Manufacturing Automation, Material Handling, and the 21st Century

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Manufacturing automation with robots

Material handling has been around for over 100 years and manufacturing has been around even longer. When you think of the word “manufacturing,” what initially comes to mind—3D printing, lean, Six Sigma, reliability, automation? Yes, all of these buzzwords should flash across your mind.

Modern manufacturing facilities are relying on new technologies and innovations to produce higher quality products at faster speeds with lower costs. Implementing more intelligent software and hardware is the only way to compete; however, those technologies have levels. Smaller manufacturers don’t immediately have to invest in robotic systems or the most state of the art ERP or WMS.

Let’s discuss some options for implementing material handling automation into your facility to improve your manufacturing operations. From ergonomics to product transport and storage, there are several options to consider.

Ergonomic Pallet Handling

If your operation includes the palletization or de-palletization of products then finding technologies to improve that process can make a big impact. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2013, musculoskeletal injuries accounted for 33% of all worker injury and illness cases. Lifting and manipulating heavy objects is a primary cause of these.

Option 1: Pallet Positioners

One of the easiest and low cost options for improving the ergonomics of your pallet handling operation are pallet handling solutions such as positioners that can lift, rotate, and turn heavy pallets and place them into ergonomic positions for loading.

A popular pallet positioner is the Pallet Pal from Southworth, but any of these devices will help your employees be more productive while reducing the chance for injuries.

Option 2: Robotic Palletizing / De-Palletizing

By fully automating your palletizing or de-palletizing operations, you remove the potential for employee injury. Other key benefits include increased productivity and reliability as these systems offer 99% uptime. Robotic palletizers are also incredibly flexible and customizable as your products change.

Product Transport

When it comes to product transport within manufacturing facilities, there are a variety of options from conveyor to automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) and more. However, within those categories, there have been impressive strides to improve the technology.

Option 1: Conveyor

The first belted conveyors consisted of leather or canvas belting that traveled over a wooden bed. Today’s conveyors have multiple types of belts including plastic belts, cleated belts, wire mesh belts, high friction belts, low friction belts, and even more to fit your applications needs. Needless to say, conveyors today are not your grandmother’s conveyor. Today’s conveyor can integrate photo eyes and proximity sensors to control zones, saving energy and enabling you to route product in different ways throughout a facility.

Option 2: AGVs

When you don’t want to utilize floor space for a conveyor system or want more flexibility in your product transport, automated guided vehicles can be a great next step. AGVs come in a variety of options using vision guidance, lasers, wires, tape, or RFD to control their path. They can pull or carry large loads and are commonly used by manufacturers to transport products between manufacturing processes.

Option 3: Shuttle Systems

Shuttle systems offer a mix of storage / staging and product transport. Technologies, such as Servus, utilize robotic shuttles and rails to transport totes throughout a facility. Areas of storage can be used for buffering, while the shuttles quickly transport items as needed. This can be an especially useful option when the rail is placed overhead, saving valuable floor space.

Utilizing Vertical Space

Using vertical space inside an existing warehouse or distribution center has become almost invaluable. As the saying goes, “If you are already spending money to heat and cool a space, why not use all of it?”

Option 1: Mezzanines

Mezzanines are a simple solution. If you need more space in your facility, they can be used to add work spaces, conveyor, product storage, and more. Additionally, today’s mezzanines utilize heave-duty columns along with thick baseplates to provide the rigid support needed for these vertical applications. New innovations using CAD, CNCs, and composite materials allow for these structures to be erected faster, safer, and stronger.  Space inside facilities is valuable, and facility expansions are costly. Using vertical space is only logical.

Option 2: ASRS / Goods to Person Systems

A more advanced option for maximizing your vertical space is the use of automated storage and retrieval systems or goods to person systems. If you’re looking for more floor space, these provide dense storage of products and in some cases can more than double your facility capacity. Additional benefits include improved ergonomics (products are brought to your operators), energy savings, and the flexibility to easily scale the system as needed.

Depending on your operation, these systems can be used as product storage, tool and die organization or buffering of product between manufacturing processes.

So What Now….

Years ago, many people thought flying cars would be the norm and robots would have taken over the world. Although that has yet to happen, with advancements in modern manufacturing and automation, the future may not be too far away.

The role that manufacturing plays in the material handling industry could not be overstated. In order for today’s manufacturers to compete in the global market place, the right technology and innovations are key. Whether that’s robots or the implementation of ergonomic equipment, finding ways to increase quality, reliability, and productivity are key.

As the evolution of 21st century manufacturing continues to grow and change, the material handling automation industry will no doubt follow suit.

Brandon Trammell
Brandon is a Project Engineer with the Bastian Solutions Atlanta office. He joined the team after graduating from Purdue University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in May 2016. He enjoys working with customers to design solutions that will help them enhance their capabilities and reach their goals.

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