Material Handling Industry: How Automation is Affecting Flexibility

In one big sweep, automation improves quality, safety, and productivity. It can make your company more competitive and can even prove as an effective marketing tool, just like the robots from Amazon all over YouTube.

Yet, when thinking about an automated solution, the drawbacks need to be considered too. One of these possible downsides is flexibility. It is essential to fully comprehend the impact automation will make on the flexibility of your operation, as well as recognize the importance of this flexibility to the operation’s mission.

The Relationship between Flexibility and Technology

As an imaginary experiment, think of the 3 following situations for a pallet-level warehouse:

  • It doesn’t get more flexible than in a wide-open warehouse; you can do all things you want but will probably have a lot of wasted space overhead and extended drive times.
  • High-bay racking restricts our footsteps a little, but otherwise stores what you need. You can have some quite good storage density and no more digging in bulk bays for you to retrieve buried loads.
  • ASRS offers tons of speed, the storage density is incredible, and is extra labor efficient, but can only perform particularized processes and the inputs have to be exactly right.

3 varying levels of technology – racking, floor storage, and ASRS.  All of them have their place on the flexibility scale.  Due to the risk of oversimplifying, the number of options a management team has generally declined as the automation increases.

Price and complexity vs. flexibility

We’ve established that the equipment used in your operation affects how flexible your operation will be; that isn’t terrible. Sadly, there is another bigger impact on the flexibility that is related to automating a facility, and it involves the investment that is linked to the project – both human and financial.

Below are some examples of how the operation’s flexibility is affected by capital investment:

Don’t mess this up: There is a much higher price to failure with automation vs. a plain MHE-based picking process.  As the expense for a trial iteration of a new process increases, a team will begin to lose the experimental ground that would allow them to try as many sequential iterations required to dial a process in. For projects with bigger investments, you practically have to get it right on the first try. At  Hovair, we employ best practices and simulations to reduce the impact of this issue. It is one of the best Material handling Industry.

Good things take time: To get truly invested in automation, your team will have to pass through capital approvals, delivery installation, purchasing processes, testing, and on goes the list! This situation is immensely different when comparing to a small or zero capital project where you can execute a good idea within the day. At times, the ideal situation for automated solutions sounds like “I think we can squeeze it in next quarter IF we just concentrate on it.”

Sounds like a great idea but…: Causing to the nature of automation, it is extremely difficult to incorporate all of the little adjustments and process improvement initiatives that users find by working the process.  Surely, you could include some, but often some great ideas are left behind because it’s too expensive to make the automation or equipment work in harmony.

Finding a balance

Flexibility and automation don’t have a linear relationship. Automation can be planned to maximize the inherent flexibility of the solution– however, you have to plan it in that manner!  Consider a collaborative robot vs. a traditional robot cell.

Automation moves on a spectrum. Not only are there multiple levels of automation for one process, but you can choose specific things to automate and not others.  The intrinsic flexibility can be found in apparently unexpected places (imagine a full-scale WMS with pickers on pallet jacks). There are great opportunities for the physical process, but it may not be so for software.

Return on investment: A business aims to make money. This should go without saying, but two factors heavily influence the return on your investment from automation; the return and the investment. An innovative engineer would approach this by searching for an inexpensive type of automation to generate the same return, while a competitive operations manager would milk every ounce of return out of an investment.  Looking at only half the picture limits the available tools.

When reviewing the unique challenges of operations, and the best type of solution or automation, it’s crucial to look at the entire effect of each option– including on flexibility. What might work for one business may not fit for another in a similar market. Whatsoever your challenges, Hovair has a lot of expertise with operations and engineering methods, plus we can hook you up with vehicle turntables, rigging systems, and shipping container casters to suit your needs.

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