If you haven’t thought about implementing robotic automation for your material handling or logistics processes, you probably should. To keep competitive, a growing number of companies are implementing more affordable, versatile and agile robots to optimize operations for machine tending, assembly, part transfer, picking, packing, palletizing and more. So much so, that in 2020 the robot segment for the Automated Material Handling Equipment Market was the largest in market size out of all automated material handling equipment, and it is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.0% from 2021 to 20261
Driving Factors for Material Handling Robot Growth
While the use of robots in the material handling space traditionally helps gain operational efficiency, improve product quality and reduce production costs, there are newer, eclectic reasons prompting company leaders to implement them.
Shifting Consumer Behavior
While large production runs in low-mix manufacturing environments still happen, customer demands are growing in complexity, requiring greater flexibility in production processes to accommodate product customization and personalization.
To manage the uptick in product differentiation, many manufacturers are moving from fixed automation environments with task-specific machinery to flexible automation layouts with more adaptive machinery that can handle the versatility, capacity and repeatability required to succeed. The use of fast, compact industrial robots are transforming many primary and secondary packaging requirements, while higher-payload long reach models are optimizing end-of-line tasks. Designed to work safely with, or alongside, humans, highly portable easy-to-program collaborative robots (cobots) are also helping to create these extremely productive workspaces, allowing for fast deployment and redeployment on demand.
Growing Level of Automation Confidence
From the evolution of safety standards to the development of easy-to-use robots, company leaders are more confident than ever about robotic implementation.
One the of the primary benefits of robotic implementation is acquiring a greater ability to optimize operations to manage the uptick in consumer product variety. Whether a robot is an industrial or a collaborative model, humans can now work safely with, or alongside, robots to complete defined tasks. Much of this flexibility is the product of the four collaborative modes:
Compatible with all robots that are equipped with a Functional Safety Unit (FSU), a robot controller housed processor which monitors robot range of motion and speed functions is often used with an industrial robot (paired with a series of photoelectric presence sensors or a laser scanner). Popular for re-stocking tasks, this mode detects human entrance into the monitored workspace, briefly pausing the robot movement until a person is clear.
Used for frequent human-robot interaction, robots like the HC10XP and HC20XP cobots
featuring Power and Force Limiting (PFL) technology, are inherently safe by design. Often used for light assembly, machine tending, picking, packing or palletizing tasks, these robots have dual channel torque sensors in all joints to constantly monitor force and quickly react to contact.
Simplifying the programming for many applications, this unique feature found on select power and force limiting collaborative robots allows a robot programmer to teach a program path to the robot by physically guiding it from point to point. Robot mounted push buttons enable the use of hand guiding and facilitate safe human-robot interaction. This method is often used for basic pick and place jobs.
- Speed and Separation Monitoring
Ideal for work areas where frequent human-robot interaction is needed, speed and separation monitoring is typically used to optimize cycle times, and to streamline human-robot interaction. This mode employs the use of laser scanners or light curtains to detect human movement near the robot coupled with the FSU, and it allows the robot to work within a pre-defined safety zone, slowing when a human worker enters the monitored area. Pick and place applications often benefit from this collaborative mode.
Similarly, intelligent tablet-based teach pendants that utilize leading Human Machine Interface (HMI) features are fostering greater confidence for robot usage – as operators can guide a robot using familiar commands via a “click and program” approach. Moreover, these teach pendants are simplifying the programming process and creating more accurate path planning for safer production. For example, the highly intuitive Smart Pendant
radically changes the way a robot is programmed by making the operator the frame of reference, eliminating the use of conventional coordinate (X, Y, Z) frames. Known as Smart Frame, this along with features like descriptive commands and touch-to-edit job editing functionality are facilitating an easier learning curve and allowing quick and easy implementation of a robot system for changing manufacturing environments.
