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Automated Materials Handling – why flexibility matters

Article by Megan Gee


Warehouse automation offers so many advantages to the materials handling process. Many businesses imagine that robotic technologies are only there to speed up fulfilment or to make manufacturing lines slicker and faster. While warehouse automation does do all those things, it offers so much more to the materials handling process. Specifically, flexibility.

“Flexibility” might seem like a buzzword more than an actual business necessity. Yet there is a very good reason why the industry 4.0 model of robotics is known as “flexible automation”. Not only is it an accurate description of what’s on offer, it also represents the underlying benefits provided by this approach to warehouse automation, and why your business cannot afford to ignore it.

Learn why flexibility is vital in materials handling. See why the automation that Wise Robotics can deliver does so much more than either a manually managed system, or the older fixed-in-place alternatives.

The flexibility to expand

The number of warehouse-utilising businesses not looking to expand at some point in the future is vanishingly small. Any business that has gotten large enough that it needs a dedicated warehouse has growth as both an ongoing goal, and a key component of its viability. For the maximum possible expansion potential with the minimum possible implementation pain, you need a flexible operation. Any business that uses a system too rigid and fragile will find itself breaking and struggling when growth requires a change in circumstances.

Neither manual operations nor fixed robotics provide high levels of flexibility for materials handling when it comes to expansion.

For manual warehouses, expansion means you need more staff to get the greater volumes of goods from point A to point B. Since the distance covered will be greater, and the volume of stock larger, the only solution is more staff. This means more salaries, more training time, more recruitment admin, more health and safety courses and more equipment costs. In short, more of so many different overheads.

For warehouses using fixed robotics, expansion means long stretches of downtime. New shelving must be built. New programmes and procedures have to be implemented. Racks and rails have to be installed that can carry the AGVs (automatic guided vehicles). Altogether, these are processes that can take months/years.

For flexible warehouses, expansion is so much simpler. With freestanding racks, it is just a matter of placing the storage units in the newly available space. If acceleration is required, more robots can be deployed in a matter of days. Programming the new processes is simple, and the AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) can have their navigation aides installed into a new warehouse in a matter of hours.

Every warehouse-utilising business needs flexibility in its materials handling processes if it wants to expand. That flexibility is best provided by a flexible warehouse automation solution.

The flexibility to adapt

Adapting to changing circumstances is always going to be necessary. Very few markets are entirely static in the way that they work, the products that they offer, or the conditions they need to meet. Demand fluctuates and customers’ tastes and expectations can change very rapidly. Because of this, your materials handling processes need to be able to adapt in the face of different products or changing market requirements. Any company with a handling system too fragile or rigid in this situation will struggle.

When it comes to trying to adapt like this, both manually managed warehouses and those using fixed robotic models tend to struggle.

Manually operated warehouses will find themselves needing to retain, redirect, and re-deploy all their staff. Depending on the level and amount of change this could take a very long while, and will likely end up with a significant drop in overall operational accuracy. The knock-on effects from such problems in a materials handling space can range from problematically noticeable to seriously suboptimal.

For fixed automation, adaption is even more difficult. All of the movement and infrastructure that makes fixed automation possible is built into the static and immobile storage system. In the event that the kinds or volume of goods changes sufficiently that different kinds of orders need to be processed, complicated and difficult engineering will need to be done to make the adaptations possible.

With flexible automation, this all becomes so much easier. Whether your materials handling system needs to move pallets containing 250 of something, or boxes with just 2.5 of the same thing, AMRs can handle it. The freestanding nature of the storage systems means that individual racks can be put in place and swapped out with ease. Racks can differ wildly, and still be entirely compatible with your existing AMR arrangement. All these systems work together with an advanced RCS (robotic control system) to deliver the kind of warehouse automation that has the flexibility to adapt.

The flexibility to respond

Words like “externalities”, “inelastic” or the dreaded “unprecedented” inspire terror in so many business circles. They represent potential costs and serious problems of a kind that are both unavoidable and unignorable. When either government legislation or a serious crisis bring these kinds of phenomena to the main entrance of your business, you need a materials handling system flexible enough to be able to respond

Both manual and fixed automation face serious problems when it comes to responding to major changes. During situations such as the COVID-19 outbreak, setting aside a designated region of the warehouse for quarantining purposes created large-scale disruption. The inability to move or rearrange warehouse shapes meant that there was no option but to leave significant sections unused or underutilized to compensate for this kind of problem.

Similar issues get faced by fixed and manual warehouses when/if safety regulations change. Industry standards are rarely completely static, and when they do change if your warehouse features large volumes of static storage systems, your ability to install new equipment or make new changes is naturally going to be limited.

Flexible warehouse automation offers a materials handling system far better equipped to respond to these kinds of changes. Thanks to the freestanding nature of the storage systems, the warehouse space itself is entirely lacking in fixed infrastructure. Arranging a quarantine station or making allowances for new/different health and safety situations is eminently simple. Exactly the kind of materials handling solution a warehouse utilising business needs in the 2020s and beyond.

Maximise your materials handling

Discover more about how your business can make the very best warehouse automation choices. Find out why flexible robotics is the path forward by reading the latest white paper from Wise Robotics.

Alternatively, if you’d like a more direct experience of the robots, why not visit our facility in person? Wise Robotics is proud to be the owners and operators of Europe’s first flexible automation demonstration centre. With this in-person opportunity, you’ll be able to see why we no longer talk about the approaching robotic revolution. The truth is, the revolution is already here.

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