Material Handling, Logistics & Warehousing
Published by : Industrial Automation
The crucial role material handling plays in production, logistics and warehousing.
Faith moves mountains, it is said. Unfortunately, faith does not move materials, which is what industry and commerce is all about. Manufacturing involves use of raw materials to make finished goods and material handling is an integral part of this process. So from manufacturing plants to retail stores, how important is material handling to the economy of a country? “Good question,” says Dharmesh Salian, Managing Director, KAUP India Material Handling Pvt Ltd. “Material handling is one of the neglected building blocks in our economy, being very thinly represented at appropriate government forums. Be it manufacturing plants, distribution centres or even the smallest retail stores, material handling poses a major challenge if not planned well. Well-designed plants or stores if not matched with good material handling practices may cause severe bottlenecks in operations thus affecting not only operational efficiencies but also safety in working conditions in addition to the safety of the product itself. This eventually leads to higher operational costs and many a times even an opportunity loss. When you extrapolate this industry level situation to the entire country, it causes tremendous drag on the economy,” he elaborates. To read full response click here
“The material handling sector literally gets a country moving,” asserts Arun Saravanakumar, Manufacturing and Supply Chain leader. “In service, industry or the agriculture based economy, the goods are always on the move and intricately linked to the basic functioning of any economic activity. While it is more apparent in the industry and agriculture sector where goods movement, preservation, storage and delivery is how business happens besides the conversion or harvest process, even for service material movement is not an exception. Even by conservative estimate 50% of the country GDP is directly or indirectly dependent on if we handle the materials well.” To read full response click here
According to Ramesh Bhorania, Vice President, Robotics and Factory Automation, Prama Hikvision India Pvt Ltd, the material is paramount substance in manufacturing plants to retail stores to even end-consumers. Raw material, finished goods, inventory at each stage, and material movement itself are the important part of an entire business process and takes significant consideration from operational manpower, equipment, and process itself. “If all are not in sync, the impact on overall efficiency and production yields will be negatively huge and may become bottlenecks. This synchronisation process is broadly termed as material handling or material management. It is clearly apparent that the importance of material handling to the economy of a country is as equal as of industries itself,” he says. To read full response click here
“Put simplistically, material handling is the basic underlying process of every physical transaction. So we like to joke that it is a ‘necessary evil’ because although it doesn't really add any value to the product, but still is required nonetheless,” opines Tushar Mehendale, Managing Director, ElectroMech. To read full response click here
The manufacturing industry is still heavily reliant on conventional MHE even as automated options are available. What are the impediments in modernisation? Sangeet Kumar, CEO and Co-Founder, Addverb, a company offering automation and robotic solutions, is of the opinion that the Indian industry is graduating and is graduating fast from go-downs to modern warehouses. “In yesteryears’ go-downs, the goods were kept on the floor in an unorganised fashion and material movement used to happen through people carrying the goods from one point to another point. But due to the rise of ecommerce, GST and tremendous competition, some companies started taking the first step to build quality warehouses, i.e., warehouses that are structurally strong, stable, with good flooring and a height of minimum 7m-10m, and these companies are gradually moving towards modern ways of handling material. Still, this is 20-25% of total warehousing, and is not enough to bring a significant transformation in material handling. In fact, automation is much more meaningful when vertical space is utilised along with reasons such as throughput requirements, which can’t be achieved by increasing labour, space constraints such as single facility operations, equity or customer demand for instant gratification such as a 2-4 hour delivery window, then people need automation,” explains Sangeet Kumar. To read full response click here
According to Tushar Mehendale, conventional MHEs and fully automated MHEs have their own individual niches that they occupy depending on the productivity output required and the variety to be handled. For simplistic tasks that are not highly repetitive or where a lot of variety is involved, conventional MHEs are much better suited and practical. For jobs that involved high volumes of repetitive movements in relatively shorter amounts of times, automation would be the way to go. “There is always a cost-benefit tradeoff in deciding between conventional vs. automated. Modernisation does not necessarily always mean that its automation. There is a lot of scope for modernisation in the traditional manually operated material handling equipment, e.g., operator assist features, safety cut-offs, warning systems, etc.,” says Tushar.
