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?

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By Bob Trebilcock · February 24, 2011

In August, sister magazine Modern Materials Handling featured Office Depot’s new distribution center in Newville, Pa., on the cover. At the heart of the DC is an integrated piece-picking solution that combines mobile robots for high-density storage and conveyance; light-directed picking to ensure that the associate picks the right item; and a high-speed conveyor and sortation system to get the product to the packing zone.

While this level of automation has been common on high-speed assembly lines for years, it represents a new level of sophistication in distribution. Although the technology allows Office Depot to get a significant amount of throughput from a relatively small labor force, labor savings within the four walls of the DC wasn’t the primary driver behind choosing a highly automated system.

Rather, the solution represents a broader supply chain play; it is an enabling technology that will allow Office Depot to completely retool the way inventory is replenished at the stores serviced by that DC. “We believe that the future belongs to the brave,” Brent Beabout, Office Depot’s vice president of global network strategy and transportation, told Modern. “We are in a commodity business and the supply chain is a differentiator. We plan to be on the front end of that.”

That is a different way to view materials handling automation, particularly in distribution, where the historical approach to system justification was based on a reduction in head count. It got us to thinking: Is Office Depot unique? Or, is something changing in the way the user community looks at automation today? Does the future belong to the brave when it comes to automated materials handling?

Following is what 10 industry leaders had to say about the state of materials handling automation today.

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About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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