Material Handling in the Digital Factory: A Look Ahead

Originally published on

The material handling market is growing as consumer demand and expectations increase. It wasn’t long ago that shipping and handling charges with 4-to-6-week delivery were part of any “mail order” transaction. Then, along came the Internet and with it came free shipping, within a week. Then, it was a couple of days. Now, same day. Soon, within an hour and to your current location—not just your house or office. All of this rapid evolution requires considerable distribution infrastructure to support it. What’s needed is either very larger warehouses or a number of small warehouses strategically located near consumer demand or, most likely, some combination of these facilities, feeding each other. The scalable nature of automation solutions allows for easier deployment of small, medium or large systems to support this kind of infrastructure. A key driver in this scenario is the ease of communicating between the systems that your vendor offers in order to allow for efficient operation strategies. A critical shortage of workers is also prevalent in the material handling market today. It is generally a low skilled job, picking items from a warehouse to fulfill orders. There are simply not many people who want to work a third shift or in a freezer or both, moving boxes of material. Because of this fact, there is a big trend in the market today toward robotics, working 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. Automation thus offers one way to help alleviate the challenges of finding, training and retaining a workforce.

The Rise of Big Data

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 companies through partnerships with technical schools and continuing education training are helping to develop the next generation of workers who have the skills needed to work with complex automation systems and to keep them running and optimized. Numerous material handling solutions and capabilities have been well known and used in the industry 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. Getting those solutions migrated to the newest innovations in the PLC world and all of the capabilities that they bring will help improve the ability to solve the flexible scalable changing system needs of end users in the future. The main controls suppliers in the material handling industry are 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. One current trend is the pairing of product lifecycle management with the digital twin concept and simulation capabilities. Digital flows are becoming as important as the physical flow of goods. Educating the systems suppliers on capabilities in this arena is a major strategic point, moving forward. Be sure you are asking the right questions. There has been a general level of interest in the concept of digitalization today, as many of the large and mid-sized end users are talking about this mega-trend in the industry. Already a number of companies are recognizing the benefits associated with a digital twin of their machine and their process. The ability to completely test their system without building it has significant advantages for them. Some companies are simulating and emulating their logistics and supply chain systems to optimize them, before they build or purchase anything. The material handling industry already has a well-defined installed base of warehouse management software (WMS) solutions and we’ll continue to see Big Data analytics driving the industry to amazing new levels.