“The material handling equipment options best suited for any organisation is defined by the complexities involved in the operations as well as the throughput desired. But there is a general inertia in Indian industries towards implementing best practices employed by industries worldwide,” says Dharmesh Salian. “My feeling is that it is sometimes the fear of failure while bringing into play latest technologies which holds back decision makers and many a times it is also the acquisition cost, which becomes a strong barrier. If organisations study the TCO (Total Cost of Operations) over the entire life of such Automation projects being implemented and the benefits derived therein like reduced dependency on labour, preventing material damage, ensuring safe working conditions and enhanced throughputs, then capex in such systems is better justified. It is for the industry leaders to drive such initiatives in the larger interest of the economy in general and their organisation in particular,” he elaborates.
“Conventional material handling systems cannot be replaced immediately by the modern or advanced system in one go,” says Ramesh Bhorania, who feels the challenges are of huge capital investment, consideration of RoI, and the readiness to adopt newer technology. “But steady and slowly it is happening and will accelerate this adoption of advanced automation technology for MHE in logistic domain. The latest technology is based on Machine Vision, AI and Mobile Robotics,” he adds.
The field of material handling is vast, catering to the requirements of inplant material handling as well as the bulk handling for process industries like mining and chemicals. So what are the changes witnessed in conveyors and bulk material handling systems in process industries? “Conveyors have long existed for over three hundred years and have evolved massively from the time the first man operated the setup to convey material on a belt, says Arun Saravanakumar. According to him, recent changes witnessed include the usage of material that ensures longevity of the belts, cheaper and more energy efficient conveyors and the ones with a more precise motion control. These have all been game changers, which has resulted in the multitude of applications we see it put to use today. “But nothing probably beats the excitement around the ‘smart’ conveyors that are evolving: ML and AI driven that is smart enough to monitor its own health and productivity and manage the complex sorting needs of the hour,” points out Arun.
“Conveyors are at the heart of an array of exciting changes in material handling – from the vast installations of automated warehousing to humbler stations only recently automated,” says Ramesh Bhorania, who feels each conveyor installation has unique design requirements: Food and beverage conveyors might need to survive wash-down settings; conveyors in aerospace and defense operations may need to be explosion-proof; and conveyors automotive manufacturing facilities may necessitate conveyors with very high load ratings. “Conveyor systems that carry a product on uniform pallets and pallet-handling conveyor systems are also becoming more compact. Transfers between conveyors are streamlined, utilising direction-changing modules and pallets with mating features,” he observes.
“The biggest change in conveyor technology is the advent of IoT, which is making the conveyors more and more smart, as in now they can track everything they are conveying – case/crate/pallet, etc., at any point of time and at all times. Along with this, the smartness is helping on the predictive and preventive maintenance, where the conveyors are able to understand when they are going to fail, and can warn the operations people so as to get support and keep on running. The robustness because of the smart technologies is making businesses go for smarter conveyors and as an automation solutions provider, we also strive to achieve this,” says Sangeet Kumar.
Like most mechanical things, material handling equipment is also likely to cause injuries or lead to mishaps, especially as the use is quite widespread today. Now with growing automation trends, are adequate safety features embedded in material handling equipment? “There is a definite trend towards appending safety features into a material handling equipment but there is need to have a comprehensive view towards safety. For example, we, at KAUP, design attachments, which not only spruce up operational efficiencies but also provide safe working conditions. Though the benefits of availing such equipment are well known, not enough importance is given to attachment requirements while planning for material handling equipment. Attachments is still seen as an option and the larger picture is usually neglected,” laments Dharmesh Salian.
“With automation coming in Safety has benefitted in a big way. Safety becomes one of the default features in all the new age solutions and is being incorporated in most cases from the drawing board itself,” opines Arun Saravanakumar, and points out how speed controls, emergency stops, trip systems, load managers, ergonomic convenience, man material interface points are well evolved, which is rapidly bringing down accident rates at the factories over time. “However, like always with Safety, one needs to be aware and conscious about the risks as these are machines at the end of the day. Training of operators is still key, risk assessments a must before deployment and regular periodic course corrections should be considered par for course as more and more man and machine occupy the same space for producing a cumulative output,” he emphasises.
