Materials Handling Equipment Kicks Into High Gear

Materials Handling Equipment Kicks Into High Gear

From narrow aisle configurations to self-guided robotic vehicles, innovation in today’s materials handling equipment is on the fast track.


Top 5 Innovations to Meet E-Commerce Demands

New technology promoting efficiency, throughput, accuracy, and safety abounds inside the four walls of today’s distribution centers. Innovations in materials handling (MH) products are transforming the supply chain.

Three decades ago, materials handling equipment was limited to conventional forklifts, hand trucks, pallet jacks, metal racks confined by low ceiling heights, and emerging RFID and barcoding technologies.

Fast forward 30 years, and materials handling equipment today is aligned with narrow aisle configurations, specialized rack systems and lift equipment to optimize stacking capabilities, warehouse management software that integrates with automated sortation systems, and self-guided intelligent robotic vehicles.

“Companies that continue to use traditional supply chain models will struggle to remain competitive,” says George Prest, CEO of the Materials Handling Institute (MHI), the industry’s trade association headquartered in Charlotte, N.C.

An Uplifting Experience

Trends in optimizing a distribution center’s (DC) usable floor and cube space include higher ceilings and narrow aisle configurations. As next-generation warehouse ceilings reach new heights—up to 40 feet—DCs need specialized equipment to reach inventory stored at towering levels. Very narrow aisle configurations, as compact as 6 feet wide, complement higher stacking capabilities. Narrow aisle designs don’t work in every DC, however.

“Very narrow aisles don’t work in a high-throughput environment because bi-directional forklift traffic is mandatory,” says Bryan Jensen, vice president, St. Onge, a York, Pa.-based materials handling and software solutions consultant. “Very narrow aisle configurations work best in a moderate to low throughput environment, with a single flow of forklift traffic along the aisles.”

High-throughput operations can be measured by the number of pallets pulled per hour. “A 10-foot 6-inch aisle allows for bi-directional forklift traffic, but minimum aisle widths as narrow as 9 feet 6 inches are common,” says Jensen. “Conventional aisle widths to accommodate standard sit-down counter-balanced forklifts are typically 12 to 15 feet.”

What’s the difference between a narrow aisle and a very narrow aisle? A narrow aisle allows lift trucks to operate in widths of 8 to 10 feet, while a very narrow aisle measures 6 feet or less, according to Inventory Operations Consulting, a materials handling and inventory management consultancy based in Kenosha, Wis.

Some materials handling companies have introduced specialized lift equipment to navigate tight aisle systems. For example, Narrow Aisle, a Dallas-based forklift supplier, offers the Flexi lift, which steers from the front, instead of the rear, like a conventional forklift truck.

“Although the Flexi lift is more expensive than traditional counter-balanced lift trucks, the ROI payback is typically two years based on reduced costs associated with real estate footprint, excess equipment, and labor,” says Bruce Dickey of Narrow Aisle. “It’s not uncommon to see a complete ROI in 12 to 18 months, depending on the operation.”


Narrow aisle configurations and towering ceiling heights in today’s modern DC can create several access, safety, and productivity issues. While tighter aisles and maximized stacking capabilities result in better space utilization, it becomes more challenging to retrieve pallets and boxes stored above a certain height. Many high-bay lifts are equipped with a “high visibility” mast to expand the operator’s visibility. But even the most skilled forklift operator can have difficulty guiding a lift truck’s level forks into the pallet’s open position in a high-bay rack layout, often inflicting product damage.

Enter a new product that helps forklift operators verify that the lift’s implements are in a level position. Flat Fork units operate under a simple light indication system that mounts on the lift truck’s mast, indicating the forks are tilted.

“The most difficult task a lift operator faces is how to level the forks and prevent potential damage,” says Jim Ruschman, co-founder and president of Flat Fork, a California-based company that developed the digital fork level warning indicator for training lift truck operators. “We invented our product for training purposes, and customers liked it so much, they wanted to buy it.”

The low-maintenance product operates with an RFID sensor that sends a signal to a clear LED light display, which is easily visible to the operator via a basic red, yellow, or green indicator. The battery-operated metal box attaches to the mast of a forklift with a rare-earth neodymium magnet, the strongest magnetic force on earth.

“Yet, the box is portable from one lift to the next,” Ruschman says. “And to preserve battery life, the unit powers off after three minutes of discontinued use.”

