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Automation: The automation revolution rolls on

January 18, 2012

If you didn’t see it, Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal included must reading for anyone in the materials handling business, or for our customers in manufacturing, warehousing and distribution.

Man vs. Machine, a Jobless Recovery, tells a story that is familiar to readers of Modern – the tremendous improvements that can be realized with automated equipment, such as robotics, and industrial software.

One of the companies highlighted is Sunny Delight Beverage, which is making great strides in productivity and competitiveness with automation. Sunny Delight is spending $70 million to upgrade five U.S. juice factories. Much of the automation is centered on filling lines. But next year, the Journal points out, the beverage maker is replacing its fleet of lift trucks and drivers with automatic guided vehicles. The result, the Journal writes, is that the company will operate one of its main facilities with 30% fewer workers.

It also points out that Stihl is using robots to manufacture chain saws in a Virginia Beach plant that requires just seven workers per shift to keep the operation running. A planned $10 million investment, the Journal adds, will allow the plant to double its output while adding just six more workers.

We are seeing similar achievements in productivity and throughput at the facilities we highlight each month in Modern. Last month, for instance, we described how Skechers (/article/skechers_tones_up_distribution_center/ ) is operating a new 1.8 million sq ft automated with just 300 employees – 500 at peak – compared to about 1,200 in its old model. Next month, we’ll feature Preferred Freezer Services, a New Jersey 3PL that recently went live with a highly-automated DC that operates 24 hours a day with just 30 associates.

Some see automation as a factor, maybe even a culprit, in the jobless recovery. There’s no question that automated equipment and software systems have made all of us more productive in our jobs. That is allowing companies to do more with less. But it’s also making the companies we work for stronger. In the long run, I believe that the automation revolution we appear to be experiencing now is the key to industries that can compete anywhere in the globe.

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About the Author

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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