Material Handling Robots: A Practical Introduction

What are material handling robots? How can you apply them to your operations?

Many tasks in manufacturing facilities come under the umbrella of “material handling”. However, it’s not always clear how the term applies to robotic automation.

Here’s a practical introduction to using material handling robots in your business.

What Are Material Handling Robots?

The definition of material handling is simple:

“Material Handling is the process of moving goods and materials short distances within a building, factory, facility, or warehouse.”

Following this, a material handling robot is any robot that moves materials short distances around your facility.

From a practical perspective, this means that you will program the robot to grasp each object, move it to another location, and put it down again. For this reason, material handling tasks are relatively simple tasks to achieve with a robot.

Is Material Handling Too Variable for Robots?

When you start looking for material handling tasks in your facility, you will likely start to see them everywhere. People are always picking up materials and workpieces, moving them around, sorting and storing them.

However, you might doubt whether such tasks can really be automated. It can seem that there is just too much variability in material handling tasks for automation.

Automation indeed requires objects to be presented in a consistent, regular fashion.

However, one advantage of the robot deployment process is that it often reveals opportunities for regularity where you didn’t see them before. When deploying your material handling robot, you will discover new consistency in your tasks.

A Good Reason to Use Robots for Material Handling

There are a few benefits to using robots for your material handling tasks.

Robots can help to overcome some of the common challenges for material handling operations, including:

  • Helping to keep down high labor costs
  • Improving productivity
  • Reducing downtime across

But, there is one good reason to use robots that trumps all of the rest:

  • Reducing injury in workers

Material handling tasks are some of the most dangerous tasks for your average worker. While they don’t necessarily involve hazardous equipment there is always a risk that people strain their bodies. This can be due to the repetitive movements, causing musculoskeletal injuries.

Although you can reduce this risk with pre-work exercises and ergonomics changes, it’s more effective to hand the task over to a robot instead.

Where Robots Fit With Other Material Handling Machines

Robots are only one of various material handling machines that you might be using in your facility.

Examples of other equipment include conveyors, hoisting equipment, integrated material handling systems, overhead cranes, etc.

Each of these machines has its own place in your operations and robots won’t replace all of them.

In what situations should you use a robot?

Companies are using robots for the types of tasks that people would otherwise have to do. For example, instead of having your workers lifting heavy sacks onto pallets, a robot can do this instead. However, if you needed to move an entire airplane through a hanger, you would certainly need something like an overhead crane.

5 Material Handling Robot Applications

Here are 5 examples of machine handling tasks that can be perfect for a robot:

1. Packing Products

A common material handling task is packing products for shipment or further processing. The task doesn’t add any value to the product itself. It is a classic “in-between” step.

Robots are perfect for packing. They are flexible enough that you can seamlessly handle various types of products with the same robot.

2. Part Transfer

Many steps in a manufacturing process simply involve moving parts from one area in the facility to another. This is a boring task and is not a good use of people’s time.

Robotic part transfer is an easy application to deploy and program, which makes this a very good first robotic task.

3. Loading and Unloading Conveyors

Conveyors are a common method for moving material around a facility. But, the problem with them is that you need to load and unload the products onto them.

There are three main approaches to loading conveyors:

  1. Get humans to do it, which has all the same challenges listed above
  2. Deploy complex, bespoke automation solutions to channel items to the next automated step in the process
  3. Use a robot

Using a robot has similar flexibility benefits to using people and is much cheaper than complete automation.

4. Holding Material in Place

Sometimes you simply require parts to be held in place while operations are carried out on them. The traditional approaches to this are to use a human or to create custom fixturing to keep the material steady.

Robots can be easily programmed to handle multiple types of parts. They are often used for this type of task, for example, for holding parts in front of a painting machine.

5. Palletizing and Depalletizing

Materials likely arrive in your facility packed onto pallets. This requires them to be depalletized, a boring and “back-breaking” job. Similarly, the last stage before products are sent out to customers is usually to load them onto pallets.

Robots are more than just suitable for palletizing tasks, they are often significantly better than humans are at this task. They can pack items with more consistency and will never suffer from the musculoskeletal problems that people do.

How to Program a Machine Handling Robot

Once you have identified a good material handling task, it’s a good idea to think about how you will program your robot.

Even though material handling tasks are usually simple compared to other robot applications, it’s worth looking for a programming solution that will make the task of programming as easy as possible.

You can find out more about effective robot programming here.

What material handling tasks could you apply a robot to? Tell us in the comments below or join the discussion on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or in the RoboDK Forum.

About Alex Owen-Hill

Alex Owen-Hill is a freelance writer and public speaker who blogs about a large range of topics, including science, presentation skills at CreateClarifyArticulate.com, storytelling and (of course) robotics. He completed a PhD in Telerobotics from Universidad Politecnica de Madrid as part of the PURESAFE project, in collaboration with CERN. As a recovering academic, he maintains a firm foot in the robotics world by blogging about industrial robotics.

View all posts by Alex Owen-Hill

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