Material handling equipment enables faster times for shipping orders
The market for automated material handling equipment is growing by leaps and bounds as consumer demand evolves from a world that once found 4-to-6-week delivery windows acceptable to one where a couple days is a slow timeframe.
This rapid evolution requires considerable distribution infrastructure, driving rapid shift to digital factories and warehouses. Digital systems continue to become more sophisticated and more affordable, making them suitable for a broader range of logistical applications.
A critical shortage of workers in the material handling is another key factor in the transition to automated material handling. This shortage is driving a big trend to deploy robots that work alongside people to make the job of fulfilling orders easier and less physically demanding. There are many developments currently ongoing to replace workers with automated picking robots, especially in the e-commerce markets.
This worker shortage carries over to the technical staffs that typically manage these digital systems. Even some large, multi-billion dollar companies only have a handful of the technical support people who keep digital systems humming along at high speed. Similarly, these companies often don’t have the expertise needed to commission new systems.
Many companies rely on the equipment suppliers and system integrators to set up their digital systems and keep them running. The task of setting up factories is following the trend in material handling – customers want it done immediately.
Installation and setup times can often run several months, posing problems for customers that want a quick return on their investment. Two advances, digital twins and simulation, are shortening these timeframes. When all the equipment on production or material handling systems is available as a digital twin, configurations can be simulated letting engineers analyze and test automated operations before the equipment is shipped.
This approach shortens setup times, which can run several months, and lets users make all the little changes that have to date been made over the first year or so of operation. That’s a huge benefit for companies that typically have two major metrics: return on investment and increased throughput.
Few companies are starting their automation projects from scratch. Robots and other material handling solutions and capabilities have been used for a long time. So long, in fact, that a lot of the current solutions from OEMs and integrators still are based on established PLC systems. Simply migrating to the newest innovations in the PLC world and all of the capabilities that they bring will significantly improve the ability to solve the flexible scalable changing system needs of end users in the future.
Today, material handling systems manage a number of tasks that used to be done by humans. That can reduce the time to go from sending an order out until it’s loaded onto a truck which is now measured in minutes not days. Automated steps can include automatic order release and assigning products to cartons, as well as determining the cube size of a carton and building it. Labeling and weighing can also be handled by automated systems, shortening turnaround time while reducing reliance on manual labor.
To truly realize the benefits of automated systems, it’s important to keep all this equipment up and running. Here again, digital twins can help companies reduce downtime over the lifetime of their facilities. Managers can remotely examine equipment from anywhere and make adjustments to correct problems without taking the time to drive to the plant.
While advanced material handling equipment can improve efficiency, it takes skilled operators to keep it running at peak levels. Increasingly, suppliers are being asked to maintain the equipment they install. That shifts some of the personnel burden from the customer to the supplier.
It also shifts the job of managing employees and improving their skills to these companies. Employee training remains an important aspect in any operation. Training and retaining workers is a big challenge for the supply chain / material handling industry. As automation increases, the further challenge becomes acquiring a different workforce with the skill to be able to maintain the automation solutions deployed. The efforts of various vendors through partnerships with technical schools and continuing education training are well poised to help bring up the next generation of workers who have the skills needed to work with complex automation systems and to keep them running and optimized.
The main controls suppliers in the material handling industry are all basically large integrators, bringing together large pieces of equipment as well as other support systems such as warehouse management software solutions. Large projects often involve several companies with one taking the lead. The best controls vendor should be well positioned at all larger players in the industry to provide solutions.
Siemens is working with the major providers to introduce our Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) products along with the digital twin concept and simulation capabilities. One of the trends in the industry is that the digital flows are becoming as important as the physical flow of goods. Educating the systems suppliers on vendor offerings in this arena is a major strategic point, moving forward. Be sure you are asking the right questions.Have an Inquiry for Siemens about this article? Click Here >>