The warehouse landscape is fast changing due to emerging technologies
Published by : Industrial Automation
Arun Saravanakumar, is a Manufacturing and Supply Chain leader
From manufacturing plants to retail stores, how important is material handling to the economy of a country?
The sector literally gets a country ‘moving’. 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.
The manufacturing industry is still heavily reliant on conventional MHE even as automated options are available. What are the impediments in modernisation?
While the modernisation is well and truly on its way, the key impediments that exists still are:
Space: Especially in existing factories and warehouses, reimagining the layout and space to accommodate modernisation of material handling is a big entry barrier. Most robots, guided vehicles, conveyors all need significant change to how material flow happens and the existing infrastructure often does not render itself naturally to this change. On green fields, it gets a little easier; however, the investment on land is still a large upfront one to commit into.
Cost: Labour is even today manageably cheap. In most parts of the country temporary workforce handle the material handling job. Permanent labours, Unionised workforce with high wage demands are relatively absent. This has kept material handling cost from becoming prohibitive. Technology to replace people in such a setup is at times unjustifiable RoI wise.
Distributed scale of operation: Large warehouses, manufacturing units with massive scale of operations can’t see the other way from automation for efficiency in today’s world. However, these are far and few in between. Most operations today still happen from smaller warehouses and godowns, distributed for easy reach across the country lanes and these don’t render themselves easy for large scale automation.
Permanency of location: If you move, upgrade, change location every few years it is difficult to invest in automation, which seeks more permanency of operation. It is not easy to uninstall, move and restart material handling automation systems yet.
IT capability: This needs disciplined consistent investment in IT systems for long or deep pockets to change the information landscape overnight. IT systems and capability to handle this automation is integral to the progress we make.
End to end: Nowadays we have many solutions that meets the ‘bulk’ of material handling work. However, it is still not end-to-end. The last mile (imagine loading inside the truck as an example) is still an issue solution wise.
What is glad to note is that most of these impediments are steadily being shattered by many innovations in the field driven by determined solution providers.
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. 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.
There has been a massive change in bulk material handling systems over the years. Just to give an example, typical powder raw materials are no longer bundled into 25 kg packs, 600 of them loaded into a truck one bag at a time by a team of five (dusty all over) and unloaded at the other end by a similarly tired team, stacked in pallets and on racks and repeating this cycle for consumption and use. They are loaded and transported as tankers, sucked and stored into massive silo’s and through pipelines charged for consumption, the whole activity controlled through automated PLC systems, without the massive manual efforts of the past.
Are adequate safety features embedded in material handling equipment?
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. 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.
How are the emerging technologies like IoT, Lights, Voice, etc., are changing the warehousing landscape?
The warehouse landscape is fast changing due to these technologies. Light controlled pick and put away systems are now improving productivity by a whopping 30% plus, especially in high dense picking applications. Long orders, high through put items works best under such a use as these systems help increase the accuracy rates and order pick time much more than traditional systems did. Such applications also makes it easy to train the workforce, and prepare for high peak time needs as systems guide an untrained fresh labour what to do for each pick and experience isn’t a necessity for productivity. Voice has evolved over time with sharpening of recognition technology and today works flawlessly for the vocabulary of responses needed to confirm with the system generated instructions. Warehouses are now beginning to lit up, workers wear tech enabled gadgets as they go to work, ARMs move about the arena, racks reach the pickers instead through the many good to person systems and the look and feel of these warehouses is beginning to resemble sci-fi setups. The bottom line is that such efficient, error free operation are ending up supporting the evolving business needs.
eCommerce is driving today the driving force behind digitalisation of warehouses. What are the dominant trends here?
Everyone understands the need to fulfil 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. 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.
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Arun Saravanakumar, is a Manufacturing and Supply Chain leader, with 15 plus years of experience in leading FMCG global conglomerates like Asian Paints and L’oreal. His interest in automated manufacturing systems and technology started with his very first assignment 15 years back in stabilising a state-of-the-art and vastly automated green field plant and has grown to be a passion today. Over time, he has contributed in many facets of SCM and plant operation, planning, distribution, logistics, new launches and general management.