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What is Automated Material Handling?

Marie Bodet
2022-08-16

In a post-pandemic world, the demand for consumer spending has drastically increased. According to the most recent 2020 ARTS release, e-commerce sales increased by $244.2 billion or 43% in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, rising from $571.2 billion in 2019 to $815.4 billion in 2020 in the US alone. Now more than ever, manufacturers and e-commerce businesses need to improve their productivity with an automated material handling process.
In this extensive article, we will look at the definition of “material handling”, how to automate your material handling application and what are the benefits of it. We will then see why machine vision is an essential component of this robotic application and finally give some examples of successful automated solutions using 3D machine vision.

Table of contents

  1. What is Material Handling (and Why Does it Matter)?
  2. The Benefits of an Automated Material Handling System (AMHS)
  3. How to Automate Your Material Handling Application?
  4. 3D Vision and Material Handling
  5. 3 Examples of Material Handling Applications
  6. Conclusion

 

 

What is Material Handling (and Why Does it Matter)?

Dictionary.com explains material handling as “the loading, unloading, and movement of goods, as within a factory or warehouse, especially by the aid of mechanical devices.” It is a good start, but it is a bit more than just taking care of an inventory. It’s the movement, protection, storage, and control of materials and products throughout their lifespan of manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, consumption, and disposal. In a logistics environment, material handling is basically the conduct of a given product flow from start to end.

Here is an example of a typical product flow illustrated by REB Storage Systems International:

material handling inventory flow

This type of task necessitates maximum efficiency. First, to avoid delays and satisfy the customer, but also to react and plan in time for any warehouse requirements. It can be tricky, especially on a large scale. That is when material handling becomes an essential component of any successful warehouse. It can improve customer service by making products easy to find, move, and ship out. It also makes your working people’s life so much easier as it improves the smoothness of your facility. To succeed, logistics professionals rely on a variety of systems (single-level storage, multi-level storage, conveyors, etc.) and equipment types (manual, semi-automated, and automated).
As the demand in logistics is constantly increasing (and even more after the Pandemic), more and more companies are turning to automated equipment. Over the past two years, we’ve seen an explosion in demand through e-commerce and an expectation of continued growth through 2025. “Automation” used to be a scary word, one that implied unemployed assembly line workers and robotic takeovers. But these days, thanks to ever-advancing technology, automation is getting more and more mainstream. The shortage of low-skilled labor has pushed manufacturers to invest in automation, and humans to reskill and/or upskill. ABI Research state that 452,000 robots will ship in 2022, a massive increase of 65% compared to 2021.

The Benefits of an Automated Material Handling System (AMHS)

Automating the process shows many benefits that can bring your material handling solution to the next level.

  • Cost saving
    The total cost of production or warehousing includes the power expended to move materials across the shop floor and the energy material handling systems consume. For manual carts, power consumption is minimal; however, increased shop floor traffic can cause accidents or delivery delays, which adds to the total production cost. Forklifts are also responsible for most safety incidents on the shop floor. Furthermore, they consume a considerable amount of energy. To summarize, automation reduces the chances of human error, which can be costly in a warehouse or manufacturing setting.

  • Improved cycle times
    With an automated process, the material doesn’t need to wait to be transported by the operator. The system owns this responsibility, thus, freeing workers to attend to tasks in their assigned area. It is time-saving for the employees as the machine is now the one performing the tasks that are repetitive and predictable. Moreover, the time it takes to transport from one step to another becomes more predictable: it helps to improve cycle time estimates and allows for more accurate due date estimates for customers.

  • Easier location of the material
    A truly automated material handling system includes the implementation of carrier and material tracking systems. With the solution constantly tracking the location of a given part, carrier, or material, it can be used to find material that is “missing” due to damaged or disabled identifiers. This is especially helpful with high-volume manufacturing.

  • Efficient use of labor
    When the next step of a material’s process sequence is in another building in some other area of the building, a labor cost is incurred in moving it to its next destination. Transport systems can move material to its next destination based on the next step in the process flow. The operator simply has to place the carrier on a receiving port and walk away. The automated material handling system does the rest, leaving the operator to tend to their current tasks without leaving their assigned station. It shows once again how time-saving automation is for the workers.

  • Improved safety
    Some manufacturing environments are sensitive to particles in the air which are easily stirred up by the movement of people and contaminate the product. Therefore, efforts to reduce unnecessary movement can help particulate-sensitive environments (like semiconductor manufacturing) achieve Class 1000, Class 100, or even Class 10 certification. Automated machines can also perform tasks that are unsafe for humans such as moving hazardous materials. Countries, such as the United States, enforce regulations on companies that specify a maximum weight an employee can lift without assistance. Automated systems can be tasked with doing “the heavy lifting.” In the end, it is safer both for the product and the workers.


You can find many more benefits to automating your logistics system depending on your own configuration and situation. What are the features of an automated material handling system (AMHS)?

How to Automate Your Material Handling Application?


An AMHS is usually composed of the following items:

  • Transport equipment:
    The equipment you use to transport an item from one place to another can vary depending on the nature of your business. The most common types of equipment are controllers, conveyors, wheels, casters, automated storage, and retrieval systems. For automated applications, you can add some equipment like a robot or a cobot. Take the example of Amazon: to reduce the need for employees to reach up, bend down, or climb ladders when retrieving items, the company has developed a robotic system that delivers products to employees in a more ergonomically friendly manner. This mobile shelving system uses a couple of robots, improving safety in the workplace. This robotic system could be 'game-changing' for many retailers and supply chain companies for stock replenishment and reverse logistics because having inventory ready for picking is key (speed-to-market). Replenishment (stowing) is often a forgotten item when designing an automated system as customers and vendors are focused on the picking process.

