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How Material Handling and Automation Increases Labor Flexibility

As labor becomes increasingly rarer, more expensive and difficult, how can you design processes that let you hire the broadest array of people?

heavy pipe handling at a manufacturing facility.

Manufacturing plants, warehouses and other industrial operations are all facing one central challenge today: labor shortages. There are other challenges in supply chains, material inputs and environmental situations, but everyone in every industry across the board is dealing with labor—or the lack of it. 

You have labor flexibility when a larger pool of people can execute more types of jobs in a given distribution or manufacturing facility. What are the areas that can be targeted by processes and equipment that allow you to expand the pool of available people? What physical and other limitations can you overcome with a combination of equipment, processes and training that expand your pool of labor?

Make physical attributes less relevant

female warehouse worker carrying a heavy carton.

Many of manufacturing, distribution and warehousing jobs require young, strong people—often men—who can lift, carry and manipulate large, heavy weights and be able to stand on hard floors for extended periods. These physical demands reduce your pool of available labor by more than 50%. 

Typical tasks might require workers to move boxes from a cart to a work table, off a rack and onto the floor, from a truck and to a dock, from a workstation to a welding station, etc. In manually-driven operations, this relies on the workers’ physical strength. They must be capable of heavy-labor tasks like moving 50-pound bags or heavy cases of liquids at the end of a conveyor line. Workers might need to be capable of feeding 100-pound, 12-foot long tubing into machinery. It could be as simple as moving large, bulky components from a table to a conveyor line.

Those younger, stronger workers are increasingly in higher demand and in shorter supply, but you can increase the available labor pool by adapting to the new reality of today’s labor force.

Whatever the task is, one of the best ways to create labor flexibility is to target those areas where strength is vital and revise the tasks so that a broader array of people can perform them. This may be as complex as full automation (robotic palletizing) or as simple as gravity conveyors between workstations.

Targeted material handling reductions in physical capacity needs

Older worker lifting heavy steel part with a hoist.

Above: worker handling a heavy steel component in a manufacturing operation. This has always been a typical hoist or balancer application, as the part is so heavy that handling it manually, even for short distances is both dangerous and inefficient. In a flexible labor operation, hoists, lifts and balancers can be deployed for much lighter loads and processes to allow smaller, less physically capable employees to handle the work.

  • When a packing area requires stronger workers to lift totes to packing stations, how could that be eliminated?
  • If you’re handling heavy tubing, can that be done with balancers or hoists rather than by hand?
  • Pallet stacking and unstacking is a prime target. Can you build ways to reduce or even eliminate manual labor in those instances?
  • Simple things matter. If you can move a heavy crate from a work table to a conveyor line by installing rollers, you increase labor flexibility.

Your competitive advantage will increasingly rely on finding places where heavy, physical work is happening—and where it adds the least value—then targeting it for automation or enhanced material handling processes. One of our manufacturing clients told us that their plant is designed so that “most of the people here can at least physically do most of the work we have.”

Labor flexibility in this context means a system of tasks that supports a wide array of workers. Can a given task be accomplished only by a younger, strong worker? Could it be altered so that someone older, smaller or less robust can execute it? “Whether linebacker or ballerina” is one way to think about it.

Videos: techniques for reducing physical strength requirements

Most lifts, conveyors, automated palletizing and pallet transport interactions require at least some physical strength. These videos illustrate ways you can target and reduce those requirements.

Above: pallet positioner reduces the physical strength needed to palletize or depalletize a load, either into or away from storage or processing.

Above: utilize vacuum handling systems to reduce manual handling of heavy sheets. This allows a much broader range of workers to execute this type of heavy work.

Internal transit, stamina and labor flexibility

Worker picking from a defined zone at a distribution center.

Internal transit is a huge problem for labor flexibility. In cart-based order picking strategies, you’ll need younger workers with stamina who can roam concrete floors all day, pushing loaded, heavy carts to picking positions—the kind of increasingly rare and more expensive workers in today’s tight labor markets. This both limits your growth potential and your labor pool. If a 50-something person with a bad hip can pick those orders, you will increase your labor pool significantly. 

You can’t ask most 50+ employees to push order picking carts all day, but they’re capable of picking from storage locations to conveyor lines or from carousels to carts. The key for older order picking workers is goods-to-person picking, which slashes physical effort and walking.

Table of labor by age group projections, 2021-2024. This table shows growth in the percentage of labor pool for ages 55-64, 65-75 and 75 or older. At the same time, it shows reductions in the pool for ages 45 through 54 and 16 through 24, with moderate gains for ages 25 to 34 and ages 35 to 44.

The aging workforce is an opportunity to increase flexibility

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of the 55+-year-old workforce stood at 22.1% in 2019 and will surge to almost 25% by 2024. Of a total labor pool of 164 million, 41 million will be at least 55 years old, and another 13 million over 65. These older workers are the fastest-growing American labor pool. At the same time, manufacturing “re-shoring” is accelerating.

That’s even more competition for the remaining younger workers.

Furthermore, BLS data states that 4.9 million of these 55+ workers are in service industries and nearly 4.2 million are working in production, transport and material moving.  Another 2.7 million are involved in construction or maintenance. They’re not all pushing keyboards around a desk and they’re already doing physical work.  That is a deep pool of motivated workers whose careers can be extended by reducing the physical toll of industrial work with better, more ergonomic material handling techniques.

Worker pushing load along a floor mounted gravity conveyor to reduce ergonomic stress.

If your processes rely on younger workers who can reliably work full shifts, you have the opportunity to reduce those needs with conveyor systems, zone picking and other techniques that bring goods to workers and eliminate walking that adds no actual value to your process.

Read more: The Ergonomics of Automation

Goods-to-person automation

Read more: Goods-to-Picker Methods and Alternatives

Above: powered personnel carriers are another solution to warehouse travel. They allow both a rider and have load-carrying capacities to traverse long, in-plant distances with loads up to 2,500 pounds. 

What’s the bottom line for flexible labor pools?

There are as many ways to ship, store, handle, assemble and process as there are companies doing it. Likely you have some areas where you can target labor-intensive processes that require strength, stamina or youth with less-intensive methods. This not only increases the labor pool available to you, it also reduces production costs and injuries. At the same time, it’s very likely to reduce errors and mistakes that lead to costly returns or rework.

These methods may indeed involve automation, large and small scale, but can also involve a number of less automated methods that target physical attributes in your process.

Testing new work processes that expand your labor pool

What reduces labor demands?

Material handling and storage are prime targets for improved labor flexibility. The value of a process isn’t in the physical handling of it, after all. The value is in the way you package, process, inspect or assemble.

  1. Profile your work positions to identify those that require physical attributes that limit your labor pool. Analyze each role and identify the traits. “Must walk and be on their feet eight hours”; “must be able to lift and carry 50 pound loads”; “must be able to reach overhead consistently.”
  2. Look at the available workforce. In some areas, you may find more women than men, while in others you may be able to identify an untapped pool of workers 55 or older. Some companies succeed by designing work that disabled people can execute. Providing these types of opportunities is often welcomed and appreciated.
  3. Go back to your work lists and look for ways to either reduce or eliminate the parts of the work that require specific, limiting physical attributes.
  4. Find ways to execute pilot projects. (Example: install balancers or hoists on a particular workstation and try to fill that position with someone who previously couldn’t execute the work). Observe and tweak the process before full-scale execution. Pilot projects may not be possible in every case, but probably more often than not.
  5. Implement and tweak your solution.

Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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