Tech in the US warehouse6 April 2023
The lifting materials handling sector in the US is experiencing a period of transformation as warehouse operations require greater levels of digitalisation and automation than ever before. Maria Highland reports.
Warehouse operators are always on the lookout for ways to drive efficiency within their operations and improve throughput while addressing consumer demands. This is then reflected in the types of solutions they look to incorporate into their operations.
The best way to improve operations is to address any challenges. Therefore, the needs of warehouses will have a direct impact on the types of solutions lifting materials handling equipment manufacturers will look to include in their product offering.
Consequently, in a post-pandemic world driven by a cost-of-living crisis, one of the key challenges that warehouses are facing are rising labour costs.
According to a report by warehouse robot tech firm AutoStore, called Five Challenges for Warehouse Management and Fulfilment in 2023, 27% of companies in North America find rising labour costs to be a concern.
In line with this, the report found that achieving greater work force efficiency was a key focus area for 31% of industry business leaders, while an identical percentage identified investing in automation technology as a key focus.
As a result, we are beginning to see more warehouse operators turn to lifting materials equipment that offers higher levels of automation to keep their operations running smoothly and efficiently.
Reflecting on the report, AutoStore head of global strategic accounts, Ellen Brune, notes that “there is a need to operate more efficiently, which is perhaps why nearly nine in ten organisations either have, or are planning to install, automation technology in their warehouse in 2023”.
“Automation technology has shifted to where it is no longer a ‘nice to have’ in the warehouse, but an absolute must-have,” insists AutoStore chief marketing officer Marcus Mogéus.
Consequently, lifting materials handling equipment providers need to evolve their offering in order to keep up with changing trends and changing customer demands.
More specifically, this entails looking to technology to enhance existing product offerings and elevate their solutions to meet the needs of increasingly technology-driven supply chains.
According to an online article by management consultancy McKinsey, “material handling, which includes the movement, storage and protection of products, is only as effective as the technology it relies upon”.
In the article, McKinsey explains that traditionally, material handling subsegments have been highly fragmented, which has allowed manufacturers to specialise in their respective areas, benefitting from existing brand recognition and relatively stable competition.
However, now these manufacturers are having a harder time adapting to a number of trends.
“Urbanisation and an ageing industry workforce have required manufacturers to offer progressively integrated and automated services and products,” McKinsey says.
Likewise, the “accelerating adoption of e-commerce on a larger scale is putting additional pressure on the segment with regard to stock-keeping unit (Sku) granularity, delivery times and responsiveness”.
This further reiterates the need for lifting materials handling equipment that can help warehouse operators achieve more efficient operations in the face of changing industry needs.
In particular, McKinsey finds that automation plays a particularly important role in warehouse management, especially when it comes to equipment that is responsible for product-movement needs.
Likewise, “the shift toward increased automation is primarily occurring in the Americas and Europe, driven by the push to increase cost efficiencies in regions with higher input costs,” McKinsey points out.
However, the levels of innovation will depend on the needs of the market.
“The need for automation – and the concurrent push to collect and store the amount of data necessary to support advanced analytics – is the result of ongoing trends in the broader material handling market, which can require different actions by manufacturers,” McKinsey says.
“Specifically, each segment must contend with specific trends based on its resilience to the Covid-19 crisis, the impact of market investment schemes, changing regulations, and increased customer demand for automation or digital solutions.”
So, what does this look like for the lifting materials handling industry?
Across supply chains we are seeing greater emphasis on automation when it comes to lifting within a warehouse setting.
Automation is ideal for warehouse activities that require heavy lifting and can run the risk of subjecting workers to activity-related injuries.
For example, logistics giant DHL Supply Chain demonstrated clear plans to further automate its warehousing operations in North America when it entered a $15m multi-year agreement with robotics firm Boston Dynamics in January 2022.
The agreement began with equipping DHL facilities with Boston Dynamics’ Stretch robot by spring 2022. The robot was specifically designed to automate the unloading process in distribution centres.
Boston Dynamics will also deliver a fleet of Stretch robots to multiple DHL warehouses throughout North America over the next three years.
Stretch is a multi-purpose mobile robot designed to tackle a number of tasks where rapid box moving is required, such as truck unloading. This helps increase the flow of goods and improves worker safety by taking over physically demanding tasks.
“Mobile robots enable the flexible movement of materials and improve working conditions for employees. Stretch combines Boston Dynamics’ advancements in mobility, perception and manipulation to tackle the most challenging, injuryprone case-handling tasks,” says Boston Dynamics chief executive Robert Playter.
Stretch features a custom-designed lightweight arm and a smart-gripper with advanced sensing and controls that can handle a large variety of box types and sizes. The robot also includes Boston Dynamics’ computer vision technology so that it can identify boxes easily without any pre-programming.
Stretch is capable of working autonomously through complex situations, such as disordered stacking configurations and recovering fallen boxes. It is equipped with a compact, omnidirectional mobile base, allowing the robot to navigate loading docks, manoeuvre in tight spaces, and adapt to changing facility layouts. This offers an alternative to automation that requires fixed infrastructure.
Likewise, the solution can be easily scaled depending on warehouse needs without incurring reconfiguration costs or investments in new fixed infrastructure.
In addition to truck unloading, another key area where automation is strongly required is in palletising operations.
