Materials Handling Technology: Toy or Tool?

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Consider all the options when deciding what materials handling technology works for your operation.

Automating processes in the distribution center, when done properly, solves physical and business problems at the same time, says Jim Apple, partner with The Progress Group, a supply chain systems consulting company based in Atlanta.

There are many materials handling options to choose from. Deciding which is best for your facility begins with understanding the different levels of technology.

"Mechanization means using a machine to perform or help perform a physical task, while automation implies the use of intelligence regarding the business process," Apple explains.

For example, a mechanized process can send a bar-coded tote from one place in the warehouse to another as long as someone decides where they want to send it. An automated system, on the other hand, can determine whether to send a carton to reserve, to the pick face, or to a consolidation point.

What's available?

While the number of companies that have highly automated warehouses with all the bells and whistles is relatively small, many distribution centers can benefit from implementing some level of automation. Here's a look at some available options.

Receiving. "A typical receiving process has a lot of staging steps, and takes up a lot of space," Apple says. If you receive less-than-pallet quantities, installing a sortation system to automate receiving can help minimize travel time and reduce staging space. The sortation system can facilitate crossdocking, or enable you to receive and route cartons to where they'll be put away—whether to reserve storage or the picking area.

Storage. Options include palletload automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), miniload systems, and carousels. "The classic miniload used to be one with a 24-inch x 28-inch load tray or pan," Apple says.

Tote-based systems, which can handle more loads, are becoming the norm. "Some tote-based systems actually store cartons directly on a shelf or in a rack, and you don't have to put the product onto a standardized platform to put it away," he says.

Order picking offers the option of "having a person go to get the product or bringing the product to the person," Apple says. "If you bring the product to the person, you can create a workstation with good ergonomic features, which should raise productivity." Delivering cartons to workers at workstations allows them to pick orders in a minimum amount of time.

Carousels take the product to the worker. "You can take product out of the carousel, route it to a workstation, then put the rest of the product back in the carousel," according to Apple. Carousels can also be used as a staging or buffering device, sequencing and holding orders until they are ready to be shipped.

A-frames dispense product and are capable of picking a high number of orders in a short amount of time, perhaps 2,000 orders an hour. A-frames, which deliver fast response time but are fairly inflexible, work well for products such as cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, that are small and capable of being dispensed, Apple notes.

Conveyors can route cartons or totes through order picking zones, then route the container to a consolidation or packing station. "One popular approach is to batch pick from the zones for 20 to 100 orders—as many as you can conveniently work on at one work station," Apple says. The order picker picks merchandise for all the orders into a container, then sends it to a workstation to be sorted into individual orders.

"This is an inexpensive level of automation that has wide application," says Apple.

Tilt-tray systems can pick large numbers of products, dump them on a conveyor, induct them on a tilt-tray sorter, and send them down chutes to a packer. It takes a high unit-picking volume to justify one of these expensive systems, Apple says. They work well in high-volume, consumer-direct operations.

Think Creatively

Which material handling options are right for you depend on the characteristics of your operation. No matter what types of products and orders you have, think creatively when considering material handling technology, Apple advises. It may require a shift in your mindset.

"We are used to lots of space, big footprint facilities, and few limits on space such as employee parking lots," notes Arthur Van Bodegraven, also a partner with The Progress Group, Atlanta. "We live in an age of throughput as opposed to cube utilization."

As a result, he says, "we don't want to spend money on materials handling equipment that often doesn't use the last 10 feet of clear height."

In Europe, things are different. "Europe just doesn't have the land areas, for example, that the United States has to throw at warehousing challenges," says Van Bodegraven.

In addition, "Americans always wants lots of flexibility," whereas Europeans are more willing to standardize, Apple notes. As a result, Americans tend to have a bias against warehouse automation, while Europeans have more of a bias for automation, he says.

The constraints that European companies have long addressed with materials handling automation—such as space and high labor costs—"will catch up to us eventually," Van Bodegraven says. "Ultimately, we'll have to face up to it."

To prepare, he advises, logistics managers should start educating themselves about automation. "Think about where and how automation might make sense in your operation," he says. "While we can't adopt European models overnight, we can learn some lessons about intelligently applying automation." European companies, he says, "have plowed a lot of ground ahead of us."

There's a lot to be said for looking at how automation works for them.

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