Learn what material handing is and how automated systems can enhance efficiency.
Are you having difficulties understanding the nature of material handling and its potential to enhance operations within the warehouse? In this article, we will provide an elaborate introduction of material handling, its workflow, as well as an exploration of its associated advantages and disadvantages.
The MHI defines material handling as "the movement, protection, storage, and control of materials and products throughout manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, consumption and disposal”. While logistics includes transportation, cargo handling, and distribution processing, material handling in the logistics industry is mainly used for warehouse management operations. Specifically, it refers to efforts to devise operations, from receiving and shipping, to storage and shipping of goods. The objective is to improve productivity, efficiency and quality.
In the field of warehouse operations, there is a drive to enhance efficiency through automation. This shift aims to replace manual operations with automated processes to improve overall warehouse management tasks.
As explained, "material handling" is not only about initiatives, but can also refer to systems, equipment, and products that are marketed to improve the efficiency of logistics operations.
Material handling equipment refers to systems that can enhance operational efficiency by utilizing AI, robots, and machines to perform logistics tasks and automate as much of the manual work as possible. To prevent any confusion with terminology, it can be beneficial to differentiate between the strategies employed to enhance productivity, referred to as material handling, and the specific equipment and systems utilized for this purpose, known as material handling systems.
Companies that handle goods are facing issues such as labor shortages and improvement of the working environment, and the introduction of material handling systems to improve operational efficiency and productivity is attracting more and more attention.
For example, "IC tags," a typical material handling system, enables efficient management of inventory by attaching tags equipped with IC chips and antennas to products, thereby enabling the location of inventory to be determined in real-time.
By introducing a material handling system, it becomes possible to reduce human errors by automating manual logistics operations. In the case of inventory management for example, which is prone to human error, a material handling system can prevent human picking errors by utilizing barcodes and IC tags to identify the location of products.
As mentioned above, the logistics industry is confronted with several challenges, including a surge in delivery volume resulting from the growth of online shopping and the strain on warehouse workers due to labor shortages.
By implementing material handling systems, many logistics operations such as receiving, shipping, and picking can be automated. This automation facilitates cost reductions, particularly in labor expenses, thereby addressing the industry's concerns.
Additionally, there is a growing interest in how automation can improve the working environment. By embracing automation in material handling, companies can create a more favorable and supportive working environment.
Below are a few examples of how material handling systems are used in workflows in order to improve the efficiency of the entire logistics operation.
Loading operations encompass the storage of incoming materials or factory-manufactured products onto pallets or racks within the warehouse, and the subsequent management of these items until they are processed.
Considering that a significant portion of the cargo to be loaded is typically heavy, manual handling can be time-consuming. However, by employing forklifts as part of a material handling system, the process of loading and unloading cargo becomes significantly easier and more efficient compared to manual labor. Forklifts streamline these operations, improving overall productivity and reducing the physical strain on workers.
Conveyance work involves the movement of goods within factories and warehouses using carts and other equipment. Manual execution of this task can be labor-intensive and time-consuming, prompting certain logistics companies to adopt conveyors as a means of cost reduction.
Nevertheless, the installation of conveyors requires a considerable amount of space. As a result, there is a growing interest in the deployment of conveyor robots equipped with automatic operation capabilities. This innovative approach is gaining attention as it offers the potential for efficient and space-saving conveyance operations.
Goods storage operations, also known as inventory control, encompass the process of storing incoming goods in designated shelves within a warehouse. The primary objective is to ensure that the goods are organized and placed in predetermined locations to prevent any mixing or confusion during subsequent activities like picking and shipping. Since manual storage operations are prone to errors, automation through the introduction of automated warehouses is recommended for accurate inventory control.
Sorting goods involves arranging the items stored in the warehouse by shipment and categorizing materials by manufacturing site. Manual sorting of a small amount of goods does not require much labor, but when it comes to a large amount of goods, manual sorting alone is hard and time-consuming work. Since sorting of products and materials tends to be prone to human error, it is wise to consider automating the process with material handling equipment.
The picking operation entails identifying the specific Bins or shelves where the products intended for shipment are stored, and retrieving them from those locations. If the products are stored accurately, locating them is a faster process. However, it can become time-consuming when the location is not readily remembered. If the goods are retrieved manually, it usually requires a lot of walking which is time-consuming. To address this challenge, logistics companies often implement robotic picking systems, which help streamline and optimize the picking process by providing guidance and efficient methods for locating and retrieving items, reducing time and improving overall productivity.
Below is a detailed explanation of the benefits gained from material handling.
If an appropriate material handling system is introduced to match the environment in the warehouse, manual operations can be automated, leading to improved work efficiency, which in turn leads to further cost reductions.
For example, the storage and retrieval of goods is time-consuming, and introducing an automated ASRS system and having the storage and retrieval of goods be performed by a robot instead of employees will save labor costs.
Replacing the burdensome carrying of goods with a material handling system instead of manual labor is a measure to prevent work-related accidents. With the introduction of a material handling system, employees will be able to work in a safe environment without major accidents as the system will make their work easier. In addition, it helps to prevent a decrease in motivation and provides the added advantage of reducing human error.
By automating the entire logistics operation with the introduction of a material handling system, you can improve operations by reducing the workload of employees. As for the tasks that can be improved, the material handling system can handle tasks such as lifting and moving cargo, leading to an improved working environment.
