reprogram the AGV or cart, or if they move, they can load it onto the back of a truck and set it up at a new location,” Casey says.

In fact, the market for AGVs has never been stronger, and not just among manufacturers. “There are whole new markets out there for AGV systems,” says Mark Longacre, marketing manager for JBT Corp. and chair of the Automatic Guided Vehicle Systems group at the Material Handling Industry of America. “The cost of the units has come down, software has made them easier and more intuitive to use in the warehouse, and they are capable of handling different scenarios than they did in the past.” Longacre points out that in addition to transporting pallets or product from one workstation to another, AGVs routinely put away and retrieve pallets from drive-through and push back rack systems and even load trucks in some distribution scenarios.

Flexible automation also allows end users to scale their solutions as needs change.

“We have designed a fully automated robotic workstation with palletizing and stretch wrapping,” says System Logistics’ Coyne. “But we have a customer in Europe who implemented the system with manual palletizing to start, with the idea of installing a robot in 2011.”

Similarly, TGW has developed a pallet-building solution that combines automation with manual palletizing. In this solution, a conveyor delivers a carton to a workstation at an ergonomic level. The operator, rather than a robot or software system, determines how best to build the pallet. Once a layer is built, the operator steps on a footswitch that lowers the load for the next layer; at the same time a stretch wrapper automatically wraps that layer. “The idea is to flush as much of the materials handling out of the system as makes sense, while still having the flexibility to easily build a pallet in a certain way,” says Strayhorn.

Looking for automation

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Editor at Large

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484 and .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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