Automation: A new year, new priorities

2012 was a great year for materials handling. Now what?

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It’s a New Year’s tradition for anyone who writes for a living: use the first column of the year to look back at what just happened and try to make sense of what’s to come. Truth be told, it was probably a way for writers to look productive while recuperating from New Year’s celebrations. Here’s what I think was most notable about 2012, and what I intend to watch in 2013.

More automation: This was not just a 2012 trend. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but anecdotally it seems as if industry has been on an automation tear since 2009, when Congress enacted The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Whatever the reason, we saw companies large and small looking for ways to add conveyors, sortation, AGVs and automated storage to their facilities. There are a whole lot of reasons, mostly connected to the cost and availability of reliable labor, that I don’t think that’s going away any time soon.

Multi-channel distribution: When I first started writing about ecommerce, retailers were debating whether they should operate two DCs – one for store replenishment and another for direct-to-consumer order fulfillment – or just outsource D2C order fulfillment to a third party. Today, as the volume of ecommerce orders grows, the best retailers are consolidating distribution across all of their sales channels under one roof. 

The rise of the shuttle: Shuttle technology – think of it as a mini-load AS/RS on steroids – is possibly the best materials handling story out of the last couple of years. Shuttles hit the market about the same time as Kiva. As such, they were overshadowed by everyone’s infatuation with those cute little robots. Shuttles, however, seem to have hit their stride. I expect we’ll see the introduction of even more new, innovative technologies for piece picking in the coming year or two. Why? Multi-channel distribution.

Unit load storage solutions: One of my favorite stories from 2012 was a piece last month on new strategies for unit load storage. It’s an under-appreciated area of our industry, but at Modex, I was really taken by innovative solutions from Smoov, PAS and Swisslog.
Moreover, in that story from December, I was impressed by how companies like Muratec and System Logistics were thinking about unit load storage for freezer and beverage customers.

Automatic guided lift trucks: We’re still in the early, early adoption stage of automatic lift trucks. It’s a development that I personally find exciting, one that seems like it could lead to the broader adoption of AGV technology in warehousing and distribution. Part of my interest is probably an infatuation with AGVs - I want to root for the suckers. Whether it has legs is still to be seen. 

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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