Get ready for kinder, gentler material handling equipment in the warehouse. As manufacturers reduce packaging to meet sustainability goals, "the underlying product is more vulnerable to damage, so clients are demanding gentler handling," said Stephen C. Ackerman, executive vice president of manufacturing systems for Intelligrated, a manufacturer of material handling equipment and solutions. Ackerman spoke at the North American 2010 Material Handling and Logistics Show in Cleveland, Ohio, in April.
The proliferation of stock-keeping units (SKUs) and the resulting complexities of packaging and assortment will also prompt distribution operations to employ material handling equipment that has a lighter touch. For example, distribution centers are being asked to handle both large, sale-ready displays for large retailers and smaller-sized packages for convenience stores. The growing number of packaging variations also requires special handling "You have eighteen flavors of water, and we're seeing 'rainbow' packages where manufacturers put three different flavors in one core package," Ackerman observed.
To meet these conflicting demands, warehouses will have to deploy automated systems that are both flexible and gentle enough to accommodate varying package sizes and types. "Warehouses now have to go from handling big to small packages in a split second," Ackerman said. Achieving that gentle touch may require adopting more robotic material handling equipment in the future, he added.