Subscribe to our free, weekly email newsletter!


How automation improves warehousing and materials handling

More companies are looking to materials handling automation to improve processes, streamline shipping operations, and lower supply chain operating costs. We asked 10 leading systems integrators what the future of automation holds in store.
image

Goods-to-person solutions deliver slow- and medium-movers to a workstation for picking, minimizing the time an associate spends walking.

By Bob Trebilcock, Editor at Large
June 01, 2012

Something is happening in the world of materials handling automation. Just look at the numbers. While the industry has not yet recovered to its pre-recession peaks, both the conveyor and automatic guided vehicle (AGV) sectors posted impressive year-over-year growth numbers. In fact, the Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA) is anticipating 12 percent growth in 2012.

But it’s not just the numbers. Mainstream business publications, like the Wall Street Journal, have written stories about automation projects at a Sunny Delight beverage plant in Massachusetts and a Stihl chainsaw factory in Newport News, Va. AT&T has run a national commercial highlighting lift trucks that operate without drivers.

What’s behind the interest in automation? And, what might the future of automation look like based on the products and solutions in development today? To find out, we posed those two questions to 10 leading materials handling automation and integrated systems suppliers. Here’s what they had to say.

Moving toward lights-out automation
Manufacturing has been moving toward lights-out automation for years­—that’s a factory that operates with minimal human intervention. Distribution systems are now moving in that direction as well, says Ross Halket, director of automated systems for Schaefer Systems International.

“We are implementing systems where pallets are automatically put away into storage and are then de-layered, singulated, and stacked in sequence on a pallet that is then transported to a place where it will be picked up by a lift truck,” says Halket. “With piece picking, we are working on vision-guided robots.” Schaefer only has two piece-picking robotic systems running, he adds, but it is working with partners to refine the technology.


Goods-to-Person Order Fulfillment: The Multi-Channel Retailing Effect

Thursday, June 28, 2012 | 12 PM ET

Register for this FREE virtual conference session to learn Which methods leading retailers are using to address new sales channels.



Halket believes at least four trends are behind the demand for more complex, automated solutions.

The first is that the cost of automation has come down, putting it in reach of more end users. “In the wholesale pharmaceuticals industry, a company automated when they reached $1 billion a year in sales or 25,000 lines picked a day,” Halket says. “Today, that industry can justify automation with $500 million in sales and 14,000 lines a day.”

The second is the variability of the workforce. “In places like Calgary, Edmonton and Alberta, everyone goes to work in the oil fields when the price of oil goes past $100 a barrel,” Halket says. “Automation is being used in places like that to stabilize the workforce.”

A third is the absolute need for accuracy. “The cost of handling an inaccurate order is pretty high,” Halket says. “If you ship 13,000 cartons a day with a 94 percent accuracy rate, you’re re-handling about 780 cartons a day because of mistakes. That’s pretty expensive.”

Finally, it’s about space. “Just finding space close to a major urban area is pretty hard these days if you need to put down a 1-million-square-foot warehouse,” he says. “A compressed footprint is a greener facility.” 

Smaller and more frequent deliveries
Mike Khodl, vice president for solution development for Dematic North America, sees a market in which automation with a higher level of complexity as a normal part of the solution is increasing compared to where we were as recently as two to three years ago.

Like his competitors, Khodl attributes the interest in robotics, mini-load automated storage and retrieval systems and shuttles to the explosive demand for piece picking. And while e-commerce is a major character in that story, so is the demand for smaller and more frequent deliveries to store fronts, especially in urban areas.

“If a store is getting a pallet, it’s a mixed pallet. Instead of a case, it’s getting a tote with eaches. And they’re loading the trailer in the reverse order of the stops so they can sequence the deliveries,” says Khodl. That, he adds, assumes that a retailer is even sending out a full trailer. Increasingly, retailers are going to smaller trucks and vans because of congestion in urban areas. “All of that requires more touches in the distribution center, which means we have to find new ways to be more efficient to reduce costs,” says Khodl.

What will drive automation in the future? Khodl thinks urban congestion will play a major role. “By 2020, there will be 20 mega cities on the planet with 20 million people,” he says. “If Los Angeles, Cairo, New York, London, Frankfurt, Dubai, and Shanghai are all mega cities, how are we doing to do distribution into those cities?”

The answer, he adds, is that distribution will have to be space-saving, efficient, and use as little labor as possible. “We’ll have to put facilities near these cities, which means that land and labor is going to be expensive,” Khodl says. “And, in an e-commerce world, that’s going to mean more piece-picking solutions. I think we’re just seeing the tip of that iceberg.”

About the Author

image
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)


Subscribe to Logistics Management magazine

Subscribe today. It's FREE!
Get timely insider information that you can use to better manage your
entire logistics operation.
Start your FREE subscription today!

Recent Entries

The Department of Commerce reported that January retail sales were up 0.2 percent compared to December and up 3.7 percent annually at $449.9 billion, and the NRF reported that January retail sales, which exclude automobiles, gas stations, and restaurants, rose 0.6 percent over December and 1.4 percent compared to January 2015.

On the freight shipments side, Cass reported that January shipments––at 1.025––trailed December by 1.3 percent and January 2016 by 0.2 percent. These declines were less than the 4.9 percent drop from November to December, though, and January shipments still topped the 1.0 mark for the 65th straight month in December.

The Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reported this week that its Freight Transportation Services Index (TSI) saw a 0.4 percent decline from November to December, its second straight decline on the heels of a 1.0 percent decrease from October to November.

Carloads saw a 11.7 percent annual decline at 241,680, and intermodal containers and trailers rose 10.5 percent to 262,830

An amendment to the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea convention will go into effect requiring all shippers (importers and exporters) to certify and submit the Verified Gross Mass – the combined weight of the cargo and the container – to the steamship line and terminal operator in advance of loading the container aboard a vessel.

Comments

Post a comment
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.


© Copyright 2016 Peerless Media LLC, a division of EH Publishing, Inc • 111 Speen Street, Ste 200, Framingham, MA 01701 USA