Material Handling Systems

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By Jennifer Bailey

A material handling system is a set of equipment that is used to physically move material around the factory floor or in storage and freight handling areas.

Traditional material handling systems included trolleys, conveyors, forklifts and overhead traveling cranes. They were primarily mechanized devices and a large amount of manual intervention was required. These traditional systems had limitations such as low speed and handling problems including scratching, chipping, breaking and difficulty in monitoring material flow. However, these material handling systems were adequate for mass production of a limited variety products or low volume production.

At present, market forces demand that manufacturing systems be lean, agile and highly automated. Modern manufacturing systems need to handle a variety of components for increasing product customization, reduced lot sizes and variable product mixes. This has led to the requirement for automated equipment and systems that move faster, accommodate greater throughput, and require less maintenance than the earlier material handling systems.

To cope with these requirements, a new breed of material handling systems has been recently developed. These include automated storage and retrieval systems, carousels, rail guided and automated guided vehicles, intelligent flexible modular conveyors, pick and place units, vertical lifts and high density storage systems. Gripper or holding devices are also available for fragile, delicate and super finished components.

Usually material handling takes place along all the links of the supply chain, including production, distribution, storage and retail functions. Minimizing the complexity and number of handling operations can increase productivity. Most material movements need to be automated and simple. A detailed analysis needs to be carried out to track the flow of material, before installing the material handling equipment.

It is important to note that there is an increasing demand for real-time information at all stages of the distribution and supply chains. Material handling systems need to be connected to sensing devices that provide essential information for handling, such as the location or status of the material. This requirement is basic and is usually met with, but the importance of connecting handling equipment to a broader network and the plant management system has not yet been fully recognized by some companies.

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