Material Handling Magic

Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Every so often a shift takes place that borders on magic.  In the world of material handling there have been a series of advances that cumulatively look like the industry has created magic.

Tools from the information age have transformed all aspects of material handling.  A variety of data techniques have been created to encode complex data about the material through linear and 2D barcodes.  Universal Product Codes, (UPC) have been in use for years to help simplify the business of identifying what is in the material handling chain.  Infrared laser scanners have evolved from bulky hand held scanners to wrist worn, lightweight devices that acquire data about the material in transit.

The best part is that while the amount of data and rate of communications have been expanding, the computing power needed to keep these systems flowing has kept pace.  Firms with high volume, complex requirements are able to update their data bases for work in progress (WIP) or changes to finished goods inventory with nearly instant response even from remote manufacturing locations..

Machinery being built for the material handling warehouse has followed a similar trajectory.  Coordinated conveyor systems handling complex sorting and routing with no human intervention.  This is based on the high speed information system serving up data to the control system so that things end up where they should.

One of the holdout areas of material handling systems is the handling of high payload materials.  The pallet has become the universal “unit” of warehouse operations carrying large irregular objects or stacked with cartons of products in a keyed arrangement to help lock them together.

In the modern age, we have autonomous pallet handling robots.  These robots can operate by searching the facility for it’s boundaries, like a Roomba, and then moving materials on demand.  The robots have local sensors to detect any obstruction, such as a human worker, or a change in the floor plan.  All features relating to navigation are hosted locally on the robot’s controller.

Behavior of the pallet vehicle relative to the scheduling of pickups around the plant are the domain of a network server located in the plant.  The server does the scheduling and can task the robot to park and charge in between tasks to keep up the pace and optimized the use of equipment to keep material flowing.

The new age of warehousing is upon us, and to those seeing it for the first time, it looks like magic.

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