Delivery wait times are no longer acceptable for consumers. In B2B and B2C, the fight for consumer loyalty and attention frequently comes down to order delivery efficiency and cost. 

This puts demands on companies to continuously improve internal efficiencies to remain agile enough to adjust to shifting market demands and supply chain realities. And as many companies have learned in this post-pandemic marketplace, living up to consumer expectations is achieved, in part, with supply chain resilience.

Material handling processes and equipment are essential to an effective and cost-efficient supply chain. Simply put, you cannot have a resilient and responsive supply chain, and a profitable warehousing and distribution strategy, without a modern approach to material handling equipment, technology, and processes.  

In this article we take a closer look at material handling, discussing:

  • Shifts in the post-pandemic supply chain and what this means for material handling
  • The principles of material handling and how these drive new processes
  • Key material handling trends shaping company supply chains and customer satisfaction
  • How disruptive technologies will continue to bring changes to material handling and supply chain management

Shifts in Post-Pandemic Supply Chain Management

The supply chain has been forced into change due to COVID-19, which exacerbated the long-simmering challenges in the pre-pandemic supply chain. The pandemic shone a spotlight on efficiency gaps and heightened the demand for continuous change within the supply chain. 

If anything, we have learned that nothing is static in supply chain management – whether it’s employee retention, managing just-in-time delivery, or how goods move from warehouse through to distribution and delivery with minimal costs and resource demands – adaptation and growth are essential. 

The 2020 State of Supply Chain Logistics Report released by the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) provides some strong insight into how post-pandemic supply chain management needs to shift, and the role of material handling in regaining stability:

  • Supporting demand for surges in areas like groceries and e-commerce.
  • Reconfiguring supply chains for other sectors, like heavy industry, that have cratered.
  • Adapting to the residual effects of social distancing, including accommodating an even larger consumer appetite for home deliveries.
  • Redirecting idle trucks and distribution center capacity to the booming sectors. Companies must recognize, though, that even with their renowned agility, logistics providers cannot reconfigure all their capabilities and relationships on the fly.
  • Becoming more flexible to cope with uncertainty which will result in less emphasis on lean operations and more on optionality and inventory. 

The CSCMP report estimates the pandemic-driven recession has ended 126 months of growth, creating lasting economic challenges, and has heightened global trade tensions. 

However, the good news is that supply chain professionals are adept at change, and we have all experienced first-hand how companies have been able to rethink internal processes to ensure employee health and safety while adjusting to consumer demands for immediate delivery, and personalized or customized products and services.

Importance of Material Handling for a Resilient and Effective Supply Chain

Supply chain success is directly tied to strong material handling processes, including using the most-appropriate technologies and equipment to meet material handling demands. 

The 10 Principles of Material Handling from MHI are long-standing best practices for developing material handling processes. 

We have taken a fresh look at these, thinking about them in the context of the recent pandemic and supply chain challenges. In fact, the 10 principles of material handling speak to how and why technology, automation, and continuous growth improvements are critical to a resilient and effective supply chain.

  1. Planning: having a material handling process that works today but is also able to flex and grow as required by internal and external demands and pressures. For example, being able to adjust to changes in workplace culture and the latest available technology.
  2. Standardization: standardizing on the right technologies for the right tasks. For example using AMR forklifts through-out a warehouse and distribution center to make employees available for higher-value tasks.
  3. Work: by implementing AMRs, cobots, WMS tools, and more, material handling processes can be optimized – doing more with less, while improving productivity. 
  4. Ergonomics: utilizing automation and technology to protect employees from risk and injury while ensuring goods and materials are moved, stored, and protected efficiently. 
  5. Unit load: the pandemic highlighted the need for companies to do more with less – fast-tracking automation adoption with solutions like automated pallet moverstuggers, and complete AMR systems
  6. Space utilization: this is an ongoing concern particularly when trying to reconfigure existing facilities to meet ecommerce demands, and consumer expectations for more personalized and customized products. This has sparked a change in the role of material handling in supporting warehouse space optimization to expedite last mile delivery of products. 
  7. System: utilizing technologies including automation, 5G, RFID, artificial intelligence, and mobile devices are essential to modern-day material movement and storage. 
  8. Environment: consumers want to know the lifecycle of the goods they’re buying, underscoring the importance for companies to have clear messaging around recycling, the environment, and clean energy. 
  9. Automationautomated material handling technology is aiding in ensuring product quality, employee safety, operational efficiencies, and better end-to-end material handling. 
  10. Life cycle cost: it’s important companies do not rush to the latest technologies without first assessing the ROI and infrastructure costs, and knowing which technology fits their needs today and can grow with changing demands. 

Companies cannot overlook how material handling ensures goods and materials are moved and stored safely, efficiently, and correctly through every step of the supply chain. 

