Material Handling and Its Importance in Manufacturing

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Manufacturing is a varied and complicated process, one that involves many components and steps that have to work together seamlessly in order to produce something that is usable and marketable. However, if there is one particular step that the entire manufacturing chain hinges upon, it is the timely and proper conveyance of materials to, within, and from a manufacturing plant. This process is called material handling.

Material Handling Explained

In a nutshell, material handling is the movement of material – whether raw, or processed, or the final manufactured product itself – in two scenarios: within the confines of a building to facilitate the manufacturing process, or between a building and a transportation vehicle for the purposes of storage or delivery.

The equipment used in material handling fall into three broad categories: manual (porters/carriers), semi-automated (forklifts), and fully-automated (conveyor belts, robot arms, and manipulators powered by high-power-density BLDC motors). Depending on the manufacturing plant or the product being manufactured, more than one, two, or all three types of equipment may be used.

Also within the scope of material handling are the considerations and measures used in the protection, storage, and control of the material throughout the manufacturing process, as well as its warehousing and distribution. Such considerations may include the usage of adequate packaging as the product is being shipped, in order to prevent damage to the product during the journey. Another example is the handling of the final product as it is being stored in a warehouse.

Types of Material Handling

There are two main types of material handling, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

  • Manual H This refers to the type of handling that involves a human worker using their own physical force to move individual containers of either raw material, processed material, or the final product. These movements include but are not limited to lifting, lowering, filling, emptying, or carrying these individual containers. As this involves manual labor and exposes workers to physical strain, manual handling can easily lead to musculoskeletal injuries and physical conditions that can delay the manufacturing process. However, despite the high risk of injury, manual material handling also allows for resource flexibility, as workers can be directed to competently do other tasks besides material handling should the need arise.
  • Automated handling. This refers to the type of handling where mechanical equipment is used to reduce or replace the need for manual material handling. This can range from the usage of worker-operated forklifts and aisle trucks to haul material, to the usage of fully autonomous industrial robots or machinery such as conveyor belts and robot arms to continuously transfer material down an assembly line or process. This results in not only a faster turnaround time but also repeatable results. Note that while forklifts and trucks may not necessarily count as completely automated, as they still require a worker to operate, the fact that it removes much of the physical burden of material handling from the worker makes them fit into this category of handling. However, this does not completely remove the chance of physical injuries, only lessen it. Automated handling equipment can also break down, which can also cause delays.

The Role of Material Handling in Manufacturing

Material handling is integral to the manufacturing process. Nearly every physical item being sold commercially nowadays has been and will be transported on at least one type of material handling equipment, whether by a conveyor belt, a truck, or even a worker’s hands.  The very industry of material handling is also a significant part in any country’s economy, from the hiring of porters and workers to the creation of material-hauling machinery and transportation.

Without adequate material handling, the manufacturing process may be compromised. Products will not be finished on time, raw materials will degrade and go to waste without even being processed, and any finished product will not be able to reach distributors intact (if at all).

Material handling is also a concept that needs to be taken into consideration when designing a production system, as the proper layout of the stations in the production process can facilitate an ideal path where the most efficient type of material handling can be applied. For example, if the stations in a production system is designed to go in sequence, then a conveyor belt can be used to deliver the material down the sequence path.

If the stations are adjacent or near each other, then workers can just simply the material to each other. If these stations are built or designed far apart, however, then material handling measures such as trucks or forklifts may need to be used. Proportionally, the risk of delays and material damage also goes up with every additional stepin the material handling process.

The importance of material handling in manufacturing lies in its role in facilitating an efficient manufacturing process through the safe delivery of materials to and from storage warehouses and/or distributors. To this end, manufacturers need to consider the types of material handling available to them and adjust accordingly in order to maximize cost and efficiency. They also need to take material handling into consideration when creating or designing assembly lines.