In addition, operations such as sorting and inventory control of incoming cargo can also be automated, which is effective not only in reducing manpower but also in reducing human costs.
Material handling systems with inherent single points of failure can stop operating during a breakdown, power failure, or error, leading the entire operation to a halt. This could lead to business stoppages, delivery delays, and other related issues. However, certain types of material handling systems, such as cube storage automation, have built-in redundancy and no single points of failure. If one component breaks down, the system can still keep running.
In terms of cost, many material handling systems are expensive. It is important to determine whether the investment will be worthwhile. In addition, certain material handling systems are not flexible enough to handle fluctuations in order volume throughout the year. For example, if a material handling system is installed to accommodate a small volume of shipments, there might not be enough operating capacity during the busy season, resulting in delays in shipping operations.
Warehouse management incorporates various material handling systems, each designed to facilitate efficient logistics operations. Below, you will find a comprehensive overview of these systems and their respective applications in warehouse management.
Two types of systems are utilized in warehouse receiving operations: forklifts and dock levelers, which are used to transport and load/unload cargo.
Forklifts are vehicles used to transport cargo. The mounted "claws" are inserted under the pallet to lift and move the cargo. The claws are movable up and down, meaning they can be used to store and remove loads to and from high places, and depending on the product, they can weigh from 100 kg to several tons.
In addition, forklifts are commonly used to transport heavy loads, which can be hazardous work and require a license to operate. However, unmanned forklifts are now available, eliminating the need for a license. Moreover, some products can operate 24/7, making them a suitable option for warehouse environments with high demands.
Dock levelers are devices used to bridge the gap between trucks or containers and loading docks when loading and unloading cargo. Since a difference in height can be dangerous when unloading, this system is introduced to eliminate the difference in height as much as possible.
Basically, dock levelers are installed at the loading entrance, and hydraulic, mechanical or pneumatic lifts the platform to bridge the difference in height between the truck and the platform. Since the platform is raised at an angle, it is easy to unload the truck with a forklift or cart.
In transportation operations, industrial robots, such as transfer robots and conveyors, are utilized, and are installed according to the size of the warehouse.
There are three main types of transport robots on the market.
A transport robot is an industrial robot that transports products and materials in warehouses and factories. In warehouse operations, they are mainly used for picking work, and in factories, they are used to transport materials for each process in manufacturing. Among them, some autonomous robots equipped with AI can automatically map the inside of a warehouse and avoid obstacles while transporting goods.
Among others, there are four main types of conveyors:
Conveyors are widely employed in manufacturing operations, serving as a common tool for material handling. In this process, materials are placed on a conveyor and subsequently transported to machines or individuals for processing. While conveyors are extensively utilized in the manufacturing industry, they also find applications in the logistics sector, particularly for the efficient transportation of packaged goods.
Large machines called sorters are utilized in sorting operations and are available in a variety of formats.
Automated sorters are large machines that sort goods placed on a conveyor according to their destination. There are four main types of sorters available, with the slide shoe type being the most common due to its high sorting capacity. Additionally, pop-up, cross-belt, and pan types are also available.
For storage, software-controlled automated warehouses and mobile racks that move along rails are utilized.
There are three types of automated warehouses:
Automated warehouses are designed to receive and dispatch goods automatically, utilizing computerized central management systems that handle information related to receipt, shipment, and storage location of goods.
In these warehouses, pallets are equipped with IC tags and barcodes to precisely track their locations. The automation of storage and shipping processes within the warehouse is facilitated by stacker cranes that incorporate a traveling elevator function.
Although this is a large machine requiring a large capital investment, it has the advantage of storing cargo with high ceilings, allowing full use of the space in the warehouse.
Moving racks are attached to racks along installed rails, allowing racks to be moved freely. The advantage is that racks can be moved according to the situation, such as for picking work or inventory, allowing for effective use of space. Racks can be adjusted to create the shortest possible route when using a forklift to transport items, and can be pulled to the edge when they are not in use. This enhances efficiency and maximizes available space in the warehouse.
Fixed racks provide sufficient space between shelves for a person to pass through comfortably. On the other hand, with movable racks, it is possible to create an aisle for both goods delivery and personnel access, if required. Furthermore, these racks offer the flexibility of manual or electric movement, which can be controlled via a control panel or remote control. This versatility allows for customization based on the weight of the stored goods, ensuring an optimal solution for efficient storage and retrieval operations.
When shipping goods, a digital picking system is utilized and employees manage the goods with an electronic terminal in hand.
A digital picking system involves the use of a terminal that provides employees with information regarding the location of goods. When an employee physically goes to the designated shelf, they manually pick the package.
The terminal picking system is commonly used for order picking, where employees locate the storage location of merchandise using the system. We usually speak of two methods of indicating the location of goods: through text or lamps (pick-to-light), and through voice picking systems.
In this article, material handling has been explained in detail. To summarize, material handling is a method or system that can improve productivity and operations by automating various tasks in the logistics industry. In addition, the introduction of material handling systems can eliminate the need for manpower in the transportation of goods, and can even automate tasks from storage to sorting.
To enhance the quality of logistics operations, it's worth considering the adoption of material handling systems and automation products that utilize industrial robots. These technologies can offer significant improvements in efficiency, accuracy, and safety, enabling businesses to stay competitive in an increasingly challenging market.
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