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Materials handling automation: Swisslog sees opportunity in flexible automation

July 08, 2010

Now that we’re halfway through the year, how’s business? I put that question to Markus Schmidt, a senior vice president with Swisslog (http://www.swisslog.com/na10), last week during an interview for a story on robotic materials handling solutions.

It depends, was Schmidt’s short answer. “Over the last two years, the market for automated materials handling equipment shrunk by something like 40%,” Schmidt says. That’s a number that’s inline with figures reported by the Materials Handling Industry of America (http://www.mhia.org). “We did not see that extreme, but we saw it shrink some.”

Schmidt added that since last fall, there has been an uptick in requests for quotes and that Swisslog is converting some of that interest into orders. “But, it’s not at the levels we saw in 2006 and 2007,” he says, again consistent with the comments we heard from other market leaders at the North American show in April.

What’s more, right now there’s isn’t a monolithic materials handling market; instead there are several markets delineated by industry. Retail had been hot and is now sluggish. “Retailers are looking for solutions that will allow them to supply goods from a DC in a more store-friendly manner to eliminate their stock rooms,” Schmidt says. “They continue to move away from pallets and cases to cases and pieces.”

End users want solutions that are scalable and flexible…

The food and beverage industry, on the other hand, is hot, thanks to industry consolidation. That in turn is leading to network design projects. “You’re combining several smaller DCs into a larger one and that means pallet handling and storage on the front end and case pick applications on the back end,” says Schmidt.

Last, companies are still looking at solutions for large distribution centers, but those opportunities look different than in the recent past. “End users want solutions that are scalable and flexible,” Schmidt says. “And, there’s your link to mobile robotics.”

Swisslog introduced a mobile robotic solution at NA 2010 in April that turns the Kiva (http://www.kivasystems.com) approach on its head. Sort of. While Kiva uses mobile vehicles that shuttle storage units across the floor to a work station, Swisslog has designed a system with overhead robots that deliver totes from a dense storage area to a work station. “Because we stack on the floor, you get an enormous density and we can stack almost to the roof,” says Schmidt.

Swisslog has ten sites running with the technology in Europe, with the oldest in operation for five years. And while storage density is a selling point, the big draw is the flexibility of the system. “The initial investment is lower than competing technologies, and the cost per movement is relatively low,” he says. “And if your demand increases, we can easily increase the number of robots on the grid.”

 

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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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