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material handling

Material handling refers to the process of storing, picking, and distributing goods and materials, typically within a factory or warehouse. Various technologies are used to achieve this and can include: manual handling, forklifts, robotics, and conveyors. Any industry that deals in the production of physical goods makes use of material handling throughout the product life cycle. Common examples include: consumer goods, food and beverage, and manufacturing industries. Well planned and executed material handling techniques can reduce lead times, increase cost savings, and limit product damage.

This article will discuss what material handling is in general, how it works, the various types of equipment used, as well as the advantages of good material handling practices.

What Is Material Handling?

At its essence material handling refers to the process of moving materials or goods from one location to another, typically within a warehouse, manufacturing facility, or processing plant. Material handling is an integral part of every industry, and optimizing the process can result in significant gains in productivity. Traditional material handling was performed manually by material handlers and machine operators, however, modern material handling techniques make extensive use of automation due to the sheer volume of material that needs to be handled efficiently.

How Does Material Handling Work?

A typical material handling system consists of the following steps:

Receiving: Raw materials, components, or completed products are first received from various suppliers or departments. Typically this step consists of unloading the materials from a truck, train, plane, or ship, inspecting them, logging them into the system, and potentially placing them in a staging area for further processing.
Storage: The items are then moved into the relevant warehouses or stockpiles. Depending on the type of materials and storage method used by the facility, the items are stored on shelves, racks, or placed in free-standing stockpiles.
Picking: When an order is placed—by a consumer, company, or another department—the relevant items are retrieved from storage using one of many different material handling technologies, like forklifts or automated robotic systems.
Sorting: The items are then sorted and consolidated, so they can be efficiently handled and ultimately shipped to their final destination.
Packaging: The items are then packaged depending on shipping requirements; typical packaging can include boxes or pallets for example. These packaged items are placed in staging areas ready for transport.
Transport: Finally, the packaged items are collected from staging areas and are then loaded onto trucks, trains, ships, or aircraft for shipping to their final destination.
It must be noted that throughout this process the items are monitored and logged into software systems to keep track of where they are in the process. This is critical to the effective functioning of the material handling system.

How Much Does Material Handling Cost?

The cost of material handling depends on many factors, and it is not possible to list a simple cost value. These factors can include the types of materials to be handled, the handling technologies employed, the scale of the operation, and the distances between the various warehouses or processing stages. On the cheapest level, manual techniques like: handling by hand, carts, pallet jacks, and forklifts are used. On the more capital-intensive side, robotic arms and self-navigating autonomous vehicles are used to reduce the labor component of the cost.

Can the Cost of Material Handling Be Reduced?

Yes, in most cases you can reduce the cost of material handling by performing detailed analyses of the system as a whole to determine the optimal method of moving and storing materials while striking a balance between capital and operational expenditure. For example, automation can require a high initial capital investment, but over time the reduction of labor costs can make it more cost-effective. This is especially true for larger, complex material handling facilities. However, for smaller facilities, it may be more cost-effective to maintain a manual material handling system.

Who Handles Material Handling?

Material handling is a complex process that requires a diverse team with multiple different skill sets. At the most basic level, a material handler is directly involved with physically handling the goods. Logistics coordinators and managers ensure that the flow of goods throughout the supply chain is controlled and efficient. Industrial engineers are tasked with analyzing complex material handling systems to find more efficient and productive workflows. And finally, maintenance technicians are required to keep all the material handling equipment functional to prevent unexpected downtime.

What Are the Different Types of Material Handling?

There are many different types of material handling technologies. Many are used in conjunction with each other to improve overall efficiency and productivity during the material handling process, the most common are listed below.

1. Robotics
Robotics in general are widely used in large-scale materials handling scenarios, specifically in warehouses in which the environments are controlled and safe. Technologies like robot arms and self-navigating carts have become common, however, advances in manufacturing and machine learning are starting to give rise to humanoid robots which can operate in the same environments as humans while costing significantly less than a human in the long run. These robots are designed with a humanoid form factor, so they can operate in environments originally designed for humans.

2. Forklifts
Forklifts have been a staple in the materials handling industry for decades, with very little change in their fundamental mode of operation. Forklifts are designed to move palletized materials and have enough reach to access pallets stored on warehouse shelves. Forklifts can cover a wide range of capacities from a few hundred kilograms to many tons.