Flat Forks make forklift operators more efficient and productive, reducing mistakes that lead to product damage. “Pallets stored in a high-bay rack make it particularly challenging for operators to know if the forks are level prior to removing a pallet from its rack position,” Ruschman says.

Engineered and manufactured in the United States, the box is durable and can function in a steady rain. The product is also flexible, transferable, and can be used on stand-up reach trucks and conventional sit-down models. “The application also works with different attachments, such as extended poles for rolled carpet and clamps for large paper rolls,” Ruschman adds.

The Flat Fork unit costs less than $250 and takes two minutes to install. “It’s easy to use and inexpensive, considering the potential cost savings in avoiding damages,” Ruschman adds.


When the summer heat makes its way across North America, higher temperatures and humidity permeate the four walls of a distribution center, creating lower productivity among the warehouse workforce.

“In a high-cube warehouse environment that is surrounded on all sides by enclosed concrete, heat becomes encapsulated and stagnant, limiting natural air flow, unless some type of ventilation system is in place,” says John Drake of Pattillo Construction Company, an Atlanta-based general contractor that has been constructing warehouse facilities since 1950.

Kentucky-based Big Ass Solutions, a manufacturer of industrial fans, introduced its upgraded bar-joist mounted fan, the Powerfoil X3.0 fan system, at the MODEX 2016 show. Producing 15 percent more airflow than the X2.0 version, the new fan delivers with a feature known as SmartSense, which matches the speed of the fan to seasonal temperatures and conditions. SmartSense regulates the temperature and airflow with minimal user input, leading to energy savings up to 30 percent.

The 100-degree summer heat in DeSoto, Texas, drained productivity among McGraw-Hill’s warehouse workers, until the book distributor installed 30 Big Ass fans to cool its southwest DC, resulting in higher productivity, fewer accidents, and fewer heat-related illnesses.

“It used to feel like an oven in our concrete building,” says Mike Price of McGraw-Hill. “When workers were hot, productivity slowed down. While it’s still hot at 105 degrees, the fans make it manageable.”

As temperatures rise in a traditional ambient warehouse, the SmartSense fan automatically increases speed, providing a cooling effect up to 10 degrees F. Conversely, the fan is also capable of pushing warm air downward, which is effective in colder climates.

“The perception is that the fans’ typical application is in warm, southern climates to offer warehouse workers heat relief,” says Josh Kegley of Big Ass Solutions. “However, our fans serve companies in colder climates, too. Through a destratification process, the fans compress heat toward the warehouse floor, and are especially useful for moving air in any climate with warehouse ceilings higher than 30 feet.”

In Search of the Perfect Pick

In high-volume distribution centers, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) have led the charge in computer-controlled inventory management. Dating back to the 1960s, AS/RS applications were the first to use computers to accurately track warehouse inventory.

The next 50 years produced shuttle systems and mini-load devices, as order and inventory management transitioned from a tactical to a more strategic approach. With SKU counts proliferating over the past 20 years, picking station technology has adapted and is now categorized into two segments: fixed aisle and vertical lift modules (or carousels).

Then, along came another major change to the end-to-end supply chain: the onslaught of multi-channel retail sales and delivery. Today, with the emergence of e-commerce facilities, throughput volume has increased exponentially and order sizes have become smaller and more specialized.

Meeting Throughput Demand

With this transitional fulfillment strategy, advancements in materials handling equipment have evolved, requiring more flexible technology to meet consumers’ rapid deployment demands. “The systems themselves haven’t changed much, but the increased throughput demand has,” St. Onge’s Jensen explains.

Seasonal demand in fulfillment centers has created additional challenges in a high-throughput environment. “Automation should be able to meet peak demand in seasonal orders,” says Jensen. “If an omni-channel retailer experiences a fivefold seasonal boost in throughput, it’s not worth the ROI to invest in four additional sorters. Technology offerings need to meet peak demand with a single, cost-effective sortation solution.”

Robotic Relays

Robots have been part of manufacturing for the past 50 years, but with the surge in multi-channel retail distribution and goods-to-person fulfillment, the integration of robotic retrieval technology is an emerging factor in next-generation warehouses. Robots in DCs can be categorized into two factions: gantry robots that lift, and auto guided vehicles (AGVs)—also known as self-guided vehicles—that retrieve.

“The market hasn’t seen an equivalent to Kiva AGVs yet,” says Jensen, referring to the Kiva robot that was developed in 2003 and purchased by Amazon in 2012. However, companies are introducing new auto guided vehicles for fulfillment centers annually. To validate the growth of advanced AGVs, the 2016 MODEX show unveiled no fewer than nine AGV innovators, signifying the genesis of an emerging specialization across the supply chain.

