In the logistics and supply chain industries, every edge counts. That’s why facilities managers and decision makers everywhere are exploring the benefits of automated material handling. This group of technologies can bring new levels of productivity, safety and profitability to these important verticals.
1. Higher-Value Jobs
When people talk about automation, they focus most of the time on the potential displacement of human workers. In reality, automation is a complement to human effort – and companies that navigate the transition to selective automation well often don’t have to lose even a single employee.
Rather, it’s the roles of those employees that are changing. One automotive parts company in Illinois discovered that automation helps move employees into higher-value, higher-paying roles and ends up leaving the repetitive tasks like quality management to the more capable “eyes” and “ears” of automated inspection equipment.
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2. Better Access to Data
Before automation became more widely available, the various work areas and pieces of equipment within an industrial setting represented islands of process data. But thanks to connected automated systems, logistics experts, facilities managers and other industry professionals have access to many types of data they didn’t have before.
Crucially, this access allows those systems to communicate with one another, too. When a connected conveyor system in a distribution center can adjust product flow based on surrounding conditions, including maintenance items, it means machines and workers alike can react accordingly. The various parts of a facility are able to use the information to plan ahead to anticipate changes and delays.
3. Improved Quality Control
As we mentioned before, some of the roles being inherited by robots – including automated material handling equipment – involve inspections and quality control processes.
The concept of machine vision powered by AI has gained a lot of traction in recent years and now enjoys some of the top billing when companies start shopping around for connected material handling systems. Compared with manual inspections, automated inspection using machine vision catches more errors and cuts waste by reducing rework.
4. Better Workplace Safety
Most employers are quick to say that employee safety is one of their top concerns. But not every company means it or takes the time to find out which technologies can contribute to a safer workplace. The numbers on workplace safety incidents speak volumes.
Companies that want to improve their bottom line by improving safety and reducing the time to completion for critical tasks can do so with automated pallet trucks and even robots that pick to totes. This technology still benefits from clearly marked operational areas for keeping humans and machines from bumping shoulders. But advancements in sensors have made automated material handling ‘bots extremely safe and sure-footed. Laser-guided and LIDAR-guided automated guided vehicles are available, as are vehicles with vision sensors for a more robust view of the ‘bot’s surroundings.
Think of everything that pallet jacks and lift trucks do for you. The forklifts in your facility might hoist loads up to 50,000 pounds two dozen feet into the air. While you trust your drivers, you also owe it to them to reduce as many potential hazards as possible. In some environments, increasing user safety might mean reducing foot traffic in favor of smaller automated vehicles and ‘bots to work alongside larger human-operated equipment.
5. Higher-Volume, More Flexible Production
Automated material handling equipment can help factories and distribution centers assemble or move more products in any given period. It also helps those companies realize greater flexibility across their operations.
Supply chain and logistics managers have the means to call upon data from a central location, as well as issue new commands to automated guided vehicles and make adjustments to other connected machines on the fly. All of this makes any given facility far more flexible and better equipped to switch over to manufacturing a different product — or making another process change — without first gathering up half your workforce to get it done.
6. Faster Time to Market
All of the above factors combined make automated material handling equipment the obvious choice for any company worried about beating their competitors to the market. The idea of rapid prototyping using 3D printers is catching on for this same reason, and companies that harness both automation and 3D printing will have an unstoppable pipeline for releasing new or updated products into the world very quickly.
Think of the potential when you can have your materials moved automatically between each stage or station, and have your printers run through multiple design iterations for your inspection or testing equipment to evaluate.
According to findings by Boston Consulting Group, only around 10% of manufacturing facilities today have been fully automated. But the benefits are becoming clear. Compared with previous-generation approaches to research, development, assembly and manufacturing, introducing automation into the mix is a nearly sure way to take a logistics-heavy operation to the next level.
Of course, there are some downsides to embracing automation, including the initial investment, the learning curves and the potentially unpredictable costs. A deliberate approach is best, with a focus on identifying problems first and shopping for tech to solve it second.