By Stephan Lauzon
November 7th | 7 min read
The Power of Efficient Material Handling Systems in your Supply Chain
Over the years, I’ve seen material handling systems evolve to meet changing customer demands in logistics settings. Tasks like loading, unloading, and cargo transportation have required heavy labor, but advancements in automation have transformed the industry.
From the early days of manual labor to the rise of automation, material handling has undergone a remarkable transformation that continues to shape the way we optimize warehouses and deliver exceptional customer experiences. So what are the forces driving this change and what possibilities lie ahead?
The All-Encompassing Nature of Material Handling
In my previous post, we explored the concept of the “money transfer zone,” emphasizing the importance of the docking zone in inventory management to keep up with changing consumer demands. Now, let’s take the next step in the process and delve into the world of material handling systems.
Material handling encompasses a wide range of activities involved in the movement, protection, storage, and control of materials and products throughout the entire supply chain. From manufacturing to warehousing, distribution to consumption, and disposal, material handling is the driving force that streamlines operations, enhances efficiency, and ensures seamless product flow. It is the invisible thread that binds together every aspect of supply chain management, enabling goods to move swiftly and safely from point A to point B.
As supply chain professionals, we understand that a well-oiled material handling system is the cornerstone of a successful warehouse operation. Inefficient material handling can have far-reaching consequences, impacting production flow, employee safety, and morale. On the other hand, by comprehending the intricacies of material handling systems and implementing best practices, you can significantly improve the function of your warehouse.
Material Handling Types
There are three primary types of material handling equipment and activities: manual, semi-automatic, and automatic. Each type offers its own unique benefits and applications, catering to different operational needs and goals.
Manual Material Handling: Manual material handling involves human labor as the primary driving force behind the movement and transportation of goods within the warehouse. This traditional approach relies on physical strength and manual processes, such as lifting, carrying, and pushing. While manual handling is still prevalent in some operations, it is increasingly being supplemented or replaced by more advanced automation technologies.
Semi-Automatic Material Handling: Semi-automatic material handling systems combine the power of human labor with technology-driven assistance. These systems leverage various equipment and machinery to assist workers in their tasks, enhancing efficiency and reducing physical strain. Examples of semi-automatic equipment include assisted conveyors, where workers manually unload materials onto a conveyor system that then transports the items to the next stage of the process. This hybrid approach allows for a smoother flow of materials, minimizing human effort and increasing overall productivity.
Automatic Material Handling: At the forefront of material handling innovation lies automatic systems, which rely heavily on advanced technologies and minimal human intervention. In these sophisticated systems, machines and robotics take center stage, performing tasks that were once exclusively carried out by humans. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) navigate through warehouse aisles, transporting goods from one point to another without the need for manual supervision. Intelligent conveyors can detect and pick individual items, facilitating high-speed sorting and distribution. These fully automated solutions optimize efficiency, accuracy, and throughput while reducing human error and labor costs.
Exploring Various Types of Material Handling Equipment
To achieve optimal material handling, it is essential to select the right equipment for your specific warehouse requirements. There are various types of material handling equipment available, each with its own capabilities and advantages.
Lift Trucks: Traditional four-wheeled, human-driven trucks that move products from point A to point B. However, automation has introduced advancements in lift truck technology, enabling them to merge fixed and mobile equipment seamlessly.
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs): These autonomous vehicles navigate predetermined paths using onboard sensors or markers, eliminating the need for human intervention in product movement. AGVs are particularly useful in high-volume warehouses where repetitive tasks can be automated.
Intelligent Conveyors: Conveyors have long been a staple in material handling, efficiently moving goods from one point to another. With advancements in technology, intelligent conveyors can now use vision systems to identify and sort products automatically, minimizing the need for manual intervention.
Palletizers: These machines automate the process of stacking and arranging products onto pallets. Palletizers increase efficiency, reduce damage to goods, and streamline loading and unloading operations.
- Container Unloading Robots: Unloading containers manually can be a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. Container unloading robots are designed to handle this task, improving efficiency and reducing the strain on workers. This automated equipment is something that dollar store models are using.
A Quick Case Study on Container Unloading Automation
A good example of when automated material handling solutions make sense for a business is with dollar store models. During my time working both as an employee and as an outside consultant for retail giants like Dollarama and 99 Cents Store in California, we extensively investigated and tested container unloading technology as a viable option to streamline operations. This is because dollar stores typically offer a wide range of products, often with a high turnover rate which requires efficient handling of a large volume and variety of goods. While we didn’t ultimately implement the solution, our research and testing provided valuable insights:
- The automation accelerated the unloading process, significantly reducing turnaround time and enabling faster inventory replenishment. This ensured that shelves were consistently filled, meeting customer demands and minimizing stockouts.