Five Material Handling Trends Companies Need to Know 

The lessons learned from the pandemic emphasize how critical material handling is in ensuring company supply chains can respond quickly and efficiently to surging and unexpected product demands, and lags in delivery and logistics. They must be ready to anticipate forces beyond their control.

These five trends in material handling speak to the evolving nature of the law of supply and demand, and the power of the consumer.

Focus on Supply Chain Resiliency

While supply chain managers have always focused on resiliency, we are seeing an increased focus on adaptability and what this means for the modern-day supply chain. 

Companies are looking at how to use people, processes, and technology to build resilience and manage sudden change. 

We are seeing an increased and accelerated adoption of AMRs, robots, automation, additive manufacturing, reshoring, co-located warehousing and distribution, and more diversified supply chains. 

The next step for companies is to review their business continuity and disaster recovery plans and admit they need to make changes to support supply chain resiliency. They can then seek out experts across a range of domains including automation, robots, technology, material handling, and human resources who can help them make effective change. 

Industry 4.0

This fourth industrial revolution is reshaping the factory floor and how we think of manufacturing and distribution. Thanks to technologies such as AI, 5G and 6G, blockchain, IoT, and robotics engineering, deep opportunities for optimizing operations are available to companies of all sizes and domains. 

AI-powered blockchains deliver supply chain visibility, transparency, traceability, and flexibility. Together these technologies can for example, give real-time traceability to a product as it moves from source through to manufacturing to last-mile delivery, or predict peak demands for skilled employees and quickly manage the hiring and approval of these people. 

When compared to 4G, a 5G network is 10,000 times faster and can support 10,000 times more traffic. 5G and 6G technology deliver improved network speed, connectivity, and reliability, making it easier for companies to fully integrate IoT sensors, automation, and robotics into their supply chain. 

This push towards Industry 4.0 is further necessitated by employee demand – people want to use the same technologies at work as they are at home and at play – we see how these latest advancements make life easier and more productive, and want them in the workplace. 

The next step for companies is to start conversations with experts in fields such as big data, blockchain, cloud, and robotics to discuss how these technologies can be used now, and what the next wave of disruptive tech can bring to material handling and supply chain management. 

People First Culture

The strength of every company comes down to their people. One of the positive side effects of the pandemic is companies increasing their understanding of the importance of their employees. 

Companies who had long-resisted remote work now understand how people in a range of roles including sales, customer service, training and education, management, and human resources can work effectively from home, and in many cases with stronger results and improved efficiency. And within factories and manufacturing centers, employee health and safety has taken on new meaning, forcing companies to rethink every aspect of their material handling processes, and how new technologies can improve workplace safety and productivity.

The next step for companies is to listen and respond to employee feedback on workplace culture, and what creates a positive and productive workplace. A people first culture is critical to enabling a resilient and agile workplace that is able to respond quickly to unexpected events and demands. 

Automation and Software Integration

Technologies such as LiDAR, SLAM software, AMRs, cloud connectivity, machine learning, and AI are making it easier for companies to bring change to material handling without risk of business interruption and productivity slowdowns.

The next step for companies is to assess the real needs of their operation, their employees, and their customers to ensure the technology fits today, and that they position their material handling infrastructure to adapt quickly to industry shifts and market pressures. 

Ecommerce Readiness

Buying and selling is happening online. Whether it’s procuring automotive parts from a supplier, ordering pallets of seasonal goods, or selling direct to consumers, ecommerce must be part of every company’s business plan. 

Many companies were forced into ecommerce sales and distribution before they fully understood how this impacted customer service, inventory management, distribution, and new product demands and releases. And while we are now seeing a return to some of the pre-pandemic models of sales and distribution, companies cannot return to their old methods of doing business – if they do, their customers will move on.

The next step for companies is to invest in technologies and knowledge throughout every phase of design, manufacturing, procurement, sales, inventory management, and distribution to ensure they can sell online today and be ready to adjust quickly to the constantly evolving ways of buying and selling. 

How Material Handling Technology Helps Build Supply Chain Resilience

A warehouse and distribution center is made up of a lot of moving parts. As you know, a break-down in any one area, however minor, can have far-reaching impacts throughout your operation.

Material handling technology in 2021 gives companies the tools and capabilities they need to mitigate interruptions, manage productivity slowdowns, strengthen their ROI, and be ready to on-board new technologies more quickly and successfully. 

In the future we will see larger scale adoption of technology such as digital twins, additive manufacturing, blockchain, and AI improve the moving, controlling, protecting, and processing of goods within manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, and delivery.

But to be ready for future material handling technology, companies must get on-board today with technologies such as AMRs, automation, cloud computing, robots, and sorting machines. 

There is always a risk with adopting new technology, but if we’ve learned anything over the last 18 months it’s that it is best to be able to control the when, why, where, how, and what of disruption. 

Contact us to discuss how AMRs and automation can strengthen your material handling processes and build supply chain resiliency for your organization.