Material handling companies continue to focus on social distancing strategies in warehouses and distribution centers (DCs), advancing the trend toward automation that had already been growing even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit this spring.
Faced with new labor challenges and the need to reduce human interaction within the four walls of the warehouse, companies are increasingly turning to their material handling partners for solutions, according to Mark Dumont, senior technical sales representative for Pennsylvania-based battery technology company EnerSys, which makes a range of battery and charging solutions, including for forklifts and other material handling equipment. Dumont points to growing demand for battery technology that can power automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in the workplace—a trend that’s accelerated over the past three to four months. Dumont specializes in EnerSys’ AGV business.
“There is a huge uptick in interest [in AGV technology] and in companies going into it [AGV development and manufacturing] as well,” he explained, pointing to the growing number of AGV developers in the industry over the last few years. “[Less than 10 years ago] there were probably only three or four notable companies that I would call AGV companies. Today, there are 35 to 40.”
Customer interest in such solutions is growing as well, especially since this past spring. Dumont’s colleague Tim Wittig, general manager of motive power specialty products, says EnerSys continues to add resources to its AGV-focused business to accommodate demand.
“Since Covid, we’ve seen very strong orders [for AGV battery solutions] coming in,” Wittig said. “We brought Mark [Dumont] over in 2014 to solely focus on AGVs. In the last six months, we’ve brought on another individual to focus on it as well. Their responsibilities continue to increase, and we continue to add resources to grow the business.”
Dumont and Wittig say that’s because AGVs can help companies reduce their reliance on human labor, a need that has escalated since the pandemic. Before March, it was difficult for warehouses and DCs to find workers due to the near full-employment economy; now, health and safety concerns, among other issues, are making workers think twice about returning to physical workplaces. Both trends are accelerating demand for automation—and AGVs, in particular, because they can be used to move heavy materials throughout a facility without an operator on board.
“Companies have to come up with solutions on how to do this job without hiring more people,” Dumont explained, adding that AGVs “don’t call in sick, they don’t ask for overtime, and they don’t care about breaks or holidays. [An AGV] simply does the job on a continuous basis.”
Incorporating newer battery technologies, such as thin plate pure lead (TPPL) and lithium-ion chemistries, helps as well by reducing the need for maintenance. Such solutions require less maintenance and human interaction than traditional lead-acid batteries, which require frequent change outs, watering, and long charging processes, Dumont and Wittig said.
And reducing human interaction means reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
“An autonomous piece of equipment doesn’t get a human virus—and it can’t spread that human virus to another person,” Dumont said.
EnerSys is also developing wireless charging solutions that aim to further reduce human interaction with batteries and equipment. This summer, the company announced a partnership with electric vehicle charging technology firm Blink Charging Co. to develop high-power inductive charging solutions for the broader transportation market. The solution involves a wireless transfer of energy to the device, similar to wireless smartphone charging.
Because AGVs are highly engineered solutions, battery makers such as EnerSys are often involved at the start of a project, working with equipment manufacturers and customers to develop the right power solution for the application, environment, and other factors. Dumont and Wittig say they expect demand for such projects to continue.
“The AGV business is evolving and changing; it’s a very busy time,” Wittig said. “The same thing is happening on our side of the business. With the advancement of new manufacturing techniques and new research, batteries continually get better.”
Battery and equipment makers aren’t the only ones focused on reducing human interaction in the warehouse, however. Ohio-based material handling systems integrator Vargo introduced a social distancing feature to its continuous order fulfillment execution system (COFE) this summer, aimed at reducing the number of workers that are in a pick aisle at the same time. The system’s algorithms can now be programmed to create a process in which only one person is working a pick aisle at a time, keeping workers at a minimum of one per pick aisle—or eight feet apart—in picking areas, the company said.
The feature helps warehouses and DCs maintain productivity and worker safety protocols at the same time by automating the distancing and integrating it into the overall workflow, Vargo officials said. This helps eliminate slowdowns that often occur when companies attempt to space workers apart.
“For example, if there is one worker in a specific aisle, COFE will send multiple picks to that employee to maximize the time they spend in that pick aisle,” company officials said.
The social distancing feature is available for large-volume warehouses, according to Vargo.