Kai Beckhaus, president, MCJ Supply Chain Solutions
John Hayes, director of sales, Balyo
Gil Leyba, logistics consultant, Dallas/Fort Worth area
Chris Woodall, director of integrator services, Hytrol Conveyor Co.
Automation has been a game-changer for distribution centers. Conveyors transport products from point to point efficiently. Sortation systems redirect products to various destinations. And automated mobile load carriers, such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), transport products and reduce steps for workers who perform tasks like order picking. As labor continues to be difficult, if not impossible, to find, these systems will play an even greater role in distribution operations.
DC Velocity Group Editorial Director David Maloney recently gathered four experts who are members of MHI’s Conveyor and Sortation Solutions Group (CSS) and Mobile Automation Group (MAG) to discuss the advantages of these technologies and how they can work together to reduce labor, boost productivity, and speed products on their journey. What follows are some excerpts from their discussion.
Q: When somebody asks you what’s the best type of system for their operation, what do you tell them?
Gil Leyba – logistics consultant: That is easy: It depends. These are highly bespoke systems, with different operations, products, dimensions, weights, and characteristics. It could be a greenfield facility or a brownfield facility. Even your execution plan can totally change depending on the specifics.
So, what system is going to work best for you? It requires guys like us asking you the right questions. That is the only way to design systems that solve not just the problems that customers are facing today, but also whatever problems the future could conceivably hold.
Q: How do you know which technology provider to choose out of the many within the market?
John Hayes – Balyo: The really important thing is to look at what your vendor has done in the past. It is very easy for a vendor to say that it can do something and it typically can, given enough time and money. Do a little due diligence up front and take a look at a company that has done what you are looking to do. It eliminates an awful lot of risk on the back side. I think one of the true benefits of MHI is that you have a group of people who have done these things for ages.
Q: Customers obviously want longevity with any system they install—they don’t want it to become obsolete tomorrow or the next day. Given how fast things change, how long do they want to keep that system running before they replace it?
Chris Woodall - Hytrol: The first question you really need to ask is “Are you going to have maintenance staff and are you going to do preventative maintenance?” Many companies no longer have the staff to do preventative maintenance or even routine maintenance on their equipment. They are going to hire it all out. That can actually change which type of equipment they need because some equipment is easier to work on than others, and with some, the downtime is less. Conveyors are easily going to last 20 years as long as you take care of them. We’ve got some that have run longer than that—25, 30 years.
Q: How knowledgeable are customers when they come to you looking for automation?
Kai Beckhaus – MCJ: The bigger customers have internal innovation groups. They are typically very well informed and know a lot about the technology and different vendors. They understand the difference between a startup technology that drives the adoption of automation versus the more reliable, more established, more customized, and purpose-fit applications.
The smaller customer, by contrast, comes to us because it has a need and is attracted by marketing. Those can require a little bit more education on what the technology really can do—what the advantages are in deploying an automatic guided vehicle versus an autonomous mobile robot, or even differences between using conveyors and AGVs.
Q: What are the criteria used for choosing the best conveyor for a particular application?
Chris Woodall – Hytrol: The first thing we are always going to ask is what are the products to be conveyed and what are their specifications. Not only does it matter what the min, max, and average is, but what is your end rate? What is your final rate of sortation at the shipping sorter? That is what most people focus on, but we need to know about every single area in the operation. What throughput are you trying to get? Are the products to be conveyed polybags, envelopes, or totes? Are their bottoms flat, concave, or convex?
If you don’t have those details, you are just kind of throwing darts at a board and hoping something sticks. It always comes down to the product. That is where you start making the selections.
Q: What are some of the reasons for deploying an AGV in lieu of a forklift or even a conveyor?
Kai Beckhaus – MCJ: A main criterion is repetitive transport in a defined environment. From there, the technology selection process is very similar to what we just heard from the conveyor side. It is more about describing the challenge: I have this many pallets that need to be transferred.
We hear a lot of customers say they have three forklifts manually operating and want three AGVs to do the same thing. But that is the wrong approach because there are a lot of differences between forklifts and AGVs.
It is about looking at the application, something that is repetitive, that has a clear environment, and then your vendor will suggest how many and what type—whatever type of automation is best suited for the job.
Q: Are AGVs as fast as people operating forklifts? If not, does that mean you need more AGVs to move the same amount of volume?
John Hayes – Balyo: AGVs are not quite as fast because of the safety standards the industry adheres to. In order to be as safe as possible, we typically all cap our speeds at somewhere between two and three meters per second. So, a rule of thumb is that it takes 1.3 to 1.5 AGVs per forklift operator.
It starts to make [more economic] sense if you take one forklift and replace it with one AGV and then you work two shifts, because even though you replace one motive piece of equipment (a forklift), you replace two operators. When you go to three shifts, you replace three operators, and the return on investment makes even more sense.
So, no, it is not a one-for-one replacement, which is why the paradigm has always benefited two- or three-shift operations for AGVs. That is the sweet spot, but it is getting better. Prices are coming down. Labor rates are going up. That is why we design a system around throughput, not the number of vehicles.
Q: How are these systems supported after installation? Are warranties and maintenance packages available?
Gil Leyba – logistics consultant: Yes, that is fairly standard within our industry because these are capital investments that are expected to last years. In the case of conveyor sortation systems, it could be over 10 or even 20 years depending on how it is maintained. The better it is maintained, the longer life it is going to give you. We design a system around that ability to maintain it, whether it is us offering the maintenance packages after the sale or training the customer and giving them the tools, materials, the spares, and access to remote support they need to do it themselves. This is what customers expect and demand.Editor’s note: MHI’s Conveyor and Sortation Systems Industry Group (CSS) and Mobile Automations Group (MAG) are independent authorities for end-users and suppliers on market trends, technology developments, and applications. For more information on the groups’ work and a list of CSS and MAG members, visit www.mhi.org.