  • Handling software
But a robot without software is just an empty shell that can’t do anything for you. To truly automate your production line, you need a handling software. To choose the right software, the first thing you need to ask yourself is “how do I identify a product in my warehouse?”. While many companies use a bar code, you can also choose some color coding to differentiate your items for example. You can also combine both, it is really up to you. Here are the most common tracking systems:
  • Bar code or OCR: The simplest way of identifying material is to apply an optically readable mark, such as a bar code (BC) or readable string that can be converted into machine-readable code using Optical Character Recognition (OCR).
  • RFID: Radio Frequency ID (RFID) systems are available in different frequency ranges from low frequency (LF) to ultra-high frequency (UHF). The labels (or tags) are differentiated into passive and active categories, with the active ones requiring an external power supply. Due to the long read ranges, however, incorrect readings can occur and can cause problems.
  • NFC: Near Field Communication (NFC) is a type of RFID that is only suitable for communication over very short distances between tag and antenna. Most smartphones have a built-in receiver for this system, comparable to Bluetooth.
  • UWB: With ultra-wide band (UWB) indoor tracking – similar to GPS, the localization is performed by measuring signal propagation times to the tagged material. The clearest distinction from the other systems is that objects can be located freely in space and do not have to reside in an area visible to their associated tracking systems.

    Here is a feature comparison table from Systema to help you choose the right type of software:

Table_DTG_AMHS

  • Machine vision sensor

    Often forgotten or underestimated, the hardware you will use to recognize your products is at the core of your material handling system. If your solution has a bad vision, it will crumble and make a lot of errors. Once again, the choice of the sensor will depend on the type of application and items you are handling. The fact that 2D machine vision systems have been deployed for a few decades now is a testament to their worth. 2D machine vision is a great tool for many automated applications, but it has some fundamental problems. The lack of height and true shape information though is of course of no consequence for many reasonably simple applications. As a result, 2D (either area scanning or line scanning) machine vision systems are used extensively throughout the industry in a wide range of tasks. At Zivid, our weapon of choice is 3D.

3D Vision and Material Handling

3D machine vision is being more and more applied to a broad spectrum of tasks where 2D capability falls short like quality control, detection of surface and assembly defects, object scanning, etc. As an example in logistics, DHL has developed a fully automated e-commerce order picking robot cell using 3D vision. The tasks of depalletizing, picking and order fulfillment in traditional e-commerce warehouses have traditionally been handled by human operators. The work though is highly repetitive, physically strenuous, and prone to the risk of human error. Automation of such high-volume processes not only increases throughput and accuracy but also enables logistics firms to reassign human operators to concentrate on safer, more complex tasks, where they add more value to warehouse operations.

The 3D camera in DHL’s system is an integral part of a complete turnkey solution, enabling the robot to see the boxes clearly and sort them out, making depalletizing, picking and order-fulfillment easy. It would have been much more difficult to operate these tasks with a 2D sensor as a box has a three-dimensional shape.

Here are some 3D point cloud examples of some typical items handled in logistics, using Zivid’s technology:

  • Small boxes: 


  • Plastic-wrapped items:


  • Boxes on a pallet: 


To make your material handling vision system function properly, it is necessary to calibrate your 3D camera. Hand-eye calibration is the binding process between the vision component (camera) and a robot. To help developers understand and get started with designing a robust vision-guided robot system for the logistics industry, we created this e-book about hand-eye calibration:

Free eBook (1080 × 900px)

As you understand more about how hand-eye calibration works, you will learn more about how to run your automation system more precisely and efficiently.

3 Examples of Automated Material Handling Applications

  • Example 1: Fizyr

Fizyr are experts in pick and place solutions for the logistics industry with a solid understanding of the challenges involved. Together with Zivid 3D camera technology they have developed, and deployed systems that are operating at some of the biggest logistics facilities on the planet. This is all about recognition, making a decision, and acting correctly on that decision. Fizyr excel at software that can perform this task. But the data in any system will determine its efficacy. That is why they use Zivid 3D vision for robots with their unparalleled point cloud fidelity in color. They are able to depend on what the robot is seeing and make informed decisions about automated picking and sorting.
Read the case study →

Fizyr_robotic_parcel_sortation_material_handling

  • Example 2: DHL

Through the robotization of its warehouses, global logistics leader DHL is increasing both the efficiency of its e-commerce operations and the satisfaction of its employees at the same time. For a labor-intensive depalletizing, picking, and fulfillment operation, DHL turned to system integrator Robomotive for a flexible solution able to cope with a highly dynamic business environment. The Zivid One 3D color camera played a key role in an advanced robot cell design.
Read the case study →

DHL Beringe Robot Picking Cell material handling

  • Example 3: Siemens

Environmental legislation is driving a move towards low emission electrical propulsion for ferries and other vessels. With its new factory in Trondheim, Norway, Siemens is addressing the rapidly growing demand for maritime batteries. In a highly automated production line engineered by system integrator Intek, Zivid’s 3D machine vision camera played a vital role in optimizing production efficiency.
Read the case study →

siemens intek 3D vision


In a few words…

Material handling is the movement, protection, storage, and control of materials and products throughout their lifespan of manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Through this article and several examples, we have seen the number of automated logistics systems is increasing all around the world to answer to the rapid growth of consumer spending.
If the benefits of a AMHS are undoubted, the components of the actual system can vary depending on the nature of your business. You must figure out by yourself what equipment, software, and vision hardware you need to put together to maximize your chances of a successful system.
3D in logistics has so many advantages for logistics applications: your robotic system has the best eyes it can get. To help developers get started with designing a robust 3D vision-guided robot system for the logistics industry, we created this technical e-book about calibration. As you understand more about how hand-eye calibration works, you will learn more about how to make run your automation system more precisely and efficiently.

Download eBook

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