3. Conveyors
Conveyors are another staple of the materials handling industry. There are many different types but in general, conveyors are designed to move goods over relatively short distances between locations which do not vary significantly in terms of elevation. For consumer goods applications, roller-type conveyors are common; these consist of multiple rollers next to each other and can either be powered or free-running. More-advanced conveyors are designed to automatically detect, sort, and direct goods to different areas for further processing. Standard conveyors consist of a rubber belt that is tensioned between at least two pulleys and runs along multiple flat or troughed idler pulleys. These conveyors, especially troughed conveyors, are more often used for conveying bulk raw materials.

4. Manual Handling
Manual handling refers to the practice of moving goods and materials by hand. This solution is only effective for small volumes and low-weight goods. Manual labor is typically not cost-effective in markets with worker-centric labor laws, as such manual handling is limited to smaller niche applications or at least performed in conjunction with automated and mechanized solutions.

5. Shelving and Racking
Shelving and racking are commonplace in every warehouse on the planet and typically follow a standard design. Shelves and racking are the most efficient way to store materials in a given floor space while still allowing easy access for retrieval and storage by forklifts and other material handling solutions. Shelving is typically used for lightweight, easy-to-access goods whereas racking is used for heavier goods, commonly loaded onto pallets.

6. Cranes and Hoists
Cranes and hoists are used to efficiently lift heavy materials and move them within a predefined area. It is common for cranes to offload containers from trucks, trains, and ships, from which the goods can be unloaded and distributed to a warehouse or stockyard.

7. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
AGVs refer to a class of material handling vehicles that are designed to autonomously navigate a warehouse environment performing sorting, storing, and retrieval tasks with limited or no intervention from a human operator. Various techniques are used by these vehicles to navigate their environments; common examples include following lines or wires placed on the floor around the warehouse or by utilizing a combination of visual or lidar sensors to autonomously navigate. AGVs are designed with collision avoidance capability to prevent damage to equipment or injury to personnel.

8. Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
AS/RS refers to a system often incorporating multiple technologies to retrieve and store goods within a warehouse setting. These systems are integrated with software to intelligently move goods to where they are needed. An example of such a system would consist of a retrieval robot, which can take many different forms such as: a shuttle, crane, or robotic arm, that can traverse the racking within a warehouse and navigate to the required goods, remove them from storage and then transfer them to a waiting AGV, conveyor, or similar system. The goal of these systems is to have little to no human interaction while improving speed and increasing the available storage space by removing the need for wide passages between racks to allow forklift access.

9. Packaging and Sorting Systems
Packaging systems typically prepare goods for transport or further storage and can consist of a wide range of different technologies. Typical examples include machines designed to wrap palletized goods with flexible plastic to ensure they don’t fall off the pallet during transport. For more-complex packaging systems, items are automatically loaded into boxes for further distribution. Sorting systems are designed to ensure that goods are directed to the correct storage or staging areas for further processing. Typical examples can include conveyors which can be integrated with cross-belt, sliding-shoe, or tilt-tray sorters to direct goods from one conveyor onto another one or into a chute for further processing. Goods are scanned using barcode scanners or other OCR (Optical Character Recognition) systems to identify and track them.

10. Palletizing and Depalletizing Systems

Goods are often transported on standard pallets that are designed to be easy to move using forklifts and manual pallet jacks. Stacking goods onto a pallet is known as palletizing and this is typically done using automated systems; goods are fed to a palletizing machine which efficiently stacks them onto a steady supply of pallets. Pallets are often stretch-wrapped with plastic once the palletizing is completed, the pallet is then ready for shipping. De-palletizing is the opposite process, a pallet is placed in a de-palletizing machine which de-stacks the items from the pallet and distributes them throughout the warehouse.

Which Industries Use Material Handling?

Every industry makes use of material handling in some form. Listed below are three of the most common industries that make extensive use of material handling processes and technologies.

Manufacturing: The manufacturing industry requires a steady supply of raw materials while also distributing completed components to assembly lines or shipping them to other facilities for additional processing.
Food & Beverage: The food and beverage industry makes extensive use of automated material handling systems due to the sheer quantity of items produced. In addition, fast, efficient distribution is key to ensuring fresh goods are delivered to their destination in time.
Consumer Goods: The delivery of a new cell phone, gaming console, or microwave to your doorstep within a few days at most is all dependent on a vast, global supply chain that would not be possible without highly automated material handling systems.

