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What is automated material handling equipment? 

Automated material handling equipment refers to a wide range of machines and systems that are used to move and store materials throughout a facility. 

What types of equipment does this include? 

These can include conveyors, robotic arms, automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), and automated guided vehicles (AGVs). The global industry for these various machines and systems is growing rapidly, expected to reach $70 billion by 2032.  

Historically, fixed automation systems such as AGVs were the go-to solution for repetitive tasks. These vehicles were designed to carry out a specific task on a predetermined route continuously. However, the rigidity of fixed automation became a limitation in the face of changing product designs and varying production volumes.

New flexible automation systems like AMRs offer a solution by integrating robots and automated systems that can be easily reprogrammed and adapted for various tasks. In material handling, this means robots can be repurposed for different product lines, handle multiple products simultaneously, or adjust their operations based on real-time data and feedback. This flexibility leads to reduced downtime, quicker changeovers, and the ability to cater to customized product demands without major overhauls in the production line.

Benefits of automated material handling systems 

One of the main advantages of automated material handling systems is that they can significantly increase productivity and efficiency. For example, conveyors can be used to quickly and efficiently move materials from one location to another, while robotic arms can be used to automate repetitive tasks such as picking and packing. Automated storage and retrieval systems, also known as ASRS, can be used to store and retrieve materials quickly and accurately, reducing the need for manual labor. AMRs can be used to transport materials throughout a facility, reducing the need for human operators. 

Another advantage of automated material handling equipment is that it can improve safety. For example, by automating repetitive tasks, equipment can reduce the risk of human error and injuries. Automated storage and retrieval systems can also be designed to reduce the risk of injury by using sensors and other safety features. AGVs can also be programmed to follow specific routes, reducing the risk of collisions with other vehicles or equipment. 

Additionally, automated material handling equipment can also help to improve accuracy and reduce errors. For instance, automated storage and retrieval systems can be designed to ensure that materials are stored and retrieved in the correct location, reducing the risk of errors. Robotic arms can be programmed to pick and place items with precise accuracy, reducing the risk of errors in tasks such as packaging and assembly. 

Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS): Redefining robot deployment

Cost is a significant barrier for many companies when considering the adoption of robotic systems. The initial investment, coupled with maintenance and upgrades, can be overwhelming. RaaS seeks to mitigate these challenges by offering robotic solutions on a subscription or rental basis.

Instead of purchasing robots outright, companies can lease or pay for robotic services based on their usage, similar to how one would pay for cloud storage or software-as-a-service. This model not only reduces upfront costs but also ensures companies have access to the latest technologies without being burdened by obsolescence. With RaaS, industries can scale their operations up or down based on demand, ensuring they only pay for what they need.

Automated material handling equipment, provided through RaaS, can be deployed in warehouses, distribution centers, and production lines. They are designed to adapt to various tasks, from sorting and packaging to transporting goods. Since RaaS providers handle maintenance, updates, and support, industries can conserve capital and focus solely on optimizing their operations.

How to deploy automated material handling equipment rapidly 

Fortunately, Vecna Robotics has designed a simple, 5-step guide called “From No Bot to Robot” that can get you started immediately with automation and achieve scale within 12 months of your initial deployment. 

5 icons showing the steps to deploy automated material handling equipment

Step 1: Assess 

We first pinpoint the issues within your supply chain network and match them with solutions on the market, focusing on things like inventory levels, where most of your labor is allocated, and so on. Then, using this information, we identify a scalable segment of your network where automation would be most beneficial, develop a specific use case, and select a solution that will show a solid return on investment.  

Step 2: Plan  

After identifying the appropriate robot type for your workflows, we assess how the robots integrate with your team, facility, and systems. We collect data such as CAD drawings, customer routes, travel distances, and throughputs. This information determines the number of robots needed for each workflow or route.  

We then establish success criteria among stakeholders and test the robots in real-world environments to ensure they meet expectations. Instead of starting with one or two robots, we suggest starting with at least three to better understand traffic and interactions between the robots and human workers. 

