Warehouses embrace technology

The warehouse.

It is perhaps one of the places most reflective of the state of the material handling industry, a key hub from which products flow and supply chains function. It is also the place where both new technologies blossom and some long-standing industry components hold fast. This month, we asked a few sources to talk about the current state of warehouses in material handling.

Here is some of what they are seeing on the ground floor of warehouses industry wide:

Robotics

Although it has a reputation for being new, mobile robots have been around since the 1960s, according to Josh Cloer, Mobile Industrial Robot’s North American sales director. But what is new is the technology being implemented, in particular slam robotics, or simultaneous location and mapping. MiR is a manufacturer of collaborative mobile robots.

“We’re the front-runner in this space,” said Cloer, adding that the use of the company’s autonomous mobile robots is “growing rapidly” in both manufacturing and warehousing. MiR’s own growth is reflective of this, as the company hired over 125 employees last year, opened a new office in San Diego and most recently opened a new office in Long Island.

The company’s robots can be used for many different applications in the warehouse and, according to the business, can be used to “optimize workflow, increase productivity and reduce costs,” according to a press release. Development continues in designing robots that can learn the specifics of the warehouses where they are stationed, identifying everything from forklifts to products, according to Cloer.

Also, in the near future, Cloer said MiR is working to enhance the ease for users of programming its robots with components like clear interface designs. The main market for the company’s robots currently is the automotive sector, according to Cloer, who said the industry has an innate knowledge of making adjustments, as it already does to accommodate different vehicle models.

Still, warehouses throughout the industry are “a rapidly growing space” for the business, he said.   “We see opportunities in parcel space as well as third party logistics space,” Cloer said.

Asked whether the company has heard concerns about robots taking over human jobs, Cloer said MiR leaders understand those worries. But he notes the current state of marketplace labor, with many businesses reporting difficulty in finding necessary workforce. Robots can aid in the completion of work by freeing up human staff for other jobs within the warehouse or business, he said.

Aaron Conway, president of Mezzanine Safeti-Gates, Inc. said in an interview with Material Handling Wholesaler last spring that the growing combination of automation and human workers means other warehouse systems are now being designed with the shift in mind. “With the mix between automation and traditional human workers around the (warehouse) areas, one of the keys is to get those two different styles to operate seamlessly and safely,” he said.

Mezzanine Safeti-Gates is incorporating more power operations into its gates and Conway said company designers also favor controlled access areas. With sensors added to safety devices, products can detect if a worker or piece of equipment is in the area. “It aids in the communication throughout the system. It can also tie into their software so they know how many areas are being utilized,” Conway said.

Packaging

At DHL Supply Chain, cartons are top of mind. It’s an issue almost every consumer, even outside of the material handling industry, is likely familiar with. “When you receive a shipment from Amazon or whomever, oftentimes that box can be grossly underutilized,” said Adrian Kumar, global head of operations science and analytics for DHL Supply Chain. “You might be wondering, ‘Why is this happening? Haven’t they figured out that they should be using a smaller box?’ The answer is that sometimes, a business does not have the right boxes on site at their packing stations, Kumar said.

In addition to the packaging waste, this is problematic because parcel carriers charge by dimensional weight, he said. So, for example, a three-to-four-pound object in a large box could end up being assessed a weight of 12 to 15 pounds. And so. DHL Supply Chain recently developed a carton optimization tool that reduces shipping costs by ensuring products are packaged in the optimal size boxes. The tool uses analytics to determine cartons needed in a warehouse to match order profiles and minimize dimensional weight charges, a release from the company said.

“Customer pilots utilizing the technology have witnessed up to a 20 percent reduction in shipping costs when combined with other parcel optimization tools, the release said. The DHL tool assess customer order history and item weight and then determines what 10 to 20 preconfigured box sizes should be on hand at the packing stations. “We make suggestions to customers to potentially switch out box sizes,” said Kumar, who said advice can also be to retool practices.

“Some of our customers like to ship everything together,” he said. “If you’re shipping a baseball bat and baseball helmet, if it was a separate order you would put the bat in a long narrow box and the helmet in a square box.

“If you put it together you need a big rectangular box blow, it might be driving up your shipping costs. “Those are the types of things we advise our customers on that are usually eye openers,” he said. DHL’s tool also helps customers look into what carriers might offer the best rates for their specific needs.

The company also helps client’s factor in how they want products to be presented and how much space they want in packaging. So far, DHL has used the tool for about five customers. Kumar said with ready access to the data, it can be put on DHL’s warehouse management system and the tool works fast. “The analysis is run pretty quickly. And the data doesn’t have integrity issues,” Kumar said.

Following the implementation strategy, it can take about a month for savings make their way into the books, according to Kumar. As the push for rapid fulfillment continues across industry sectors, DHL is working to help material handling warehouses be selective in how orders are filled. “It’s a whole multifaceted strategy,” Kumar said.

“Even the parcel carriers like it,” he said, adding that while one might think parcel carriers would object because they don’t get to charge as much dimensional weight, they would rather fill their trucks with effectively. “They don’t like big boxes with small items in them. They’d rather get more stuff in the vans,” Kumar said.

Fuel and Building Up

As to warehouse functions, many managers are taking a holistic view of operations, according to Jeremy Wishart, to the benefit of the propane industry. Wishart is director of off-road business development for the Propane Education and Research Council, or PERC.

Even as electric forklifts in the warehouse are growing in market share, Wishart says propane remains popular as the industry bounces back from the recent recession. “Over the last three to five years propane sales have gone up,” he said. “Most of the sales are happening because of the continuing changes and evolution of the warehouse distribution center environment.” As warehouses grow up in space, Wishart said aisles are narrower and automation is increasing. “It’s taking market share from traditional, sit-down forklifts,” he said.

Aaron Conway of Mezzanine Safeti-Gates also spoke of the growing vertical structure of many warehouses. “They’re building up, taking advantage of the space they have,” he said. “Now it’s not uncommon to see a second or even third level where people are working. Fall protections are even more significant” Mezzanine Safeti-Gates is working to meet these needs through systems designed to work on additional vertical levels, according to Conway.

Wishart said holistic considerations of fleet managers include emissions, cost of ownership, performance and productivity, and supply and fuel sourcing. “It’s no longer just about cost operations, they’re looking at everything,” said Wishart, adding that electric and diesel technology have critics over associated costs, particularly the cost of batteries. He said the green initiative of recent years has led the way in more businesses adopting the holistic approach. “It started that trend of looking deeper,” he said. People “also realized there are cost savings to be had. “Now fleet managers look at everything beyond the lift truck. Now they have choices.”

In the past year, Wishart said PERC has ramped up their efforts to illustrate emissions comparisons. In the next year, Wishart said he wants to defend propane’s market share and pursue more market share from diesel. The council wants to demonstrate how “propane can get the job done but it’s also going to save quite a bit of money.”