What Are the Advantages of Proper Material Handling?

An effective material handling system can offer a wide range of benefits as described below:

Lower Costs: Effective material handling can dramatically reduce costs on multiple fronts. For example, labor costs can be reduced with automated systems. Wastage and lost goods can be eliminated with automated tagging and sorting technologies.
Reduced Delivery Times: Consumers want their items as quickly as possible. With all other things equal, they’ll often prefer buying from a supplier with a shorter delivery time. Delivery times can be significantly reduced with proper material handling systems and technologies.
Reduced Space Requirements: Shelving and racking integrated with AS/RS systems and AGVs can allow for space to be used more effectively. For example, the space between shelving can be reduced as there is no requirement for forklift access, meaning that more goods can be stored per square meter, thus reducing warehouse space requirements.
Reduced Damage: Automated material handling systems are designed to carefully handle goods to prevent accidental damage which is common with human material handlers. This ultimately reduces customer dissatisfaction and profit loss due to damaged goods.

What Is the Importance of Material Handling in Different Industries?

Material handling is a critical component in every industry that deals with the production and distribution of physical materials and goods. Inefficient material handling practices can result in cost overruns.

Is There Any Risk in Material Handling?

Yes, there are many potential risks in material handling. For example, automated and manual material handling systems have the potential to result in serious injuries if not properly used or controlled. Forklifts, for example, account for a large number of workplace accidents. Automated systems are more predictable and are designed to operate alongside humans without posing a danger.

Is There a Material Handling Guide?

There is no specific catch-all guide to material handling as each solution is specific to the environment in which it will be deployed. However, there are many guides available describing the various technologies and how they can be utilized within common scenarios.

What Are the Different Types of Material Handling Equipment?

There exists a wide range of material handling equipment that can be broadly categorized into manual and automated equipment. Manual examples include: forklifts, pallet jacks, and hoists whereas automated equipment can include: robot arms, automated guided vehicles, and palletizing equipment.

What Are the Best Practices for Material Handling?

The material handling industry covers a vast range of technologies and strategies. Despite the complex environment, there are some universal best practices as described below:

Standardization: Standardization is a critical factor for an efficient material handling system. This does not only include standardizing the types of storage systems and handling equipment but also the software and procedures used. Standardization can help reduce the complexity of expanding handling capacity while also improving efficiency across the board. For example, standardized shelving and racking can make extending capacity as simple as adding additional shelves to the existing ones without compromising systems designed to work with the current shelving and racking solution.
Effective Equipment Selection: Material handling equipment must be carefully selected based on several factors. For example, the type of material, budget constraints, potential future expansion, and availability of skilled operators and technicians must all be considered. A facility designed to move bulk raw materials may not be suited to AGVs and can be better served with conveyors and front-end loaders. Conversely, a consumer goods facility can make use of conveyors, AGVs, forklifts, and robotic arms.
Regular Maintenance: Material handling systems rely on the seamless integration of many different technologies. A failure in any one of these can result in the breakdown of the entire system, as such following a preventative maintenance plan is essential to maintaining uptime.
Automation: Automation is becoming ever more prevalent in the material handling industry. This is due to the technologies becoming cheaper and easier to implement. Companies that do not automate are at a distinct disadvantage when compared to companies that have integrated automation. However, automation is not always viable. For example, smaller facilities might still be better suited to traditional manual handling systems.
Safety: Safety is critical in a complex material handling environment, especially when mixing automated and manual processes. Human material handlers can be exposed to fast-moving automatic systems that can cause serious injury if not properly designed with safety features. Manual equipment like forklifts also pose a serious hazard to employees.
Ergonomic Systems: Ergonomics are important to ensure that the system is designed with human capabilities and limitations in mind. This helps prevent injuries and improve worker satisfaction while optimizing for efficiency.

What Is the Difference Between Material Selection and Material Handling?

Material selection often refers to the process of picking a material for a specific use case. The decision is often based on application requirements, for example, applications that require high strength while keeping weight low would benefit from a material like aluminum. Material handling on the other hand refers to how raw materials and finished products are moved throughout the supply chain from raw material to completed product.


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