Automation, Lean join forces to keep products moving

Ever since Henry Ford perfected what has become the modern-day assembly line, manufacturers have attempted to improve the concept. It continues today as companies demand their plant personnel to continually do more with less. Whether it’s through installing new machines to increase throughput, incorporating new controls and components to make those machines run more efficiently or reconfi...

By Kevin Campbell, Senior Editor February 1, 2007

Ever since Henry Ford perfected what has become the modern-day assembly line, manufacturers have attempted to improve the concept. It continues today as companies demand their plant personnel to continually do more with less. Whether it’s through installing new machines to increase throughput, incorporating new controls and components to make those machines run more efficiently or reconfiguring the line to improve the flow of product, manufacturers are faced with tough decisions every day on how to get the most out of their operations.

A process in and of itself, material handling is obviously a major component of manufacturing. Without it, parts and ingredients don’t arrive where needed on the plant floor, and finished products have nowhere to go. As with the manufacturing process, companies can look to material handling suppliers for ways to speed, smooth or otherwise improve their overall operations. And they’re doing exactly that, making their systems more Lean-compliant, more flexible and more intelligent — in some cases because they’ve been forced to.

“In the last 18 months or so, there’s been a tremendous focus on the Lean side of packaging, Lean distribution and things like mixed pallets; and then material handling systems that support that,” said Tre Lapeyre, product manager, material handling division for Intralox, Inc. at January’s ProMat Show in Chicago.

This places the focus on shipping pallets that are built to custom orders, Lapeyre said. Rather than assemble homogenous pallets of product, manufacturers have to find ways to build pallets with multiple products. And they have to do so accurately and on time to avoid facing charge-back situations.

“The impact then on manufacturers is, where you’re designed for continuous-load production of a homogenous product and palletizing, the requirements downstream are being pushed back up to you to create mixed pallets,” Lapeyre continued. “You’re going to have to take those pallets that you’ve created from that continuous-load production, store them, then depalletize and repalletize them to the mixed pallet, per the customer’s order.”

To accommodate this, manufacturers have to find new ways to design and implement their material handling systems. In doing that, Lapeyre said, efforts to increase speed and throughput are being put on the back burner in favor of making improvements in flexibility and adaptability. Those improvements are being accomplished in a number of ways: through added intelligence, automation and process change.

“Information technologies continue to get less expensive and gain more capabilities,” said Mike Ogle, senior director of technical and engineering services, Material Handling Industry of America. “Automation can easily go hand-in-hand with Lean, where the automation is built to be flexible. Lean also helps companies understand how to eliminate the waste of excessive handling by employing more cross docking and automated sortation, storage and retrieval.”

“We see many manufacturers taking on the distribution process themselves and moving this process upstream, into their manufacturing facilities,” said Martin Clark, director of marketing and business development for FKI Logistex North America. “With manufacturers shipping direct to customers, order-picking management software, automatic order picking and replenishment technologies and mixed load creation is no longer solely the domain of the distribution center.”

And the effect is not exclusive to end-of-line and distribution channels either. Processes along the manufacturing line are not exempt from big changes.

“Customers are now looking at really putting pressure on tooling integrators for quick-change models,” said Jeff McNeil, marketing manager for Gorbel. “Where before you had two different parts, you had two different tools; now [manufacturers] have the expectation that they’re going to be able to quickly change from one tool to the next, and some of them even have the expectation that you’re going to handle both parts with one tool,” McNeil said.

“Processes, software and hardware are being designed to help make sure that all material flow is accompanied by information flow by employing automatic identification and wireless communications. Information everywhere on demand will help collaboration with suppliers and customers, resulting in leaner supply chains,” Ogle said.

Beyond the RFID hype

Having been one of the hottest topics in manufacturing for a few years now, RFID has the potential to have implicit effects on material handling. Yet, as the Wal-Mart and Department of Defense directives for its implementation have come and gone, those effects have yet to be seen on the large scale.

“Too much hype has likely hurt RFID more than helped,” Ogle said. “Yes, it is a great tool. No, it is not replacing bar code. RFID is really just another automatic identification technology, a complementary technology that helps greatly in situations where line of sight is not available or obtaining it hurts productivity,” Ogle said.

