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Automation surges during Pandemic

Automation in the warehouse setting has been increasing in recent decades, as companies look to boost efficiency and safety. Toss in a pandemic that necessitates social distancing within warehouses and is also driving a surge in e-commerce across industries, and automation becomes, even more, a part of the conversation.

How are businesses approaching warehouse automation considering the ongoing issue of COVID-19? This month, Material Handling Wholesaler asked for some feedback. We also had Kevin Lawton from The New Warehouse interview with Martin McVicar and Nathan Bivans. Here is the link to that podcast.

“Automation really pervades every part of the warehouse; robots can assist in palletizing, depalletizing, picking, and transporting goods. They can also be used to clean and sanitize, which is obviously a big concern right now,” said Nathan Bivans CTO at FORT Robotics.

He said many robotics companies have seen an increase in demand since the pandemic started.

“Workforces have been compromised since more people need to stay home for health reasons to take care of the family. At the same time, people are doing more online shopping and distribution centers need to run at full capacity to meet the demand,” Bivans said. “In many cases, robots can reduce downtime and get more work done with fewer people, increasing overall productivity.”

At Combilift, the focus is on specialized forklift trucks designed for specific market segments and solution-based products. The company also manufactures the Aisle-Master, which allows for working in smaller aisle spaces.

“We’re living in a world where ‘automation’ has been the buzz word for a long time,” said CEO Martin McVicar.

He said Combilift leaders have noted that in terms of clients the company collaborates with, budgets for automation have not decreased. Still, the question of how the next three to six months will transpire lingers on.

“I think it’s going to be more challenging for smaller companies,” said McVicar, regarding the longer-term picture of automation investment.

But Combilift does offer a free warehouse design service, which has been especially popular in recent months.

“In the last four months, we’ve seen the demand for warehousing space has never been as high as it has at the moment. A lot of that is driven by the need to social distance,” said McVicar, who said there has been a “100 percent increase” in the demand for the company’s service for free warehouse design.

Combilift has implemented technology to make this service remote if preferred; having companies use a camera to move through the warehouse so Combilift’s advisors can identify areas for optimizing design.

It is part of a ground-up process in which Combilift evaluates warehouse operation. McVicar noted that when it comes to automation, companies should look at optimizing and then automating so as to not spend too much on antiquated systems in updates.

Meanwhile, the evolution of automated offerings continues. At TVH Americas, business development manager Chris Aiello said following the company’s acquisition of GEM One, the business now offers the Sapphire V2, which includes remote monitoring systems for industrial forklifts with an android-based touch screen and utilized cog base.

The cloud-based system is 4G Cellular enabled and includes GPS features, impact monitoring, impact detection, and a digital OSHA operator safety checklist. This allows the system to log the driver accessing the system. “This is a very important feature, especially nowadays with COVID contact tracing; it’s an electronic record of who operated the truck,” Aiello stated. That said, the system is a significant investment. Aiello said since the pandemic became widespread, a lot of new truck sales have slowed down.

But, he added the investment in the Sapphire V2 system is a good investment for those looking to optimize their fleet, track utilization, and lower maintenance costs.  In addition, more and more companies with rental fleets are looking for monitoring device solutions.

Aiello said TVH prides itself on being a “one-stop-shop” for parts and accessories and adding the GEM One product line fits with this mission. The GEM One support team is based in-house at TVH, offering customer support pre- and post-sale and troubleshooting services as well.

Some of the keys to the salability of the product is it comes standard with 4G cellular service and the touch screen for OSHA operator pre-shift checklists. The pricing includes a five-year cellular data subscription, so users do have to worry about monthly billing or having to get IT involved to connect to the service upon installation.

At TVH Americas, business development manager Chris Aiello said following the company’s acquisition of GEM One, the business now offers the Sapphire V2, which includes remote monitoring systems for industrial forklifts with an android-based touch screen and utilized cog base.

The system is WIFI enabled and includes GPS features, impact monitoring, impact protection, and a digital OSHA checklist. This allows the system to log the driver accessing the system.

“This is very important with everything going on with contact tracing; it’s an electronic record of who operated the truck,” Aiello said.

That said, the system is a significant investment. Aiello said since the pandemic became widespread, a lot of new truck sales have slowed down.

But he said the investment in the Sapphire V2 system has been appealing to rental companies as they also work on contact tracing and is helpful in knowing where their equipment is and how it is being used.

Aiello said TVH prides itself on being a “one-stop-shop” for parts and accessories, and then adding the Gen. 1 product line fits with this mission. The GEM One team is based in-house at TVH, offering customer support pre and post-sale and troubleshooting services as well.

Some of the keys to the salability of the product are the touch screen and the cellular service option. Once installed, users have a five-year subscription so as to not worry about monthly billing.

At FORT Robotics, smart machines also offer automated solutions for the current era.

“We have customers in warehousing and manufacturing as well as heavy equipment industries like construction and agriculture. Many different industries are embracing autonomous systems, and FORT’s goal is to help them accelerate their deployment and comply with safety regulations so that the people working with these machines are always protected – and ensure that these machines are protected as well from hackers or unauthorized use,” said Bivans, at FORT.

The company is a young one, just under two years old, according to Bivans.

“But we’ve already seen the reach of autonomous technology expand rapidly, and we’re growing right along with it,” he said.

Bivans said autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are getting smarter and more efficient at taking over repetitive or dangerous tasks, doing more work, and working faster overall.

“These trends will allow human employees to focus on work that’s more valuable and meaningful, and less repetitive or taxing physically,” Bivans said, adding that autonomous forklifts are also becoming more common as they are able to work in denser aisles.

He added that leveraging robots in close quarters allows employees to better observe social distancing.

“They can work in different areas and stay farther apart, with robots acting as a go-between and transferring goods,” said Bivans, noting with the FORT remote control, an operator can operate a robot or connected machine from a distance and reduce the need for sanitizing equipment after each use.

At Combilift, McVicar noted that demand for warehouse space is at a premium. Currently, he said lumber prices are particularly high as the DIY market and modular building surge.

McVicar envisions the latter trend continuing into the future as a variety of industries, such as schools, hospitals, and others, look at options for expanding facilities in the interest of social distancing.

And Bivans envisions trends of increased robotic use continuing after the pandemic.

“Warehouse automation was expanding rapidly even before the pandemic,” she said. “COVID accelerated its adoption, and gave many companies an incentive to move forward with existing plans.”

 About the Author:

Eileen Schmidt is a freelance writer and journalist based in the Greater Milwaukee area. She has written for print and online publications for the past 13 years. Email editorial@MHWmag.com or visit eileenmozinskischmidt.wordpress.com to contact Eileen. If your company would like to be featured, email editorial@MHWmag.com