Big Picture: The state of automation

More companies are looking to materials handling automation to improve processes and lower operating costs. Modern asked 10 leading systems integrators what the future of automation might look like.

Conveyor and sortation systems are using software and controls to manage the flow of goods while distributing work in a way that eliminates bottlenecks.

By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
May 01, 2012 - MMH Editorial

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 sectors posted impressive year-over-year growth numbers. The Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA) is anticipating 12% 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. Each is among Modern’s list of the Top 20 systems suppliers from our April issue.

Daifuku Webb: Simplify automation, optimize operations
Daifuku Webb’s traditional customer base in North America has been manufacturing. In that space, manufacturers are changing their approach toward automation, says Ralph Mills, director of integrated systems. That is especially true of automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), as more manufacturers replace lift trucks and conveyors.

Mills attributes the renewed interest in AGVs in part to the introduction of the automatic guided cart, a stripped-down, lighter duty AGV that follows magnetic tape for navigation. “The automatic cart lowered the price of entry for AGV technology,” says Mills. “While magnetic tape was initially viewed as a step back, it simplified the creation of a guidepath. Move the tape, and the vehicle will follow it.” According to Mills, Daifuku Webb alone produced more than 600 automatic carts last year.

Although labor is the traditional justification for automation, Mills believes that material flow is emerging as an important consideration by companies considering automation. “Customers are justifying automation within the four walls of the warehouse based on downstream labor savings,” Mills says. “If a food and beverage distributor can use AGVs to load a trailer in the delivery sequence and maximize the payload, that can deliver downstream savings that are far greater than the labor savings in the warehouse.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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