Industrial engineers and disciples of Lean Manufacturing gurus will tell you, that transport and movement are waste. They add cost and need space but don’t create any value.

That’s all true, but at the same time, we can’t process sheets, bars, or any of the other materials we use in fabrication without moving them between machines. You might say, that material handling is a necessary evil, and as it’s unavoidable, it’s vital to do it as effectively as possible.

This blog discusses how material handling contributes to streamlined manufacturing operations. The focus is on the metal fabrication work we do at Wiley Metal Fabricating, but many of the observations hold in other manufacturing environments.

An Introduction to Material Handling

Manufacturing involves turning raw materials into finished products. In the chemical industry, they can move those materials through pipes to where they’re needed, but industries that work with solids aren’t as lucky: we have to physically pick things up and take them to machines for processing.

In the fabrication industry, our raw materials are sheet and plate, bar, tube, angle, and extrusion. For fabricators dealing with structural steel, add long, heavy I-beams to that list.

These materials need cutting, shaping, and often assembling or welding, to become the fabrications our customers order. Those operations are performed at specialized machines, so the material needs transported to them and loaded onto or into them. Then the cut pieces and the offcuts or web, (the lace left from the sheet after punching or laser or water jet cutting out a set of tightly nested parts), need unloading and moving to their next stop.

Manufacturers configure their operations to minimize material handling. This means packing machines together as tightly as possible, so there’s a flow from one to the next.

In high-volume production, conveyors can move products between machines or operations. Unfortunately, low-volume, high-mix operations like most fabrication shops don’t have that luxury. Instead, we have to use a variety of material-handling equipment.

Material Handling Equipment

A limitation of conveyors is that they constrain material flow. With a few exceptions, they just move the product from point A to point B. In warehousing and logistics, this isn’t always a problem. They can use mobile conveyors to load and unload trailers and bulk hoppers. Elsewhere though, material handling equipment needs to be flexible.

Here’s a list of equipment used in our shop:

  • Pallets: The basic element of material handling in many factories, this is a flat platform with space underneath so it can be lifted on a pair of forks. Pallets can also double as storage locations and are even used for kitting, where all the parts needed for a welding operation are gathered together on a pallet.
  • Forklift trucks: A motorized pair of forks designed for lifting and moving pallets.
  • Pallet jacks: Non-motorized forks, raised, lowered, pushed, and pulled by hand.
  • Wheeled tables and carts: Material and pallets can be placed on these and moved around into position by hand. Unlike pallets, carts put material at a convenient height for people to work with.
  • Cranes and hoists: Hoists are sometimes set up at individual machines. They’re used to lift material between the pallet or cart and the machine. Cranes are usually bigger and can even span the width of a shop, traversing its length by riding on rails.

Impact on Efficiency and Productivity

When talking about material handling the Lean Manufacturing gurus used the analogy of the water beetle. The water beetle travels light and makes many trips. It also moves smoothly and causes no disturbance.

For manufacturing this tells us to strive for one-piece flow. This is where each machine operator hands off a single piece to the operator at the next machine. In principle, it minimizes material handling and the space needed for storage. In a high-mix fabrication shop where machines and the things we’re making are large, it’s not so easy.

This is where mobile carts come in. Using them to unload, and then transport parts to the next operation, minimizes lifting and moving work. And when it’s not practical to use carts, pallets do almost the same thing.

Safety and Ergonomics

Material handling work is dangerous. Fork trucks in particular are hazardous because the driver often has very limited visibility. Manual handling is something to avoid too. Lifting and turning can cause musculoskeletal injuries, and, especially in fabrication, materials often have sharp edges.

We address these concerns with:

  • Aisles as wide as possible, for safe fork truck passage
  • Workstations equipped with cranes, hoists, or similar devices whenever it makes sense for the material
  • Mobile carts that let workers position material close to the machines they’re working at
  • Encouraging everyone to wear heavy-duty gloves. (There are times when gloves aren’t such a good idea, but we train people about this.)

Cost Implications

Minimizing material handling saves money. It means people are doing less non-value-adding work and it helps avoid accidents. The equipment isn’t always cheap, but we understand that reducing fatigue and preventing accidents is important. We also see that they have savings, even if they can be hard to quantify. So if a material handling device or piece of equipment is needed, we’ll get it.

Integration with Technology

You’ve probably seen videos of autonomous mobile robots wandering around warehouses and distribution centers. They pick up and deliver totes to where they’re needed. They look great, and at some point, a version will almost certainly make it into fabrication shops like ours, but we’re not there yet.

Logistics and high-volume, low-mix manufacturing operations use a lot of conveyors, and these are getting smarter. Rather than a flat belt moving at a steady speed, there are pallet systems that can deliver individual items exactly where they are needed. A downside is that these need a lot of space-hogging infrastructure.

Sustainability and Environmental Impact

Minimizing material handling also reduces the environmental impact of those fork trucks, but another change is a move to electricity. Rather than using slow-to-charge batteries, the latest models use a fuel cell and run on hydrogen. And for manufacturers who want to be at the leading edge, it’s possible to make your hydrogen using an electrolyzer.

A question comes up sometimes about the sustainability of pallets. These are almost always made from wood. That’s a sustainable material, but the pallets don’t last very long. It is possible to use plastic pallets – food and pharmaceutical manufacturers use these because they’re more hygienic – but they’re also plastic. They last a long time but eventually, they go to landfill, so there doesn’t seem to be a clear winner.

Custom Solutions in Material Handling

Material handling is big business, and many companies can develop and implement complex custom solutions. These go into warehouses and high-volume, low-mix factories but they’re less applicable for fabrication shops that handle a lot of variety. Until something better comes along we’ll be sticking with our fork trucks, pallet jacks, mobile cart hoists, and cranes.

Staying Flexible, to Meet Customer Needs

At Wiley, we’re always looking for ways to do things better. Material handling is one of those things. We can’t avoid it but we can organize our activities to do as little of it as possible. That’s good for our people, and it’s good for cost management too.

The main thing for us is to retain the flexibility that lets us handle a wide range of fabrication work. If you have a project in mind or need a source of fabricated metal parts, we’d like to help. Contact us to arrange a discussion.