On the move: Handling the demand

Lockdown and quarantining have placed significant challenges on the materials handling industry, with social distancing requirements, heightened demand on supply chains, and a reduction in labour, to name a few. NZEN spoke with a key industry player to see how they are working with these changes, and how they can help others.

While some companies are struggling to keep up with demand, and others facing the threat of being closed for isolation if one of their workers tests positive for COVID-19, automation is one thing that can offer assistance.

Design Energy has been working with New Zealand companies for over 100 years, and managing director Mike Shatford says that he has seen the way automation can help in the workplace during these times. In particular, small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are taking advantage.

“There’s been a big shift in the focus of robot manufacturers towards SMEs. Things are getting more applicable to the types of production models we run in New Zealand,” says Shatford.

“These guys [robot manufacturers] have realised that the mass production customers they have had in the past are pretty saturated when it comes to robotics, so they are looking for other markets for robots.”

And SMEs are an obvious choice. According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), New Zealand is a nation of small and micro businesses – with 530,000 small businesses in the country, representing 97% of all firms.

This is good news for these Kiwi companies, says Shatford.

“They have missed out on the benefits of automation for a long time, but now it is coming around.”

So what does automation look like for materials handling?

More than a straight line

Materials handling is the movement, protection, storage and control of materials and products throughout manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, consumption and disposal.

It could involve transporting a product 10 metres down the factory. But with robots, a lot more can be achieved.

“You can do more complicated things like stack things in arrangements; you can reach from one space to another,” says Shatford.

This means that there is often added value on the way – a label printer or a quality control mechanism can be visited along the way. There are many possibilities, but efficiency is the key.

“Handling has to be done as well as any other automated component in your factory,” says Shatford.

“If you are not thinking about the types of products you are moving, how far, how fast, production rates… all of these factors some into it. It’s as important as everything else in a factory.

“The weakest link will cause you problems.”

Handling the virus

While COVID-19 has changed the landscape of many sectors, it has also propelled new projects and avenues.

With the country now having faced multiple lockdowns and various levels, it seems businesses have become more prepared. Design Energy has seen this with its customers.

“The businesses we are working with are picking up the pace. They are getting down to what they were going to do [prior to COVID-19] and then they are doing more because the quarantining and lockdowns have really exposed many businesses’ reliance on labour to do what they do,” says Shatford. 

“There are really good conversations that we are having a lot of at the moment.”