“Robotic palletising is an excellent way to increase performance without hiring more personnel, taking on more labour liability, or expending money on training,” Cisco- Eagle, a material handling systems and equipment provider, says in its white paper End of Line Robotic Palletizing Applications: A Matter of When.
“With robotic palletising, you free up personnel for more customer-centred jobs, while the robot consistently delivers wellstacked pallet loads at exceptional speeds,” it points out.
Cisco-Eagle also explains that “automated processes allow greater quantities to be processed more quickly than could be done before. Machines work tirelessly, with repeatable accuracy and amazing efficiency.
“Robotic systems makes palletising more productive, reduces the cost of handling, reduces error rates, and increases throughput. It’s becoming increasingly affordable, so that operations of smaller scale are utilising this technology to compete with larger operations.”
Cisco-Eagle says that the relative cost of automation is falling, while costs for land, labour and space are increasing. “With costs rising for land, labour and space, while automation costs are static or in decline, many companies are moving faster than ever toward end-of-line automation,” it states.
Indeed, the robotics market is set to explode. According to the Mobile Cobots Market by Component Payload Capacity, Application, and By End-use Industry – Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast 2022-2030 report by Research and Markets, “the mobile cobots market size was valued at $656.1m in 2021 and is projected to reach $7.7bn by 2030 at a compound annual growth rate [CAGR] of 30.7% during the forecast period, 2022-2030”.
However, robotics and automation are not the only trends pervading the lifting materials handling equipment sector.
Where automation helps improve efficiency, data-driven technology can ensure the longevity of your lifting materials handling equipment. Therefore, the use of digital technologies and software greatly underpins automation.
For example, behind every Kuka palletising machine sits palletising software Kuka.PalletTech for flexible palletising of unmixed items in many packing patterns.
Kuka.PalletTech is specifically designed to be easy to use so that operators do not require extensive training. The software automatically generates robot programmes with the ability to expand the programme code to enable the integration of customised extensions.
It can be tailored to individual warehouse needs so that it can be easily integrated with existing operations to achieve secure stacking. Operators can be in control of the entire stacking process. This includes components such as grippers, infeed stations and outfeed stations as well as layer and stacking patterns.
Likewise, operators can also choose to use a combination of single or multi pickand- place routines.
When it comes to depalletising tasks, Kuka also provides Kuka.PerceptionTech software that can be used with a sensor to enable optimal layer and object recognition.
Data technology is not just for automation and robotics – it can be used with a range of lifting equipment materials within the warehouse.
Sitting firmly in the digital era, lifting materials handling manufacturers are looking to utilise technological advancements to better merge lifting and digital technology.
“It is an inevitable fact that humans become more and more intertwined with technology every day. The machines we use are smarter, faster and communicate more efficiently,” American Crane and Equipment Corporation (ACECO) president and chief executive, Karen Norheim says in a blog.
Norheim explains that American Crane is utilising these advancements and building upon them to come up with solutions such as the ACECO Smart Crane System, which makes use of the internet of things (IoT) to continually collect machine status data for analysis.
“In the simplest terms, [IoT is] an extension of internet and network connections to different sensors and devices embedded within industrial equipment and machinery. And its use is on the rise,” Norheim says.
“According to the most recent MHI [a material handling, logistics and supply chain association] Annual Industry Report, IoT solutions are currently deployed by 21% of material handling equipment owners and are poised to be adopted by 80% of them within the next five years,” Norheim points out.
“Further, the report found that 45% of those surveyed believe IoT has the potential to disrupt the industry in a positive way or create a competitive advantage among those who use it; 39% say IoT supports ongoing operational improvements.”
The ACECO Smart Crane System is primarily designed and engineered to support real-time, wireless IoT communication with overhead handling equipment. However, its application is not limited to just overhead handling and the system “can also be adapted to work with any other material handling equipment, utilising VFDs [variablespeed drives] for motion control and operation,” Norheim adds.
Making use of the data exchange allows material handling equipment operators to gain insight into a variety of information about their systems such as travel, lift, speeds, load weights, limit states and drive fault status.
This data can used to detect unsafe conditions, alert key personnel, and schedule preventative maintenance. Likewise, historical data can be analysed for comparison and evaluation of trends in the cloud.
Another company making use of data and IoT is Autoquip with its intelligent control panel AQ Connect for material lifts.
AQ Connect “provides application flexibility while streamlining programming, monitoring and reporting,” Autoquip says in a blog.
AQ Connect provides lift monitoring and reporting, giving operators real-time access to critical data via a customised dashboard. This helps save time and travel costs as information can be viewed remotely.
Access to real-time data also enables operators to stay informed of any equipment issues with safety alerts. This ensures that any potential safety concerns are addressed quickly. Alerts can be received by the controller or on a web-enabled device, or routed to other locations.
Likewise, AQ Connect can run selfdiagnostics to help accurately identify operational issues, eliminating guesswork so that any issues can be quickly resolved.
When it comes to solving problems, two-way communication with the lift simplifies software repairs and panel maintenance. Autoquip technicians can assess the situation remotely, ensuring that they arrive with the correct parts.
By tackling issues before they arrive and monitoring lift performance, overall lift downtime is reduced, helping operators stay on track to meet production targets and deadlines.
AQ Connect also collects historical data giving operators insight into helpful performance metrics and trends to drive production improvement opportunities. It also enables tasks to be automated by programming tasks. The company says that automating tasks makes lift operation easier and safer, and leaves staff free to focus on activities that require human interaction. This helps simplify the workflow and streamline operations.