- By reducing reliance on manual labor, these clients achieved substantial cost savings. The optimized workforce allocation allowed employees to focus on value-added tasks, enhancing overall productivity and maximizing resource utilization.
- With container unloading automation taking on physically demanding tasks, workers experienced reduced strain and the risk of injuries associated with manual labor was minimized. This created a safer work environment and improved employee well-being.
- The clients’ adoption of container unloading robots provided a competitive edge in the dollar store market. The ability to efficiently unload containers, maintain diverse product offerings, and meet customer demands set them apart from their competitors.
Why Does Warehouse Material Handling Matter?
Material handling in warehouses plays a crucial role in supply chain management. It utilizes specialized equipment to facilitate the movement and storage of goods, optimizing warehouse space and minimizing the risk of damage or loss. When a shipment arrives, a good material handling process ensures that goods are promptly transported from the dock to the appropriate rack. This process also includes proper control of materials, limiting access to specific areas of the warehouse to authorized employees. By implementing a robust material handling system, you can mitigate risks such as theft, damage, and spoilage. Furthermore, proper material handling allows for organized storage of goods, making it easy to pick and pack inventory for outgoing shipments.
In other words, imagine a scenario where goods are received in an organized and systematic manner, stored in a way that maximizes space utilization, and picked and shipped with minimal delays. Such a well-executed material handling system ensures smooth operations and timely order fulfillment, ultimately leading to customer satisfaction and increased profitability.
Cost Reduction: Streamline material handling processes to minimize manual touches, optimize storage space, and reduce transportation costs. This leads to overall cost savings by avoiding the need for additional storage facilities and associated expenses.
Increased Productivity: Efficient material handling systems optimize inventory management, reducing the amount of inventory required for storage. This results in improved efficiency, reduced labor requirements, and enhanced productivity in each production cycle. Regular maintenance and inspections help identify risks and prevent equipment breakdowns.
Space Maximization: Utilize mezzanines, pallet racks, and tall storage facilities to maximize vertical storage space. By analyzing material flow and identifying high-traffic areas, businesses can design storage systems that make the most efficient use of available space.
Accident Reduction: Implementing automated material handling systems minimizes the need for manual labor in moving heavy loads, reducing the risk of accidents. Proper material storage and organization also prevent accidents caused by tripping, slipping, or falling objects, as well as musculoskeletal injuries and physical strain.
Decreased Product Damage: Protect goods during handling, stacking, and transport with appropriate wrapping, pallets, and containers. Train workers in proper lifting techniques to avoid product mishandling. Utilize suitable equipment like forklifts, conveyors, and hoists to minimize product damage.
The Future of Material Handling
Traditionally, the process involved manual labor, where workers used lift trucks to transport goods from one point to another. However, with advancements in technology, we now see a merging of fixed and mobile material handling systems. For instance, a lift truck may hand off a pallet to an Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) that transports it down the aisle to another lift truck, which then takes it to its final destination. This combination of fixed and mobile equipment streamlines the process and eliminates the need for human intervention in certain steps, saving valuable time.
We can go back to the example of Dollarama or the 99 Cents Store in California, which handles high volumes of inventory. By leveraging technology, such as container unloading automation and intelligent conveyors, they have significantly improved efficiency. Previously, it would take two people an entire day to unload a container, but now with automated systems, this task is completed much more quickly. Similar advancements can be seen in palletizers, where Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) or AMRs are used to transport pallets without the need for human drivers. By automating these processes, companies can achieve greater efficiency and reduce labor costs.
Make the Most of Your Material Handling Equipment
Material handling is constantly evolving, moving from manual processes to assisted technology, and now towards full automation. Recent global disruptions and challenges such as labor/employee retention have forced businesses to reevaluate their supply chain practices and seek ways to optimize efficiency and improve customer experiences. For this reason, businesses are investing heavily in automation technologies and equipment. This shift is driving substantial growth within the sector.
According to a report by Persistence Market Research, the Material Handling Equipment Market was valued at approximately US$ 227.9 Billion in 2022, with an expected annual growth rate of 6%. This indicates that by 2033, the market is projected to reach a staggering value of US$ 408.13 Billion.
However, pouring money solely into costly equipment isn’t the only route to success. Strategies and innovations such as ergonomics, standardization and improved layouts can also help combat challenges and build future-proof solutions. By recognizing the significance of material handling and implementing strategies to optimize its processes, businesses can position themselves for success in this new, dynamic landscape of supply chain management.
How has warehouse material handling helped your business? Connect with us today to continue the conversation.
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