Material Handling, Warehousing & SCM in Digital Era
Published by : Industrial Automation
Like most other fields, automation is also transforming the materials handling segment, both for in plant equipment as well as in the field of warehousing, which together also impacts the supply chain management arena.
So what are the new trends in material handling? “The material handling space is moving towards an integration of automated vehicles and system intelligence guided processes,” says Anirban Mazumdar, Chief Executive Officer, ThinkLink, a company that is helping customers adopt integrated automation solutions in their warehouses for improved performance. Influenced by both internal and external factors including growing online shopping, mass personalisation, changing workforce and the additional impact of sustainability, according to Anirban the segment is adopting new technologies like autonomous vehicles, robotics and automation, sensors and IoT and mobile and wearable computing.
While technologies are available, India is still far behind the curve when compared to the global trend currently as far as adoption of automation in material handling is concerned. “AGVs, robots, drones, autonomous handlers and many such automated material handling equipment have already become norms in the western world.We are too slow catching up with technologies being adopted in the developed nations including China. The trend today is moving away from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles or better still, automated electric equipment,” opines Dharmesh Salian, Managing Director, KAUP India Material Handling Pvt Ltd. KAUP is one of the leading European manufacturers of attachments for forklift trucks, with a wide range of products.
A typical plant needs several types of material handling equipment. What should be the ideal mix for efficient in-plant material handling? “Conveyors with better capabilities of diversion, speeds with lesser maintenance and noise levels along with complete visibility will continue to be a preferred choice in operations having adequate volumes. On the contrary, Bots will play a key role in co-existing with manpower to handle peak volumes. They will also play a key role in quick start of smaller operations demanding efficiencies coupled with service levels,” says Prasad S R Akshintala, Business Leader & Supply Chain Professional, Future Supply Chain Solutions Ltd. His response is focussed on warehouses and distribution centres, where he has the expertise.
“The fundamentals for unlocking productivity and improving operations in warehousing lies in the basic concept of gaining more visibility, improving tracking and thus gaining a control on processes. Only after you track, you can control. Only after you control you can optimise,” emphasises, Rupesh Narkar, Director of Sales, Logistics Automation Company, USA. Rupesh’s career focus includes designing, selling and implementing logistics automation solutions throughout Americas. “Automation technologies that offer positive inventory control, intelligent material flow, flexibility and tracking form the idea mix of material handling solutions in the plant or warehouse,” he adds.
KK Dakhara, Management Professional in Logistics & Warehousing, Prama Hikvision India, is of the view that material handling techniques used definitely affect plant operations and thereby need better layout and design of building architecture. Lower cost methods can be designed and installed only if material handling is considered an integral part of the plant layout. “Material handling equipment like smart forklifts, conveyor mobile robots, AGVs or automatic guided vehicles will change the traditional methods of material handling and also increase the efficiency of the workers,” he stresses.
The new technologies powering the equipment for moving materials is transforming the warehouse dramatically, with many positives. “Automated warehouses certainly seem to be the ultimate in modern distribution centres, needing very few people to operate, offering high levels of productivity,” notes Sudipto K Ghosh, Procurement & Supply Chain Manager, Makers Hive Innovations Pvt Ltd, which is a start-up in Robotics & Automation. According to him, the benefits are significant labour cost reduction, superior levels of productivity, high degree of efficiency, minimal risk of processing errors and improved inventory management.
“Warehouses today are the lynchpin between demanding, connected consumers and suppliers and brands. If distribution centres can’t fill orders quickly, efficiently, and accurately, companies potentially lose sales and market share,” says Sunil K Gupta, President, KION India Pvt Ltd. The KION Group is a worldwide leader in industrial trucks, related services and supply chain solutions and is represented in India by its six brands – OM, OM Voltas, Linde, Baoli, STILL and Dematic. But the same time, distribution centres cannot employ large scale manual labour for fulfilment of orders because of uncertain labour market as well as some tasks that are beyond the control of human effort. “Hence new warehouse facilities that utilise optimum space, can accommodate multiple product range, improve labour usage, safe, and are helping operations work smarter, better and faster is the need of the hour. This is forcing traditional warehouse to be transformed dramatically towards smart warehouse by applying more automation systems,” he adds.
So how is the Supply Chain Process impacted by digital transformation? “A supply-chain digital transformation, then, is about establishing a vision for how digital applications can improve service, cost, agility, and inventory levels and consistently implementing process and organisational changes that use these technologies to drive operational excellence,” observes Sudipto K Ghosh. He enumerates the points that are relevant here: Better decision making with recommendations for how to deal with particular situations, such as changing material planning and scheduling in response to new customer orders; automated operations that can streamline the work of supply-chain professionals allowing them to focus on more valuable tasks; end-to-end customer engagement with digital technology and more effective collaboration with both customers and suppliers. Talent is also important. “Digitally enabled supply chains have talent requirements that can be quite different from those of conventional supply chains,” adds Sudipto.
“By using big data solutions to properly manage an influx of data, supply chains can be rapidly enhanced by improving efficiency, cost optimisation, responsiveness and greater integration. Using digital technologies to drive transformation in supply chains is becoming increasingly popular,” says KK Dakhara, who currently heads Retail, Logistics, Warehouse, and Gems & Jewellery Vertical in Prama Hikvision India. With his vast experience, he contributes to Hikvision’s R&D effort, and is also wary about the flip side of digitalisation. “The more digitalised a supply chain becomes, the more at risk they become to a cyberattack. As a supply chain grows on a global scale, this will mean trusting elements of the chain to third-party suppliers, which – if not properly mitigated – can have severe repercussions. It is essential for a business of any scale to have a proper cybersecurity policy in place to effectively manage and mitigate risk throughout their supply chain network,” he cautions.
With so much at stake, is this the right time for enterprises to outsource supply chain management to professional organisations? “It may not be possible to outsource supply chain management as a whole to professional organisations. Organisations should identify the core and differentiating activities as per their value chains and consider outsourcing others. In most cases, Supply Chain Planning may need to be done by the organisation internally. Depending on the value chains, Sourcing and Raw Material management, Order management, Distribution, Last mile delivery, etc., could be critical,” says Anirban Mazumdar. In general, activities like stores management, warehousing, IT systems and software, manpower management and transportation could be more apt for outsourcing to professional organisations, he opines.
Dharmesh Salian is more forthright on this count. “In fact, most of the enterprises requiring trouble free handling of their goods are already outsourcing their supply chain activities to professional organisations such as 3PL. Apart from the best storage and handling methods followed by such organisations, enterprises can benefit immensely from the knowledge base of such organisation on issues such as current tax laws, interstate goods movement, mandatory documentation and other such issues,” he stresses.
But India is still in the early stages of automation in warehousing, barring some global e-tailers. So what exactly are the barriers here? “Moving supply chain of an organisation from a cost centric focus to a business enabler function is the one barrier which organisations in the etailing and retailing segments have realised early in their life cycles and thereby adoption of automation and digitisation in their supply chains are increasing. As organisations want to achieve scale at a faster pace having a customer centric, agile partner who could infuse the right dose of automation would play an important role to the success of the organisation,” says Prasad S R Akshintala.
“For any emerging economy, the blood veins are the logistics and transportation industry. In the recent times, the transport, logistics and warehousing industry has gained prominence with the government granting infrastructure status to these industries. Yet, the adoption of logistics automation in India hasn’t been up to the mark as compared to other parts of the world, for various reasons,” opines Rupesh Narker. The challenges for Indian markets in adopting automation are not only limited to cost. It needs a change in approach, he concludes.
(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)