Lapeyre refers to the Gartner Group’s Hype Cycle, which defines five stages a new technology goes through before its widespread implementation, when discussing RFID. Following the ‘technology trigger’ and ‘peak of inflated expectations,’ which include the product launch and the development of expectations for the product’s capabilities, the product typically moves to the ‘trough of disillusionment,’ where hopes and publicity for it fall due to slow acceptance and/or implementation.

“I think we’ve been in this trough of disillusionment for about a year-and-a-half to two years now with (RFID), and now we’re starting to see some acceptance,” he said. “I think we’ll start to see RFID maybe become more prominent. The mixed pallet load, if we had RFID tags on every one of those cases, you could do a quick scan and find out exactly what’s on that pallet.”

Yet another concern is cost. As with any investment a manufacturer makes, the effect on the bottom line is going to be key when changes to the material handling system are considered. Lapeyre sees a shift in how that change is viewed.

“We’re starting to see less emphasis on acquisition costs,” he said. “Because of the focus on Lean, because of the focus on flexibility, it’s more about which system is going to reduce my downtime? Which system is going to give me that strategic flexibility that I need, over time? So the focus now is on total cost of ownership.”

Even Mr. Ford would appreciate that.

The Bottom Line…

Lean can apply to material handling as much as it does to the manufacturing process.

Retailers are expecting more of manufacturers when it comes to distribution, in terms of mixed product pallets, facilitating just-in-time operations.

Advances in automation, software and hardware are allowing manufacturers to get more out of their material handling systems.

RFID has not had the impact many expected, and it may never. But acceptance of the technology is growing.

Efficiency and emissions key in lift truck operations

Lift trucks are an important component of any material handling operation. Many developments are being made today to make lift trucks more efficient, more user-friendly and better for the environment.

As manufacturing becomes more Lean, the demand on lift trucks grows, explained John Colborn, marketing director, Reach-Fork trucks for The Raymond Corporation, Greene, NY. Trucks are required to handle more shipments, more often, and as the number of SKUs grows, the need for order-picking operations increases.

“That means lift trucks have to be more nimble. Space has to be utilized more efficiently, because product has to move through the supply chain faster. All this means that there is more onus on the truck to perform,” he said.

“With the use of tow tractors and carts, industrial facilities must make sure they are using the right products for their application,” added Warren Brower, marketing director, class III products for The Raymond Corporation.

And as these more efficient strategies are employed to reduce manufacturing costs, a demand for more maneuverable, energy efficient and smooth operating lift trucks emerges, said Greg Mason, general manager, products & training for Jungheinrich Lift Truck Corporation. But he warns of errors that can be made.

“A mistake I see is that manufacturers are often trying to accomplish all of their material handling tasks with the wrong type of material handling equipment,” Mason said.

The “one-size-fits-all” mentality is a common trap that manufacturers fall into. Mason says that, “material handling costs can be minimized and productivity can be increased by incorporating lift trucks that are specifically designed for the task they are doing.” Conversely, manufacturers should avoid having a truck for every task.

“Manufacturers should consider the use of AC electric trucks since they can be used both outside and inside the plant,” Mason said. Additionally, AC trucks provide a benefit that their internal-combustion brethren can’t match: emission-free operation.

“One of the key trends is the drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Mason said. “In several states we see increased interest and demand for converting (internal combustion) lift truck fleets to electric lift truck fleets.”

“AC-powered lift trucks are one example of how technology is helping facilities reduce costs and become more efficient. AC motors run longer on a single battery charge, and there are fewer components, so replacement parts costs are reduced,” Colborn said.

As the number of states adding regulations demanding lower greenhouse gas emissions increases, more manufacturers will have to adjust their operations to comply. Using alternative lift truck options will be one way many can make significant progress.

“The California Air Resources Board is trying to establish some limits on the emissions from industrial vehicles, which could lead to more of a push toward electric and possibly fuel cell vehicles,” said Mike Ogle, senior director of technical & engineering services, Material Handling Industry of America. “However, fuel cells are not yet gaining wide acceptance.”

“There is actually a lot to be gained by using more efficient and lower emission lift trucks, particularly when considering the replacement of IC trucks with AC electrics,” Mason said. “First, this immediately removes harmful emissions in the warehouse area and thus future lawsuits. However, the most significant ROI is realized due to the significantly reduced running cost of an electric truck,” he added.

— Kevin Campbell, Senior Editor