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

Schaefer Systems International: 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.

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, a business 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% 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.” 

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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