Step 3: Deploy 

During the deployment, we not only install the robots but also train and onboard local staff to ensure they feel confident in using them, which promotes the adoption and successful operation of the robots. Our deployment process follows a six-step approach that aligns with a production use case that directly contributes to business value.  

Step 4: Learn 

During the deployment process, we actively involve both floor staff and senior management to encourage open communication and address any concerns. We schedule multiple training sessions to ensure all staff are adequately trained and comfortable with the robots and system.  

Once the robots are in production and go-live has been achieved, we transition to our customer success managers, who provide ongoing attention and support. We conduct regular check-in meetings where we review robot performance metrics, address any outstanding issues or topics of discussion, and work closely with our 24/7 support team PCC to monitor system performance and ensure it meets expectations. 

Step 5: Scale 

When introducing automation to multiple facilities or expanding automation within one facility, it is beneficial to use a pilot site as a starting point to understand where similar automation can be implemented in your network.  

We suggest developing a centralized automation strategy from the beginning to plan the initial rollout and help determine which use cases to prioritize next. Additionally, utilizing the pilot site as a showcase or demonstration site can allow all stakeholders who aren’t yet familiar with the robots and their functionality a chance to see them in action. This helps reduce their wariness while increasing adoption and allowing these plant managers and executives to observe the successful deployment and prepare for their future rollouts. 

The many use cases for automated material handling 

Overall, automated material handling equipment can be used in a variety of settings, including manufacturing plants, warehouses, and distribution centers. It can be used to automate a wide range of tasks.

Workflows of Material Handling Robots: Enhancing Industrial Efficiency

Material-handling robots have ushered in a new era of efficiency in industrial settings. From massive warehouses to intricate manufacturing floors, robots such as forklifts, tuggers, and pallet jacks are redefining traditional processes. Here’s a deep dive into just a few examples of the various workflows these automated marvels can accomplish:

1. Kanban Replenishment:
Kanban, a just-in-time inventory system, relies on visual cues to trigger stock replenishment. Material-handling robots play a key role in this. Once a kanban signal, such as an empty bin or a card, is triggered, robots can swiftly transport the required parts from storage areas to production lines, ensuring continuous workflow without the need for human intervention.

2. Work-In-Progress (WIP):
In manufacturing settings, semi-finished goods often need to be moved between various production stages. Tuggers and pallet jacks streamline this by transporting WIP items, reducing the manual effort and ensuring a smooth transition from one process to the next. Their precision ensures that parts are available just when they’re needed, minimizing wait times and optimizing production speeds.

3. Finished Goods:
Once items complete their production cycle, they need to be moved to storage or dispatch areas. Forklifts, equipped with sensors and cameras, can handle these bulky goods, placing them in designated spots, ready for shipment or storage.

4. Picking and Putaway:
In warehouses, the process of retrieving items (picking) and storing them (putaway) can be time-consuming. Material handling robots revolutionize this with their ability to swiftly navigate aisles, pick items based on real-time data, and place them in designated slots. This not only enhances accuracy but also drastically reduces the time taken.

5. Packaging:
Packaging requires precision and speed, especially in high-volume settings. Robots can be utilized to pick products from conveyor belts, place them into packages, and move these packages to final dispatch areas. The consistency robots provide ensures minimal damage and optimum efficiency.

6. Cross-Docking:
In cross-docking, products are directly transferred from incoming to outgoing transportation modes, minimizing storage time. Forklifts and tuggers are perfect for this, as they can swiftly move goods between vehicles, ensuring timely shipments and reducing warehouse storage needs.

Tested deployment methods: A roadmap to successful automation

In addition to increasing productivity and efficiency, automated material handling equipment can also improve safety and reduce errors. However, not all companies approach the deployment of automation in the same way. At Vecna Robotics, we follow a proven, tested 5-step approach to automation that ensures maximum utilization at minimal disruption to your current operations. 

For more information about how Vecna Robotics can help you on your automation journey, go to our From No Bot to Robot page here, watch our monthly webinar series for a more in-depth discussion about automation deployment, or contact us today to arrange a preliminary consultation with a material handling robotics expert to discuss your warehouse automation needs.