Why Does Material Handling Need to Embrace Automation?

The widespread adoption of data-driven technologies, like IoT and machine learning, not only enhances productivity and efficiency but also introduces new and more advanced opportunities for automation. Material handling automation, for example, can vastly improve the logistics and supply chain industry.

As the supply chain goes digital, it’s imperative that any parties involved in its maintenance and development sign on for the newer technologies, especially automation. Why? Because the more open the adoption, and the wider it stretches, the bigger the benefits achieved.

The most important question, then, is what can automation provide, or more specifically, what can material handling automation do for the greater industry?

Better Safety

It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about hazardous materials that are unsafe to touch or be around directly or just heavy materials that are not safe to handle with bare hands. There are conditions where material handling is just not ideal.

Automation is an excellent way to mitigate manual labor and handling processes, specifically with the help of robotics and automated machinery. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs), for example, can hold and transport heavy goods and equipment around a facility, freeing up the hands of workers and keeping them safe from injury.

More importantly, it’s not that the robots are designed to replace their human counterparts, but instead work alongside them to aid in dangerous and difficult tasks.

These kinds of robots are called collaborative robots, or cobots, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Pallet trucks and lifts can automatically handle heavy goods or get them down from high places. Smart shelving units can shuffle around and reorganize inventory. Smart picking robots can help find customer orders, inventory items, or even other assets — like equipment and tools.

More Effective Operations

Faster time to market, through various process improvements, is always something that materials handling and supply chain companies are looking to achieve. The data that comes with smarter and more contextual automation systems can make that happen. Not to mention, the actual hardware offers experience and performance boosts of its own.

Production lines were developed during the industrial revolution to speed up manufacturing, supply chain activities, and other operations. Automation has the potential to revolutionize the method again, only with the help of data-driven and robotic-process solutions.

Imagine the truck unloading process, for example. Traditionally, manual laborers might move goods off the truck to nearby pallets, onto conveyors, and so on. But with automation, bots can do the work, faster, and more effectively than ever before. They’re also safer and don’t tire or wear down even after repeated use. They can also work under hostile conditions like hot temperatures or with minimal lighting, with little to no effect on performance.

Support for automated operations technology is growing. According to a Deloitte survey, 38% of supply chain leaders and material handling companies plan to use robotics and automation to improve operations, while 23% are planning to implement related technologies over the next one to two years.

Operations Modeling

One of the neat things about automation and data-driven solutions is that they inherently create new opportunities just by being more efficient than alternate methods. When you have a warehouse or facility that’s optimized for efficiency, there are many new ways to lay out or structure the inside.

Limitations that might have existed because of manual laborers are no longer in place. You can stack goods extremely high, for example, with automated devices that can get them down safely and quickly.

This opens up the possibility to create entirely new and effective facilities through advanced modeling, or what is effectively a smart design simulation. You can use the technology to create the perfect warehouse by fine-tuning layouts, fixtures, and other elements to allow a much faster workflow.

By design, automation is at the heart of this process, and it’s integral to achieving success and creating a truly optimized facility.

Improved Quality Controls

Material handling automation can facilitate faster operations and processes, but it can also be used to improve existing ones — such as goods inspections and quality control assessments.

Imagine, for a moment, a machine learning system designed to pick up on various triggers and patterns to near-instantly pinpoint goods or packaging damage. A fast-moving operation can continue its forward momentum, while the quality control system picks less-than-nominal items out of the lineup.

There is precedent for such a thing, as data scientists and machine learning developers are already coming up with the kinds of algorithms needed to make quality control an automated system.

Preventive Care

Both in conventional material handling and automated material handling, there’s a lot of equipment and machinery involved. That gear requires maintenance, like topping up fluids, replacing belts and components, checking temperatures, and much more.

Automation can be used to speed up this care, but also streamline and better organize tasks. IoT sensors, for example, can tell maintenance crews when the equipment needs servicing, well before it breaks down or experiences a failure. Connected devices can also send out mobile alerts and notifications to keep everyone tuned in about what’s happening. Asset tracking is also possible to monitor what’s being used, and where.

All of these various preventive care opportunities create an optimized network and a well-oiled machine that sees minor delays, if at all.

Automation Is the Key to Optimal Efficiency

Modern digital technologies and connected devices — such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) — are making it possible to streamline and automate more tasks than ever before.

The result is a highly effective, always-on, and always-ready material handling automation system that’s safer for workers, incredibly fast, and unnaturally precise. That alone leads to many benefits in the supply chain field, such as improved quality control, more and better access to data, faster time to market, preventive care opportunities, and higher customer or client satisfaction with greater output.

Any way you cut it, or automate it, the technology is going to play a key role in optimizing industry efficiency going forward.

Emily NewtonEmily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over 3 years covering stories about warehousing, logistics and distribution.

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