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4 minute read • published in partnership with KUKA

Insight: The evolution of automated materials handling

One of the key considerations when adopting automated processes within a materials handling environment is time; efficiency within a supply chain is the essence of a successful operation. Product throughput, flexibility and consistency are key USP’s that attract a customer looking for an adaptable, ‘future-proofed’ distribution system. KUKA Robotics looks at the opportunity available to those that embrace technology and future-oriented working methods.

Future proof refers to something that shall continue to be of value into the future. When we consider the current retail market, both online (ecommerce) and offline (shops and supermarkets) there appears to be no letup in consumer demand for products, certainly not if we consider the continued growth of the UK and global populations.

Consumers are becoming more demanding, which in turn means that manufacturers must think differently about how they operate and, flexibility is key. Automated processes and robotics are just one means to add value to an operation.

Once seen as disruptive technology (one that displaces an established technology and creates a completely new industry) robotics are now seen as the ‘norm’. The biggest shift of late, has been the number of processes into which robotics have been implemented within materials handling.

Materials handling encompasses a diverse range of products, from food products to automotive components and cars, cardboard boxes and packaging to aerosols and even hazardous waste products. One key consideration when adopting automated robotics is decreasing the non-ergonomic tasks usually managed by manual means – by an operator.

In a competitive market that is constantly evolving, embracing technology and future-oriented working methods makes a manufacturer’s service provision more appealing / Picture: KUKA


Historically materials handling has been done so by workers, though we should bear in mind that the industry has evolved so much, the products being handled then, would have been very generic. The same products, the same sized packaging, the same weight. There would also have existed the need to bend, lift, twist and reach to ensure the movement of goods about a warehouse/supply chain environment, the likes of which have influenced the uptake in automated robotic processes over the years.

The demands upon an operation historically would not have been as it is today. The goal back then would have been to simply get the goods out of the door. There would have been issues regards worker health and safety and no doubt issues such as repetitive strain injuries, consequential sick leave and industrial accidents which would have been rife within the materials handling industry, which is why we have seen a gradual and, now accelerated adoption of automated processes.

Consumers today are more vigilant when product consistency and quality are concerned. The need to adapt quickly to changing market trends and consumer demand, is essential. The need to manage changes in product and packaging iterations should also be considered, gone are the days of mass production. Today retailers and consumers don’t want to sell or purchase the same products as everyone else. Mass customisation (flexibility and personalization of custom-made products) dictates that adaptability within operational processes is key. Automated robotics can support quick changeovers from one product to the next, one size/shape of packaging to the next, thus addressing the huge throughput demands that can be put upon an operation.

So rather than asking, ‘is automation necessary to the success of my operation’, the question should be, ‘how do I implement automated processes to ensure my business is future proofed’.

The smart factory, a highly digitised and connected production facility, is a concept that all business owners within materials handling should be actively adopting. The fourth industrial revolution in which the smart factory operates, is now and, underpins all the processes that apply to smart manufacturing, used by modern manufacturing companies. The defining features of the smart factory are visibility, connectivity and autonomy. When we consider mass customisation and the demands of today’s consumers, these are all critical in ensuring effective supply chain management.

In a competitive market that is constantly evolving, embracing technology and future-oriented working methods makes a business/manufacturer’s service provision more appealing to potential customers. Addressing the supply versus demand balance is critical to their success and, if a competitor’s operational processes are technologically more advanced to deal with the anticipated upsurge in ecommerce retail, they shall retain a competitive edge, a trend that can sometimes be difficult to influence.

Materials handling is always going to be a process that features predominantly and, it’s not always a process that humans can undertake. Employees should be freed up from repetitive tasks to undertake activities elsewhere, adding value to your operations.

Robotics is just one element within the smart factory, though automating manual processes is a significant step towards a fully connected facility. Come and see our expert KUKA staff at the PPMA show, stand G110 and, understand just how robotics and automation can help you achieve operational excellence and, remain one step ahead of your competitors.