Automation Innovation

Automation Innovation

Innovations in materials handling solutions help cut costs and boost accuracy in the supply chain.

When Magid, a manufacturer and distributor of personal protective equipment, consolidated several warehouses in Chicago to a single facility outside the city, management "took advantage of the clean sheet of paper to look for ways to use automation to drive productivity, improve order cycle time, and be more efficient," says Dave Forberg, vice president of operations.

Management also wanted to gain greater control over the 25,000-plus items the company carries in inventory. Previously, many items were scattered among the warehouses.

Forberg and his colleagues turned to a goods-to-person order fulfillment solution that incorporates a Multishuttle from Dematic, a provider of technology solutions for warehouses and distribution centers. The Dematic Multishuttle stores, buffers, and sequences products between bulk stock and other functions such as picking and order assembly.

Compared to other options, the Multishuttle solution offered a more effective way to store and manage loose products into totes within a contained area. "We have a system of 26 multi-shuttle robots," Forberg notes.

Inbound inventory moves from the receiving area to decanting workstations. Each stock-keeping unit (SKU) is checked in, unloaded, and placed into a tote. Each tote moves to the Multishuttle storage subsystem, which delivers to the goods-to-person workstations when required for order picking. When a tote arrives at the workstation, a monitor displays both an image of the SKU and the number to be picked. Once the required SKUs have been picked, the conveyor system moves the customer order cartons to the shipping area.

A warehouse management system (WMS) works in conjunction with the Dematic warehouse execution system (WES) to manage piece-picking operations, replenishment, and stock control. It also controls the real-time flow of orders through the goods-to-person workstations, enhancing efficiency. "It’s all fully automated," Forberg says.

throughput up, cycle time down

Since implementing the system, throughput has increased by about 75%, while order cycle time has been cut. "The productivity gains have been enormous," Forberg says, adding that many orders can be on the dock 45 minutes after they’re received.

Like Magid, many shippers are looking for ways to increase the capabilities of their materials handling solutions, typically through automation. "The drivers for automation are more powerful than ever," says Ken Ruehrdanz, manager, distribution systems market, with Dematic.

Automation can mitigate the ongoing labor crunch many companies face, while also helping them more efficiently and accurately handle ever-increasing volumes of SKUs. Moreover, the cost of many materials handling solutions are coming down, putting them within reach of a larger range of shippers.

Another shift that’s influencing materials handling technology is the prioritization of flexibility over productivity, says Fergal Glynn, vice president of marketing with 6 River Systems, a robot provider. Traditional automation solutions, such as conveyor systems, tend to be highly productive, but inflexible. The rise in e-commerce and the corresponding increase in heterogenous orders has increased the need for flexibility.

Many materials handling solutions can be placed roughly into three categories, says Gary Allen, vice president of supply chain excellence with Ryder Systems. The first consists of the technologies proven and available now, such as conveyors and sortation systems.

Next are the up-and-comers such as drones, which likely will have greater value as their battery life improves.

The final piece is integration and visibility. The data that trackers and sensors generate needs to be integrated with the warehouse management or control system to provide the most value by, for instance, providing alerts when a shipment is delayed.

Many innovations within materials handling solutions incorporate both older and newer technologies. Lift trucks are one example. Thirty years ago, a lift truck operator would have to manually port oil to the cylinder while lifting the control handle hooked to the hydraulic control valve and a switch that turned on the lift pump to lift the mast, says Jim Gaskell, director of global technology business development with Crown Equipment Corporation, a manufacturer of materials handling equipment.

Now, this process is computerized. As a result, today’s lift and lower systems are more than 60% faster, while also lifting more weight and using less energy. In another change, the typical lift height has increased from about 270 inches to between 400 and 500 inches. That has enabled taller warehouses, a key feature where land is tight or expensive.

As lift heights grew, so did lift speed, increasing from about 100 feet to 160 feet per minute. What’s more, today’s trucks can sense when the forks are empty, and will lower them more quickly than when they’re full, improving throughput. "Thirty years ago, that kind of stuff was fantasy," Gaskell says.

