The demand for high-tech material handling equipment is increasing as more companies want to automate their Distribution Centers (DCs), but there is still plenty of room for proven systems, especially conveyors and sorters. As DCs automate to cope with the growing volume of e-commerce, industry experts say flexibility and the integration of different technologies are often at the heart of a company’s automation strategy.
Omer Rashid, Vice President, Solutions Design, for Contract Logistics Specialist DHL supply chain, says the demand for custom solutions is driving many of today’s automation projects, and he points to a growing “tool belt” of options that includes both traditional “bolted to the floor” devices like conveyor belts, and more flexible robotic technology like autonomous mobile robots (AMR). In high volume stores, where the return on investment in traditional systems tends to be high, companies are increasingly looking for ways to integrate both types of technologies.
“In some cases, [robotics are] Replacing conveyor belts because of their flexibility, but at the same time we haven’t seen that the demand for conveyor belts has decreased, ”explains Rashid, adding that equipment manufacturers are pushing technology together, especially for order picking. “In general, there is an automation tool belt that has expanded and gotten a lot bigger. Ultimately, flexibility in the solution you are using may seem like a buzzword, but it is necessary. “
It’s what happens in the market, he says.
Here you can see how the demand for conveyors and sorters will evolve in 2021 and how the systems will evolve to meet the changing needs.
DEMAND FOR PROMOTERS IS GROWING
In the first months of 2021, the demand for conveyor technology increased according to the Association of conveyor system manufacturers (CEMA), which tracks orders and deliveries of bulk and general cargo conveying systems on a monthly basis. Booked conveyor orders rose 24% in January and shipments rose 38% year over year, followed by a 35 percent increase in orders and a 39 percent increase in shipments in February, the group said. Booked orders for March were down year-over-year, but were up 28% consecutively, and monthly shipments were up 63% year-over-year.
The statistics reflect the growing demand for traditional and integrated material flow projects. Chris Slover, vice president of sales for systems integrators Fortna, says more and more conveyor systems are being developed to integrate with robotic picking technologies – where a conveyor system can deliver products to a robotic picking arm, for example – and even with competing technologies like AMRs. For example, depending on the operation, customers may use conveyor belts in one part of one DC, AMRs in another.
“We are seeing an increase where you can integrate systems and use robotics – for example AMRs -” says Slover, adding that many companies are looking for ways to be free of stuck technology where possible, but still use more traditional systems there, where they work best – especially in high throughput applications.
For example, Slover points to advances in conveyors and sorters that allow a wider range of items to be handled at different speeds. He also notes the growing popularity of Motor Driven Roller (MDR) systems, in which the conveying surface is driven in zones by independently driven motors and which allow for the buffering or accumulation of products. MDR systems tend to be quieter, more energy efficient, and easier to implement than traditional conveyor systems, he explains. They’re also more expensive, but like most technologies, the cost goes down over time.
For many companies, the sheer volume increases over the past year have made costs less of a burden as they strive to get orders off the ground faster.
“Workplace availability and the switch to e-commerce [have] put [more] Emphasis on… picking and fulfillment, ”Rashid adds. “Conveying, sorting, robotics – this is how we see an acceleration.”
EQUIPMENT GETS SMART
The next big breakthrough in materials handling is likely to come in the control aspects of systems, particularly how the conveyor works in relation to the warehouse execution systems (WES) running in a facility. Slover says applying artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to the “smarts” of a conveyor system will help streamline operations, be even more efficient, and improve productivity.
“How do I control the conveyor belt? I think that’s where you’ll see most of the innovations, ”he says.
Slover uses the example of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and map software to visualize its location. Drivers don’t have to consult paper maps for the best route to a specific destination when they have programs like Google Maps or Waze at their disposal to intelligently guide them on the most efficient route. A box on a conveyor belt can benefit from the same technology.
“There may be ways in which the control system can reroute itself and avoid potential traffic jams, for example [create] a smarter release of work to the conveyor belt – or smooth the flow of the system itself, ”explains Slover, adding that such advances could help companies avoid“ over-automation ”in order to get a better return on their conveyor systems.
Rashid agrees that advances in software are likely to be the biggest changes – changes that allow even greater flexibility in developing the right system for the job at hand.
“These advances will allow us to develop bespoke solutions that are ultimately flexible to our customers’ business needs,” he says. “We are working more and more with our customers who have to keep an eye on their business for one, three or five years and look for various alternatives. Customers ask, “My volume could go in one of three directions – which solution gives us the ability to meet this in a cost-effective manner?” We’ll help them create a roadmap. “
The more tools there are to create the map, the better.