Is Automation for Everyone?

If materials handling is your business, you’re probably fascinated by the Brave New World of automated material handling solutions available today. “Gee,” you might say, “if those robots would just come down in price a couple of million dollars, I might be able to put one or two to use in my warehouse.” At least one company that can afford the latest in automated equipment, might actually disagree with you.

low profile parts hopper

Sometimes, simpler is better

Scott Miracle-Gro’s Marysville, Ohio plant and warehouse is no small operation. With 850,000 square feet of warehouse space, they compete with an Amazon warehouse for size, but are in another world when it comes to operations. While Amazon famously (or infamously) relies on a combination of high-tech bar-coding to keep track of its stock and low-tech foot power to handle the stock (Amazon employees walk 7-15 miles per day), Scott Miracle-Gro has found that “old-fashioned” forklifts and forklift accessories work better for them.

Interestingly, there’s not a single pallet rack in Scott’s Marysville facility. This came as a surprise to Modern Materials Handling reporter Bob Trebilcock when he was given a tour of the warehouse. When he asked why there were no pallet racks in the warehouse, his tour guide told him that they tried to use them, but didn’t work as well as their “pyramid stacking” system; so they took them out. They must be on to something, because when their fleet of forklifts are going full swing 24/7 during the peak spring and summer season, their forklifts move over 6,000 pallets per day.

If the Scott Miracle-Gro operations are anything to go by, automation isn’t always the best solution. The company does use automated bagging, palletizing and stretch wrapping equipment, but after that, the company found that the cost of automated equipment and its maintenance was too high and did not improve productivity. Instead, they embarked on a “preventive maintenance program” with their lift truck provider to ensure their fleet of forklifts were always fully operational.

What’s the moral of this story? As Trebilcock noted, it’s “important to remember how many in our industry are still running efficient and productive warehouses with the conventional tools of our trade.”

a forklift drum attachment

This is all the “automation” most of us need.

Many of those “conventional tools” are forklift accessories. As mentioned in an earlier blog, Who Needs Robotics When You Have Self Dumping Hoppers, hoppers have simple mechanical dumping and righting systems that perform just as well as a robot could and probably last a lot longer as well. Similarly, a drum attachment virtually automates the process of handling drums.

Is automation for everyone? Self dumping hoppers and drum handlers greatly simplify material handling, but don’t remove the human element altogether. Nevertheless, their low cost and high efficiency make them a better choice even in a large plant or warehouse that could afford to buy the latest and greatest in automated equipment. As Bob Trebilcock learned: “Marysville, Ohio was a gentle reminder that sometimes, simple solutions are best.”

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