Four High Tech Material Handling Trends to Watch for during the Next Decade

(Editor’s Note: In today’s Thursday Feature, we examine the growing use of automated materials handling equipment and how their use will change the way businesses make decisions and grown during the coming decade.)

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

For the materials handling industry, the future already has arrived.

A new report issued by trade group BBC Research has identified at least four new high-tech trends that will continue to push the material handling industry to greater feats of efficiency and profitability during the next decade.

These trends include the increased use of robotics, autonomous control, driverless vehicles, and wearable computing, according to the report, entitled “Automated Material Handling Equipment and Systems: The North American Market”.

Growth of Automated Material Handling

Perhaps the biggest benefit of automated material handling is flexibility.

Generally, the fewer human hands that touch a product as it moves through the supply chain from production to delivery, the cheaper the overall costs to the manufacturer. Robotic production lines and automated delivery systems don’t need to take days off, have paid vacation time, or file grievances with human resources departments.

They also don’t complain about changes in work rules, schedule adjustments, or pay, giving owners more leeway in terms of making operational changes in response to markets that are constantly in flux.

Rapid Growth in Automated Equipment Industry

Perhaps this is why the North American market for automated material handling equipment is rapidly growing. In 2013, it was valued at $4.5 billion and in 2014 it was $4.8 billion. But over the course of just the next four years, it is expected to ramp up 8.1% to $7.1 billion by 2019, according to the report.

The global market for automated material handling equipment was valued at $120 billion in 2013.

Trend Toward Scalability

Many businesses today want scalability, or the ability to increase the size and scope of their operations as a function of demand. To do this, they need systems that let them rapidly reconfigure their operations to accommodate changes in throughput, SKU velocity, and product mix.

Automated material handling equipment is beginning to have a substantial impact on the North American economy. Consumers who are now using the convenience of online ordering are demanding faster delivery, a more personalized customer service, and even “greener” operations that include everything from recycling to zero-emissions manufacturing to environmentally friendly packaging and end-of-life disposal.

The only way to accomplish this is often through automated material handling products and systems.

Signs of Recovery

The automated material handling industry was practically wiped out by the global economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 when the value of the segment dropped nearly 38%. But signs of economic recovery promise healthy growth in the industry over the course of the next decade, as companies look for faster, cheaper and more responsive ways to get their  products into the hands of consumers, according to BBC research analyst Lisa Marshall.

“The concept of flexibility is related to the concept of scalability,” Marshall said in a news release announcing the release of the report. “A system is scalable when its capabilities can be incrementally increased or decreased as business needs dictate. (In the robotics industry, for example, the are is) in the midst of a true revolution as capabilities increase and costs decrease.

“Although most industrial robots are found in manufacturing applications, they are becoming more viable for material handling and logistics applications in the future,” Marshall said.

Wide-Ranging Implications

In compiling the report, researchers looked at a wide variety of automation applications in many different industries, including third party logistics (3PL), automotive, mail order, food and beverage, wholesale distribution, medical and pharmaceutical, parcel post, printing and publishing, bulk material handling and mining, airport baggage handling, and many others.

BBC Research is a trade organization that publishes market research reports for many different industries. Based in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the company sells its reports directly to industries and individuals. The full report sells for $6,650.