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3 Steps to Choosing Material Handling Technologies that Last

Bastian Himmeroeder | 6 July 2022

Technology advancements are being made all the time, whether it’s new gadgets or software. In fact, it seems as though any time you look at the latest tech news a newer version of a product you've just purchased has come out. The same challenge exists with material handling and supply chain automation.

With increased interest and need for automation solutions, creative designs, approaches, and applications are constantly being introduced. The need for these advanced solutions isn’t going away any time soon. MHI’s 2022 annual industry report forecasts a 66% adoption rate over the next five years. Nearly all industries view supply chain operations and infrastructure as strategically important.

So, the question becomes, how do you provide your company with equipment that is scalable but won't be outgrown or outdated in the next few years? 

Whether it's upgrading a conveyor system, adding a goods to person or AS/RS (automated storage and retrieval system), or state-of-the-art robotic automation, there are several factors that one should consider when looking into a new technology:

  1. Can this product suit my needs?
  2. Does the product justify the investment?
  3. How long will the product be relevant?

1. Sorting through emerging technologies. Will this product meet or exceed my needs?

Goods to person systems, for example, emerged in part from a need for high-density storage and equipment with a small footprint to free up floor space. In addition to maximizing space, today’s challenges include hiring and retaining qualified workers and labor availability shortages, coupled with a need to meet customer demands for faster response times. The result is an increase in robotics and autonomous vehicle development.

Let’s take a quick look at a few examples of those emerging technology categories:  

Fully Automated Robotic Picking – Described as the next generation of fast and accurate order fulfillment, this solution consists of a goods to person system, industrial robots, AI vision system and takeaway conveyor with in-line automation solutions.

AMR Sortation – Introducing flexibility, robotic sortation and AGVs / AMRs offer a great alternative to traditional sorters with faster implementation, lower capital cost and the agility to add and remove robots as needed.

High Volume Robotic Loading – This unique automation solution brings automation to warehousing and manufacturing facility docking stations, removing heavy and repetitive manual loading of completed box orders. More than just a solution to lifting, it is a non-static solution that can drive to and from dock doors into truck trailers to execute precise case placement.

There are plenty more categories but the key point is that all of these advancements are making it easier to find a technology that truly satisfies your businesses requirements. There are plenty of available options out there, so it’s important to find what works best for you.

When exploring technologies ask questions like:

  • How proven is the solution?
  • Does it address key concerns and have room to accommodate changing business objectives?
  • Are there software or technology gaps that would need to be filled if integrated?
  • What kind of support infrastructure backs this product?

2. Does the product justify the investment?

To make an appropriate technology and solution selection, you must understand what the project drivers are and where the stakeholders' concerns lie. These are often evaluated using metrics such as the system's ability to meet throughput rates (i.e., cartons per minute, etc.), quality control management or alleviating labor concerns.

Typically, a company will only consider systems that meet some financial ROI (return on investment) delegated by corporate. While this makes a lot of sense, today’s markets dictate that there are other factors to consider.

We have worked with companies that couldn't justify operation automation projects solely on monetary return. Instead, the ROI and focus was to use the new system as a way to boost employee morale through lessened heavy picks that were manually performed by operators. This in turn saved on future safety concerns and failures as well as positively affected the bottom line. For other customers, they are working in markets where they don’t have a choice. For some verticals, market demands require operation efficiency that cannot be met through manual operations. Labor pools have also become slim. Clients aren’t discussing whether to automate but rather discussing when they will automate in order to remain competitive and meet new market demands. Growing ecommerce, for example, dictates even faster order fulfillment.

More than just monetary return on investment, some other ROI variables to look at include:

  • Can you increase SKUs, volume and channel shifts if you don’t automate?
  • Can you achieve peak SLAs (service-level agreements) to meet customer expectations?
  • Can you hire enough people? Does the local labor pool exist?
  • Could you use the existing space more efficiently to save on relocation and expansion costs?

Will any of these gained benefits give your company the edge it needs to stay competitive and which project driver is the most crucial?

3. How long will it be relevant?

In the midst of so many options to choose from, within each facet of material handling, you have to be careful of the equipment and technology you choose. Some areas of concern include:

Will the supplier be around in the next 10 years or more? You wouldn't want to join a partnership with a company that isn't very secure, especially in these hard economic times. A company that has a solid foundation, excellent customer support and a great warranty on the product help ensure some stability.

How scalable is the product or system? You want to be sure that the system has the ability to grow with your company. You don't want to have to scrap a portion of your line because you can't add to it later. Automation technology options have come a long way in development to accommodate changing market demands, offering scalable and modular options making additions that much easier. Goods to person solutions like AutoStore, Caja Robotics, Scallog or Tompkins tSort allow for quick addition of additional bots or workstations to existing systems. Autonomous vehicles solutions like AGVs and AMRs can function as sole units or have additional vehicles added to create a more complex system, with little to no downtime.

Can the technology support your product portfolio of the future? Sometimes when a company has many products, some of them become obsolete due to either lack of demand or the release of a newer version. How long do you foresee your product maintaining relevance? Will future products replace the existing and can the equipment or software easily handle this change-over? Also, consider the possibilities for business acquisitions.

Confidently Select Automation Technologies that Deliver the Best ROI

With so many technologies in the market, and the rate at which they become outdated, it can be extremely difficult to find a solution that not only works for you but will also remain relevant and viable for several years. Nevertheless, if you do your research and follow these steps, you should be well on your way to finding a technology that meets your needs and provides a better return on investment over its lifetime.  Whether you’re improving your existing manufacturing and warehousing equipment, investing in expansion or all new automation, our consultants can help.

Author: Bastian Himmeroeder

Bastian is a Manager in our Consulting group. He graduated in Logistics and Industrial Engineering from TU Dortmund and Georgia Tech and brings in more than a decade of Material Handling and Supply Chain Consulting experience in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. His special expertise is in the selection and sizing of flexible automation technologies across all vertical industries.

Comments

Bill says:
8/28/2018 10:08 AM

Great article. Thanks for the post!

Brett Nielsen says:
8/28/2018 10:08 AM

Nice one Peter! I deeply agree with your 3 steps. Knowing one's needs is definitely the first thing everyone must consider for choosing material handling technologies.But of course the price and the product warranty also counts. Good job Peter! Keep the ideas coming...

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