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Lou Kren Lou Kren
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Automation, Industry 4.0 Driving Advanced Material Handling Solutions

April 26, 2023

Software and hardware advances spur new, innovative methods for part and material movement on shop floors. Here’s a look.

Very simply put, material handling is defined as moving materials. Just how that occurs greatly impacts a manufacturer’s bottom line. Given these facts, approaches and technologies have evolved to deliver increased efficiency and better balance sheets, according to various material handling product and service providers. Automation and Industry 4.0 are driving advances, and here’s a look at just how in these unique leading-edge examples that are making headway on shop floors, as well as some sound advice on extending the life of material handling equipment. Find more on material handling technology, including conveyor options and methods to keep material and parts safe and blemish-free during transport.

Optimize Part and Material Routing—Software Helps

Stratawise-software-material-handlingOn the shop floor, the most effective material handling strategy emphasizes travel distance and timing, note officials from Stratawise, LLC, Tampa, FL, a provider of workflow software and other supply-chain products and services. Minimize production costs by “moving the right material to the right place, at the right time, in the right amount, in sequence, and in the right position or condition,” reads the Stratawise mantra.

Crucial to doing so is a proper production-system setup—much easier in a greenfield scenario where a plant can be built with specific production in mind. In currently operating environments, challenges abound in optimizing material flow and improving material handling/production ratios, but overall, remember the number-one objective of material handling: Reduce unit costs of production.

Toward this objective, Stratawise offers these subgoals:

  1. Maintain or improve product quality, reduce damage and provide for protection of materials.
  2. Promote safety and improve working conditions. 
  3. Promote productivity.


The third subgoal appears vague, so the company offers additional guidance on promoting productivity. Material should flow in a straight line, and should move as short a distance as possible. Also, try to move as much material as possible at one time. Mechanizing and/or automating material handling helps with all of the above and aids greatly in improving throughput. 

For more efficient movement of parts and part material on the shop floor, advises Stratawise, purchase versatile equipment, and standardize carts, racks and conveyors where possible to ease interchangeability and maintenance. On the front end, automating material feed equipment for production equipment such as stamping presses obviously can improve productivity while freeing manual labor for other tasks.

Handling-Specialty-AGV-Automotive-Stamping-DestackingOf course, hiccups occur, perhaps in part material delivery and supply, in production or material handling equipment that breaks down for whatever reasons, etc. All of this favors the manufacturer that plans for the unplanned. Fortunately, sensing, monitoring and analysis technology exists to streamline part and part-material handling, warn of possible bottlenecks, and provide possible solutions. Software ties all of this together. For example, Stratawise offers its StrataFlows automated visibility, communication and control software for various needs all along the supply chain, including real-time analysis of material handling operations in a manufacturing environment, as well as material inflow and outflow. 

AGVs Arrive for Destacking and More

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) promise lights-out operation to keep parts and material moving, with automation providing dependable, accurate placement and routing. These portable robots can be manufactured in any size to carry material, parts and products through a manufacturing plant, run on battery power and can be charged after each shift, according to officials from Handling Specialty, Grimsby, Ontario, Canada, which provides AGVs and other material-handling solutions to industry. Following a predetermined path—and quickly reprogrammed for a different path—AGVs can include specialized tooling for specific applications, including scissor lifts to position the product at a specific height in a workcell. 

AGVs provide an ideal solution in the stamping industry for blank destacking, according to Handling Specialty officials. They can be fitted with indexing tables tooled to fit any-sized blank, with increased no-rail maneuverability beyond that offered by destacking vehicles that operate on rails.

For its part, Handling Specialty offers customized AGVs for lifting and transporting blanks in any capacity, and the ability to maneuver in tight spaces with zero-radius turning and crabbing. The AGVs follow a painted line or strip on the floor using an onboard laser-guidance system. For the safety of employees, equipment and material, these AGVs feature proximity sensors, limit switches, audible alarms and lights, all engineered in during the design stage. Intelligent controls are programmed to a user’s unique requirements and reportedly can be reconfigured should the factory floor change, without the expenses incurred with a traditional rail/cart system. 

Flexible, Robot-Driven Carriers  

FlexQube-AVR-carriers-robotThe AGVs described above are part of a larger family of robotic vehicles designed to propel parts, products and material throughout the shop floor. Within this family reside autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) with a twist. The twist: robotic base units that dock with motorized carriers, according to FlexQube, a Swedish material handling-products company with its U.S. base in Duncan, SC. This “one robot/multi-carrier” concept, as the company dubs it, consists of a non-load-carrying AMR housing safety, navigation and battery, which can dock with motorized carriers via a standard coupling device. The coupling device transfers power and data to the motors to enable navigation throughout a plant. Modular and flexible carriers are configured to specific part and material loads, and can reside where needed until transport via the AMR. 

Smart Approaches Boost Equipment Life and Performance

Detailed inspections lay the groundwork for how maintenance should be performed, according to Mike Proos, director of engineering for Prab, Kalamazoo, MI, a provider of conveyors and other material handling and fluid-recycling technology. Combined with such inspections, automation helps keep everything on track. Given a history of system data, software programs can notice irregularities in equipment behavior as they occur, allowing for proactive response.

In addition, Proos explains in a blog post, software plays a role in adapting equipment to changing environments. For example, should a conveyor that maxes out at, say, 65 ft./mi. be forced to convey payloads at or close to such speeds, expect a quicker breakdown. By measuring a conveyor’s throughput based on how fast it must run, software can regulate conveyor speed to match that of production. Such software adjustment of conveyor speed pays dividends in extended conveyor life and less unplanned downtime.

In sum, Proos offers this advice: By implementing data-driven maintenance, pinpoint inspections, and automation and software, organizations stand a better chance of avoiding disruptions. MF

Industry-Related Terms: Blank, Run, Ties, Twist
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: PRAB, Inc., Handling Specialty Mfg. Limited, Stratawise, LLC, FlexQube

Technologies: Coil and Sheet Handling, Pressroom Automation


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