“More robotic AGVs have been introduced in the past two years than in the life cycle of auto guided vehicles,” Jensen says. “Today’s robots either follow the picker, or the picker can track the AGV, complementing the picking process. The more advanced vehicle knows where the next pick is located before the picker does. In a goods-to-person model, a conveyor delivers the product to the processor, or the robot retrieves the goods and delivers the item to the stationary packer.”

from toru to adam

Start-ups in the warehouse robotics space include Germany-based Magazino, a developer of mobile robots designed to navigate a warehouse and interface with its workforce. Magazino’s TORU robot can identify a product on a shelf or rack via a two- or three-dimensional camera, secure the item, and transport the shipment to the staging area for final distribution. One unique feature of TORU is its ability to grasp an individual item from a shelf without human assistance. Early-stage Magazino customers include DHL and Sigloch Distribution, a European logistics and e-fulfillment company.

Finland-based Cimcorp recently developed ADAM, an autonomous robot that operates on an open path navigation system without the aid of magnetic tape, wires, or reflective targets. ADAM has the intelligence to maneuver through a warehouse via a technology known as SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping).

“ADAM doesn’t require a grid, and the intelligent robot learns the warehouse layout after only two runs,” says Derrick Rickard, Cimcorp’s distribution center manager.

In addition to its AGV technology, Cimcorp offers a range of advanced automation to optimize material flow. As a total systems integrator founded in the 1980s, the company started by building AS/RS and mini-load systems, and later introduced ADAM.

Operating across multiple verticals, Cimcorp adapted its MH services to meet the needs of the food and beverage, dairy, postal, consumer packaging, and health and beauty sectors. Recently, the company expanded its robotic platform with a flexible narrow-aisle application that utilizes AGVs for retrieval coverage on up to 20 aisles of inventory.

“Our gantry robotic technology was great for palletized product, but a single crane limited our application to just one aisle,” says Rickard.

With its extensive background in systems integration, Cimcorp was well positioned to navigate the rise of materials handling technology in the e-commerce field. Expanding its crate-based gantry robotic offering, Cimcorp provided full-service goods-to-person automation. Cimcorp’s 3D shuttle technology streamlines accurate order picking, providing the ability to process fulfillment orders with a two-pronged tool attached to a robotic bridge.

“The shuttle can hover over a mix of random SKUs and select the correct product offering,” explains Rickard. “The technology provides the intelligence to select the right SKU, and drop the unneeded items back into the retrieval bin—all within 20 seconds.”

In 2009, when global health and beauty care company L’Oréal opened its largest U.S. fulfillment center in Walton, Ky., the facility operated three shifts and processed all outbound orders manually. L’Oréal recently commissioned Cimcorp to automate the 680,000-square-foot facility, and improve order quality and energy conservation, and reduce labor cost.

Cimcorp installed a layer pick system, which improved order accuracy to 100 percent. It also increased pick production to more than 1,000 layers per day and output to more than 1 million cases per month. The distribution center now runs only two shifts, and operating efficiencies and higher throughput eliminate substantial waste.

What Should I Wear?

Wearable technology is another growing materials handling innovation designed to improve processes and safety. Wearables and mobile tech applications are experiencing annual growth rates of 38 percent and will represent a $12.6-billion trade sector, according to a recent MHI report.

As the cost of hands-free and mobile devices decreases, the return on investment proves to be compelling, especially in inventory validation, counting, and storage. “Companies are beginning to validate the value of smart glass hardware and software,” according to Joe Fitzgerald, senior manager of Deloitte’s wearables innovation practice and a contributor to the MHI report.

Investing in the Supply Chain

In the end, investing in next-generation materials handling equipment comes down to two basic factors: efficiency and cost. Warehousing and supply chain managers considering these investments must ask two questions: What are my pain points? What does my organization find an acceptable return on investment?

“Materials handling can no longer stand alone as an efficiency play inside the four walls of a warehouse,” says Mike Nayden of Deloitte Consulting’s Logistics and Distribution practice in the MHI annual industry report.

With the advent of so many innovations in materials handling equipment across today’s supply chain, maintaining the status quo is no longer an option.

Top 5 Innovations to Meet E-Commerce Demands

  1. Sortation
  2. Pick/Put-to-Light
  3. Carousels
  4. Print and Label
  5. Auto Guided Vehicles (AGVs)

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