Rollers that move items on racking or shelving for packaging also are changing. For instance, along with the standard roller system that uses gravity to move items on racking, a new solution incorporates individual rollers that can accommodate different box types, says Brian Chen, product manager with Unex Manufacturing, an order picking solutions provider. This allows shippers to accommodate a mix of box sizes without spending time straightening boxes.

Furniture maker La-Z-Boy continually monitors innovations in the materials handling space. One that’s of interest is the use of artificial intelligence to facilitate the movement of goods. For instance, software can schedule materials to arrive where they’re needed, just as they’re needed, minimizing bottlenecks and inefficiencies. "It’s a great example of how technology is integrated to manufacturing," says Darrell Edwards, the company’s senior vice president and chief supply chain officer.

Another example is automated equipment, such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs), due to their ability to enhance employee safety—a priority at La-Z-Boy. The potential cost savings also are key. Edwards notes that moving parts or product throughout buildings is a non-value-added activity. Shifting this work to machines will provide "the opportunity to re-purpose talent in areas where more customer value can be created," he says.

While the concept of an autonomous forklift—essentially an AGV—has been around since the 1950s, recent improvements in the adaptability, navigation, and flexibility of the technology, as well as lower costs, are boosting adoption, says George Prest, CEO of MHI, a materials handling, logistics, and supply chain organization.

Fueling Forklifts

The energy that powers forklifts also has advanced from lead acid batteries, which are the same kind used in cars, to alternative fuel cells, and now to lithium ion batteries. The advantages? Lithium ion batteries charge more quickly, require less maintenance, and hold a charge longer. The drawback to lithium ion batteries had been cost, but that is coming down, Gaskell says.

Goods-to-person solutions, in which robots, typically directed by an order management system, bring containers filled with SKUs to employees who pick the items needed to fill orders, are gaining ground. They can reduce the distances employees must travel through a warehouse, boosting productivity. "Instead of picking 150 pieces per hour, employees can do 500 to 600 pieces per hour because they’re not wandering the warehouse," Ruehrdanz says.

Going one step further are goods-to-robots solutions. As their name implies, these robots fill orders by picking items from donor totes, a process that’s "very repeatable and ideal for robots," Ruehrdanz says. The solutions have moved past development and into commercialization.

Moreover, robots can complement existing materials handling systems. This is key, because even though many companies need more flexible materials handling solutions to accommodate a growing volume of e-commerce orders, few can justify simply ripping up solutions in which they’ve invested large sums of money.


Robots also can apply artificial intelligence to learn a warehouse environment so they can navigate it autonomously and adapt to changes in the layout, says Lior Elazary, chief executive officer with Invia Robotics.

To be sure, the success of these solutions often varies with the type and variety of items to be picked. For instance, health and beauty products tend to be both lightweight and boxed, making them easier for many robots to manipulate than clothing packaged in slippery plastic bags.

Most robots still lack fine manipulation skills, at least at a cost that makes sense for most applications. That may change as labor costs rise and the costs of the solutions drops. Depending on the items they’re handling, robots might use grippers, suction, or pneumatic devices to move goods.

Robots also need to be programmed to work with a company’s warehouse management system so they complement, rather than interfere with, other equipment, Chen says. He notes that many robot developers provide software engineers that work with companies to link the robots with the warehouse management system.

Companies introducing goods-to-robots solutions are best served by starting with products, like health and beauty items, that are "going to be rock solid," Ruehrdanz says. After showing the solution’s effectiveness, they can move to more complex products and packages.

Another key to success is "modular, standardized sub-systems," Ruehrdanz says. By reducing customization, companies gain more predictable performance, shorter implementation schedules, and easier system reconfiguration when business changes, he notes.

Finally, even as technology advances, people remain essential. "For a project to be effective, it still comes down to people," Edwards says. The key stakeholders need to understand the problem you’re trying to solve and should have a seat at table where their voices can be heard.

"It’s ironic but true," Edwards notes. "Regardless of how automated the systems, success or failure lies with the people side of the business."

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