Furthermore, interfaces like MLX300
or MotomanSync™ – where a combination of up to four robots and positioners can be connected – provide robust options that enable the programming and Singular Control™ of multiple mechanisms. A broad range of industrial robots, servo systems and variable frequency drives can work seamlessly together under the complete control and monitoring of a PLC or IEC machine controller, such as the MP3300iec controller programmed via familiar Add-On Instructions (AOIs) or the dynamic MotionWorks IEC software package.
Additionally, the ability to completely control multiple components in a given workcell is easily manageable. This is especially true for material handling applications. Whether a system is designed for a single job or a combination of tasks, programming the robot in the same software environment as a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) or motion controller gives robot operators a user-friendly approach to automation implementation where:
- A robot can be added to existing automation, not requiring a separate programming language.
- An easy-to-use library of function blocks and sample programs are provided for programming ease.
- A full set of HMI screens reduce the time and effort required to implement a system.
- A company’s prior investment in employees with Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) knowledge is protected – programmers may not need to learn an entirely new robot programming language and can easily take ownership of their robotic applications.
Re-examining Supply Chain Operations
With the uptick in demand for general use products during the global pandemic, as well as the surge in online shopping, a number of company leaders are actively assessing operations and addressing logistical dilemmas with robotic automation to meet on-time delivery.
With almost 80% of distribution centers currently operating manually with a limited labor pool2
, company leaders are realizing the value of robot utilization to stay competitive. From retrofitting current manufacturing and warehouse facilities, to creating Distributed Manufacturing Systems (DMS), a greater number of companies are implementing robots and advanced technologies to optimize supply chain flow. A promising approach, DMS maintains a network of regionally dispersed facilities intertwined with work areas that are managed by human workers and interspersed with smart technologies, including fully industrial, collaborative and mobile robots.
Growing in popularity to meet various production needs in dynamic factory and distribution environments, robots, vision systems, custom end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) and more are being mounted on highly flexible autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) equipped with LiDAR sensors. These robotic platforms are capable of maneuvering autonomously through a facility to the task in which they are assigned, efficiently and safely completing jobs such as picking, sorting and on-demand material transport.
Another popular area for robot usage where the supply chain is concerned is parcel sortation or piece-picking. The manual process of identifying items like envelopes, boxes, polybags, etc. (often on a conveyor) for sorting or further diverting to a specific destination is tedious and prone to worker injury, as well as sorting inaccuracy. Thus, company leaders are transferring manual sortation operations into automated areas that can efficiently and accurately manage the high volume of parcels required. Key areas where robots are being used are:
- Inbound bulk receiving of items
- Converting bulk flow of items into singulated flow
- Sortation or diversion of parcels by size or type
- Sortation or diversion of parcels according to destination
Building a Highly Reliable Workforce
From maintaining product volumes around the clock to keeping human workers safe, there are a handful of reasons company leaders are feeling compelled to bolster their workforces through robotic automation.
Utilizing robots to fulfill basic material handling tasks, while moving human workers to higher value-added tasks within a company is often a “win-win” situation. Robots can operate 24 hours a day, if needed. This is especially helpful in the post-Covid environment when company leaders are required to slow or stop production due to physical distancing requirements or sickness outbreaks. This was seen early in the pandemic when robots largely aided in the production of personal protection and testing equipment.
Likewise, greater appreciation for the use of robots in the food preparation space was gained during this time. While using robotic automation to improve safety and hygiene in this environment was nothing new, Covid-19 changed perceptions and priorities for all parties (customers, employers and employees), accelerating the adoption of robotic automation.
Is a Material Handling Robot Right for Your Operation?
Flexible robotic automation for material handling
and logistic processes
is proven to tackle tough challenges across divers industries, helping a growing number of companies optimize operations for future productivity gains. Before any robot implementation, a thorough risk assessment by an experienced robot integrator or supplier is advised. This should answer any questions you may have, as well as determine the best robot(s) and peripherals for your application.
1 Automated Material Handling Equipment Market Worth, MarketsAndMarkets, 2021
2 The Business Case for Robotics in Distribution Centers, Honeywell Intelligrated, 2020