Material handling refers to the movement of items within relatively small spaces, such as a warehouse.
In that sense, it’s different from logistics, which refers to movement of goods over longer distances, from city to city or across countries and continents.
But material handling falls within logistics, obviously, and can sometimes be categorised within intralogistics – as in, movement of goods within a company’s network of warehouses and manufacturing facilities.
The market for material handling has grown rapidly in recent years, because of the growth in online shopping.
Amazon, being the world’s largest online retailer, recognised this trend and has been investing large amounts of money in the sector.
Starting with the acquisition of Kiva Systems, a supplier of small robotic platforms for moving things around within warehouses, Amazon has now become a massive logistics company and has highly advanced material handling systems, which is what enable the company to offer same-day delivery and other superfast services.
Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods Market, a supplier of fresh produce, was likely based on its confidence in the efficient material handling and logistics network it has established.
However, Amazon is not a supplier of material handling systems and services to other companies, which is what this article is about.
That’s a lot of material
According to Modern Materials Handling, the world’s largest material handling systems supplier is Daifuku, with a revenue of almost $3 billion in 2016.
Its complete list provides a variety of details about the top 20, with links, but we’ll simply list the companies with their respective revenues for 2016.
Top 20 materials handling systems suppliers
|9.||Fives Group||$721 million|
|12.||TGW Logistics||$568 million|
|14.||Witron Logistic + Informatik||$453 million|
|16.||Bastian Solutions||$217 million|
|18.||Egemin Automation||$159 million|
|20.||System Logistics||$129 million|
Almost all of the companies generated significantly more revenues in 2016 compared with 2015, as the original table at MMH shows.
The average increase in revenues across all 20 companies was 6 per cent, although it probably should be noted that only two of the 20 saw their revenues decrease – Swisslog, and System Logistics.
Swisslog’s lower reported revenues may be to do with the fact that the company has been investing heavily in infrastructure in Asia and other places. It may see a return to higher revenues in the next year or two.
What’s robot got to do with it?
All of the material handling companies listed above, and those who aren’t on the list, integrate a variety of robotics and automation technologies in their systems.
Industrial robots are featured prominently on their websites, and are offered as part of their solutions.
This would certainly have been part of the reason why Kuka bought Swisslog for approximately $350 million a couple of years ago.
And since Kuka has itself been acquired by Chinese household appliances giant Midea, Swisslog’s investments in Asia, in particular, start to make sense.
The type of tasks an industrial robotic arm is put to depends on the end effector and other factors, but they can include:
- part selection;
- part transfer;
- bin picking;
- picking and placing;
- loading and unloading; and
- machine tending.
Essentially, they’re used for the typical repetitive tasks that might be dull for a human to do, or even dangerous, such as heavy lifting.
Industrial robots are not the only robotic and automation technology used in material handling, but it’s probably worth listing some of the companies which produce specially configured solutions for material handling.
Industrial robots for material handling
This is just a random list of some of the companies that are specifically touting their robots as being “material handling” solutions. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list.
But any robotic arm could probably be programmed and accessorised to perform material handling tasks.
One of the key differences, however, is that some are capable of heavy lifting, which the smaller, collaborative robots are not, obviously.
Another type of robot increasingly being used in material handling is the small mobile platform, like the Kiva Systems ones mentioned above, bought by Amazon.
Similar platforms are being developed and launched all the time, and below is a list of the ones we know about.
- Kuka – KMP 1500
- Comau – Agile 1500
- NextShift Robotics – TM 100
- Omron – Mobile Robot LD
- EiraTech – EiraBot
- Magazino – Toru
- inVia – inVia bot LD
- Fetch – Fetch robot
- Clearpath – Otto
- Aethon – Tug
- I Am Robotics – Mobile Picking Robot
- 6 River Systems – Chuck
- Grenzebach – Automatic Guided Vehicle System L1200S
- Balyo – AGV
- Seegrid – Vision Guided Vehicles
- PlusOne Robotics – in development
- Swisslog – CarryPick
- GreyOrange – Butler
- BlueBotics – Ant
- Serva Transport Systems – Ray and Eve
- Vecna – MHE
- Mobile Industrial Robots – MiR
This list was originally included in our article, Logistics robots: The way you move, but we have updated it with some new launches – such as Comau’s Agile and Kuka’s KMP, and added another company, NextShift Robotics.
Also, since that original list was made, 6 River Systems has launched its machine, which is interesting because the company’s staff includes some of the people behind the Kiva Systems platform.
Another interesting development is the idea of attaching robotic arms to these mobile platforms, something which Kuka, Fetch and other companies have demonstrated.
But further advances are probably required in machine vision in order for these robots to be able to identify parts more efficiently.
At the moment, they can be made to work – in inventory management – by attaching barcode scanners and other types of scanning systems.
A company called Surgere, working with Fetch, has launched a robot-managed inventory system.
As for the automated conveyor systems and their associated scanners and sensors that are all part of an automated warehouse or material handling system…
That’s a whole other story, and we’ll have to leave that for another article. Time is money, after all. And we haven’t even begun to think of driverless forklift trucks yet.