Every industry experiences change because of rapidly evolving technology. Material handling is one business that will see some of its core tenets drastically changed, whether it happens for better or for worse. Will the industry of today have a future or are we looking at something that will quickly become obsolete?
1. The threat of automation
Technology has always been hailed as a way to make life easier. Throughout history, it has done this quite a few times. The issue is that it always comes with a cost. The single biggest loss of workforce came with the invention of the tractor. You suddenly have millions of experienced agricultural workers that are out of a job. However, the world adapted and people could continue to work in other fields. For example, those tractors still required operators and repairmen.
Material handling and storage facilities are seeing incredible moves in terms of automated machinery. Conveyor belts with scanners have already replaced a lot of workers, but that was only the beginning. The most advanced forklifts can now work without a driver. This is making some people skeptical about automation. If the essential job of a forklift driver is eliminated, how long will it take for everyone to lose their jobs?
As with any technological advancement, fear is to be expected. However, you will find that the economy will make room for workers one way or another, as it always has.
2. Bigger is better, or is it?
Intuition might tell you that bigger equipment is better, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. When people say they want bigger machines, they mean they want something that will do the job. You can be sure that warehouses would prefer to have a compact crane that won’t take up so much space rather than a beast of a machine that you need to walk around.
The forklifts of today are becoming smaller and smaller. Technology is improving and you end up with smaller engines that can be supported by a smaller forklift frame. The only thing that stays the same size is the actual fork that holds items so that they can’t fall to the side.
Smaller machines are much easier to maneuver over material storage facilities and you don’t have to worry about making room to store them. This is crucial, especially considering the fact that space is the most important resource in these types of facilities.
3. A changing workforce
The material handling workforce of today is pretty easy to recognize. The demographic is mostly made up of strong men over the age of thirty-five. This is perfectly understandable, considering that technology has not yet improved to the point that machines lift absolutely every single box in the building. However, it’s inching towards that kind of change.
A change in the workforce has become a very controversial topic among material handling circles. The question used to be whether or not you want to support inclusivity at the cost of productivity. With automation being on the rise and constantly improving, the person who is handling the machines doesn’t really matter. Anyone with enough knowledge of robotics and material handling could do it, regardless of their strength.
With knowledge and experience being the only factors that need to be considered, the workforce is poised to welcome women, people with disabilities, and workers under thirty-five.
Material storage facilities were never considered particularly environmentally friendly. The modern warehouse is thought of as a net minus for the environment. It’s no surprise since a great majority of forklifts and cranes still run on diesel and gas. Not only are the fuel sources not sustainable, but they’re also not very good for employee health and the environment.
All energy tech is moving toward more sustainable sources. Electric forklifts are getting more efficient and they are slowly outclassing even some of the more powerful diesel engines in the business. You can find warehouses that utilize solar energy that is harnessed from panels on their roofs. All in all, you can expect the harmful by-products of material storage to become a thing of the past, eventually.
5. Sensors and logistics
Right now, there are still many facilities that rely on people to direct shipments to the right conveyor belt and sign off on where it’s supposed to go. The paper trail is still very much alive and you can’t really work without it. However, retailers like Amazon are doing their best to automate this line of work as well.
Boxes are often marked with stickers or electronic devices which can help sensors detect where they should be headed. They are then automatically placed on the right conveyor belt and sent to the right destination. This leaves many fearing for their jobs. However, the mind-numbing task of sorting boxes is replaced by the high-skill and rewarding job of calibrating the machines and sensors. It’s quality work that pays better than a sorting job.
6. Maintenance and repair
Anything that has moving parts will need to be repaired every once in a while. Even things that don’t move that much tend to break for some reason or other. Maintenance is a crucial job in material handling facilities. After all, there are more machines than you can count and they all require some form of regular maintenance.
Automation isn’t likely to reach a stage that doesn’t require human help any time soon. Even if you introduce ten new automatic machines into a warehouse, someone will still have to take some platform ladders to go and fix them. If anything, maintenance and repair jobs will be on the rise, as the number of fallible machines rises.
7. Replacing paper
Digitalization is something that just about every industry welcomes with open arms. If your business relies on having tons of space to utilize for shipments, getting rid of giant stacks of paper is going to be beneficial. Because of this, many storage handling facilities rejoice at the paper-less future that is getting closer.
Paper is no longer as reliable as it used to be. If your facility has a minor fire, you can say goodbye to anything that you wrote down on paper. Digital information used to rely on computers and physical storage, but nowadays cloud storage is cheap enough that everything can be held as a backup online.
It seems that technology is bringing just about every aspect of the modern warehouse into the future. Some may argue that the changes are bad, but the numbers don’t lie. Even workers are able to rest easy knowing that machines will take the most dangerous part of the job away while leaving logistics and maintenance to humans. The material handling industry of today is going to disappear, but it will make way for an even better version of itself.
Header photo: pixabay
Guest blogger – Liam Smith
Australian based blogger with an extensive portfolio specialized in Manufacturing and Logistics. He can usually be found with an espresso in one hand and a book in the other. When not working, he’s spending time with his family and friends or putting pen to paper for his own personal pursuits.