“Yes, all the equipment has moving parts and they are complying with the standards of EN, CE Certification, SIL level 3, etc. Like our pallet shuttle, mother shuttle do have CE certification and we are building our AMRs also on the same principles and are getting required certifications. Through these certifications we ensure that we have mechanical guarding in place, emergency push buttons, pull cords, safeguarding all pinch points, etc.,” says Sangeet Kumar, from the manufacturer’s perspective. This view is endorsed by Tushar Mehendale when he quips: “A responsible manufacturer always needs to ensure that the equipment that is put into the marketplace has all the necessary safety features that the customer has asked for in addition to basic safety features that are inherent in the design and manufacturing of the equipment.”
It is not just that the equipment is automated. Emerging technologies like IoT, Lights, Voice, etc., are changing the warehousing landscape dramatically. What are these now developments? “Products of the newer generation are equipped with all safety mechanisms based on AI, IIoT and latest sensory technologies. So far robotics is concerned, Cobots are available now on the floor and these can work with a human operator in safe conditions. Mobile robots for MHE also work on coexistence of human. Due to Ultrasound and laser technology, it can work safely with operators, find dynamic obstructions and plan re-routing in accordance with Robot Control System or Fleet management system. Due to digitalisation and IIoT, real-time update of all SKUs is available and this information can be availed for quick delivery of SKUs through mobile robots. The automatic verification of inventory in storage through Machine Vision based scanner mounted through Mobile Forklift is the latest example of changing the scenario at warehouse landscape,” explains Ramesh Bhorania. “There is a definite movement happening towards Industry 4.0 in the warehousing space and ‘dark warehouses’ are becoming reality,” Tushar Mehendale agrees.
“IoT, light and voice enabled devices and wearable devices are vastly popular especially in large warehouses of few multinational organisations, which are already exposed to such technologies at their headquarters. After the advent of GST and the warehouses getting consolidated, some organisations have benefited greatly in espousing these emerging technologies due to economies of scale. Such organisations which have adopted these technologies are few are far between and India is still way behind in adopting the aforesaid technologies on a large scale,” says Dharmesh Salian matter of factly.
Coming to the present day, it is eCommerce is driving today the driving force behind digitalisation of warehouses. What are the dominant trends here? “Everyone understands the need to fulfill a consumer request with the shortest lead time possible. This particularly accentuates during festive season sales, and Big Billing days that eCommerce strategically deploy to artificially pull in orders. The hero products and long tail is a reality with ecommerce,” says Arun Saravanakumar, and mentions how the biggest and the most dominant trend therefore is picking and assembling the final good to be shipped – rapidly and error free and to do that at scale. “Digitisation is certainly providing the requisite solutions here. When we speak of eCommerce it is important to appreciate the level of customisation that is taking shape and build a strong need for sustainable material handling solutions,” he adds.
“Ecommerce is fundamentally changing the very way how the supply chain and warehousing industry operates. The promptness of the service, ensuring product availability, achieving low-cost last mile delivery operations have never been more challenging than in this Covid period,” says Sangeet Kumar, and mentions a few of the common trends that have been dominating since the booming days of internet till date. These include:
1. Data driven decision making: Ecommerce paving a royal way for the data driven decision making that includes both real time data and the historical data in deciding end to end warehousing functions.
2. Increased use of automation: Ecommerce is one of the biggest levers of automation to cater to the limited Turn Around Time (TAT) of the entire supply chain from the time a customer places an order to receipt of the order.
3. Rise of MFCs: eGrocery is the latest trend in the retail industry across all the developed, and developing countries of the world. With miniaturised warehouses situating close to the consumption hubs, they enable delivery of grocery items within 2-4 hours of ordering.
4. Shift from bulk material handling to unit items handling: Ecommerce industry shifted the ordering quantity from bulk to individual items, which led to the rise of industries like 3PL which takes care of the order fulfilment.
(Note: The responses of various experts featured in this story are their personal views and not necessarily of the companies or organisations they represent. The full interviews are hosted online at https://www.iedcommunications.com/interviews)