Process engineers and facility managers are often reluctant to change working material handling systems, especially if a lot of time, cost and effort is required to integrate new methods into an established ecosystem. However, Hapman experts have found that automating material handling systems can vastly improve the efficiency of multiple industrial operations. Below is an exploration of the different types of material handling automation options that managers can easily integrate without major operational disruptions.

What is material handling automation?

Material handling refers to all the activities of a supply chain, from extracting and transporting raw materials to manufacturing products and storing finished goods before distributing them to wholesalers and end users. These activities require input and active participation from different areas of an organization.

Material handling automation applies the latest technology in transporting, processing and storing raw materials. The benefits of material handling automation include enhanced supply chain efficiency, lower operational costs and reduced material and inventory waste.

Types of material handling automation

Automated storage and retrieval systems

Automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) are computer-controlled systems that handle storing, filing and retrieving materials and inventory. While the use of ASRSs was long restricted to large operations, many affordable technological alternatives exist for automating storage and retrieval in small organizations across different industries.

Shuttles are ASRSs that ferry loads between warehouses and manufacturing floors. Carousels can be installed on the floor to ensure continuous access to materials and equipment stored in horizontally or vertically rotating storage bins. 

Lift and loading machines also constitute ASRSs. Small companies can use mini-load ASRSs to stack loads under 1,000 pounds, while larger outfits may use unit-load ASRSs to neatly organize materials into storage shelves or racks up to hundreds of feet tall. 

ASRSs hasten the accurate identification, categorization and tracking of stored inventory. They allow real-time monitoring of stock and fast, on-demand retrieval. ASRSs also improve storage efficiency by maximizing the use of vertical space in a warehouse, removing clutter from floor space.

Organizations that utilize automated storage and retrieval system experience improved employee safety since people don’t have to physically retrieve bulk items from high shelves or ferry heavy loads.

Conveyor systems

Conveyor systems move raw materials across the manufacturing floor and transport finished goods to storage or distribution centers. They rely on electricity, hydraulics or gravity to transport materials horizontally, vertically or at an incline. These material handling automation systems are usually integrated into a facility’s structure to clear up floor space for other operations.

Conveyors that use gravity are set up at an angle to move materials down toward a discharge point. Some gravity conveyors require human intervention to kick-start load movement, while others use ball bearings or wheels fixed in a frame to move materials.

Powered conveyors use pneumatics or electric motors to pull belts and chains carrying loads. These conveyors are popular since they can operate without human involvement. Moreover, the speed of powered conveyors can be adjusted according to the rate of manufacturing operations.

Live roller conveyors are common in warehousing for moving packaged loads. They can comprise a belt passed underneath a series of cylindrical rollers or chain-driven sprockets attached to rollers. While live roller conveyors may be gravity-powered, they can also use electricity to propel boxes and pallets down the line.

Vertical reciprocating conveyors are another power conveyor system used to shift packages between conveyor belts and transfer materials across different floor levels.

Conveyor systems enhance the efficiency of manufacturing processes since they move products at a set speed. They’re also safer than human-operated machinery, lowering the rate of operator injury and collision accidents.

Autonomous Mobile Robots

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are battery-powered self-driving carriers that move loads across manufacturing and storage floors. Unlike their predecessors (automated guided vehicles), which require a predefined path, AMRs use sensors, artificial intelligence and a digital layout of the facility to map their path and interpret their surroundings.

AMRs can safely transport raw materials, products still on the assembly line and finished goods. They’re also used to store and retrieve loads from warehouses and distribution zones.

While AMRs don’t require constant human guidance, routine supervision ensures the vehicles keep operating. Companies can use computer software to monitor AMRs, ascertaining their real-time location and progress toward their destinations.

Using automated guided vehicles minimizes transport time for materials and products across floors. It’s easy to keep track of materials moved by AMRs, reducing the risk of loss or theft. AMRs have low initial and operational costs that even new companies can afford.

Integrating material handling automation systems

Fully automating material handling requires meticulous planning and careful integration so operations can continue running with little to no downtime.

The first step to successfully integrating material handling automation systems is determining the actual needs of the facility. A thorough operational audit can help facility managers decide where to start the automation process.

Automating material handling systems shouldn’t hurt the business’ bottom line. Facility managers should shop around and compare quotes from different material handling manufacturers to ensure they get the best deal before acquiring and implementing new technology.

Automated systems are rarely fully autonomous, so organizations must evaluate the labor necessary for supervising the new systems. The cost of training employees on how to use material handling automation equipment should be considered, and new policies should be enacted to guide safe automated operations.

Finally, creating and sticking to a maintenance schedule will ensure potential breakdowns are caught and fixed before they interrupt operations.

Material handling automation services

Organizations that partner with a trusted manufacturer of material handling equipment are more likely to attain the right automation solutions. Hapman has partnered with OTTO Motors to offer material handling automation equipment customized to companies’ operations. Contact us today to see which of our material handling solutions will fit your facility’s specific needs.