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The rise of non-conveyable items and supply chain complexities. How to efficiently move large, bulky items.

The Rise of Non-Conveyables and Supply Chain Complexities

August 26, 2021  |  Jeff Christensen

Consumers quickly turned to online shopping for their day-to-day purchases as pandemic lockdowns and a stay-at-home culture emerged. Today, many consumers now prefer shopping online, as they can quickly and easily receive exactly what they want without leaving home.

Because of this drastic shift in consumer behaviors, many retailers have expanded their e-commerce product offerings and presence. Now, pretty much anything can be ordered online. From washing machines and televisions to workout equipment and couches, the online demand for large, odd-shaped items continues to rapidly accelerate. However, this boost in demand adds major complexities for supply chains. 

Overcoming the Challenges of Non-Conveyable Items

Consumer purchases for bulky items like washing machines and appliances were typically handled in brick and mortar retail stores. With this model, distribution warehouses would strategically load trucks to efficiently deliver bulk items to their retail locations. This process was highly optimized, scheduled, and controlled by the retailer.

Today’s flow is much more granular and complex with warehouses delivering inventory direct to the customer on an individual order basis. Instead of determining how to efficiently maximize a truckload with many of the same items, now warehouses are dealing with high variances in orders. For example, one order could contain a very large item like a stationary exercise bike, where the next order could include a few small items, such as books. This variety of products eliminates efficiencies of scale for retailers. 

The sheer size of items causes major challenges within a warehouse or distribution center. Large items often can’t fit into existing automation infrastructure, including sortation machines and conveyors—leading the industry to commonly refer to such items as non-conveyables.

To address these outliers, facilities often will dedicate human workers to manually move the bulky items from storage to shipping locations using ad hoc processes. Manual processes are vulnerable to human errors, which can result in accidents, product damage, injuries, and even death. Facilities and logistics providers now need to optimize workflows by identifying methods to effectively handle the influx of non-conveyable items at a larger scale. 

Drive Results with Flexible Mobile Automation

Every human touchpoint within a material handling process translates into additional costs. Many facilities are implementing automation solutions, like autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) or automated guided vehicles (AGVs), to streamline efficiencies and build safe, seamless workflows for non-conveyable items. Mobile robots provide hands-free flexibility by reducing the number of human touchpoints required to move non-conveyables, which ultimately reduces costs and product damage while improving safety

To effectively process and handle non-conveyables, facilities should load the large items onto carts with wheels. From there, high-capacity AMRs can connect to multiple carts at a time and pull them throughout the facility to the desired destinations. These large, bulky items are much more stable on carts than being counterbalanced on a manual forklift. In fact, nearly 97,000 manual forklifts are involved in an injury or fatality each year, which equates to a manual forklift accident occurring roughly every five minutes. Create a safer, more reliable work environment for employees while reducing potential product loss due to accidents by implementing flexible AMR solutions. 

Additionally, non-conveyables can significantly vary by size, shape, weight, and order volumes—all requiring different processes and approaches for efficient handling. Facilities need the flexibility to move a wide variety of products. Fortunately, AMRs excel in providing this level of flexibility and agility. If changes need to be made to a workflow or task, facility personnel can quickly and easily adjust, add, or reassign processes without disrupting production. 

Optimize for Today and the Future

The reliance on e-commerce continues to grow, and it doesn’t appear that any slowdowns are in sight. Consumer behaviors have essentially been cemented in society for e-commerce with an increased demand for large, non-conveyable items. With demands for faster, better, and for less, retailers need to ensure that products get delivered to customers quickly and accurately. 

Aim to move products as efficiently and effectively as possible throughout your facilities, whether you are processing small items or large non-conveyables. Reducing the number of touchpoints across your workflows will translate into significant cost savings, boosted productivity, operational flexibility, and safer, more reliable environments that drive continuous improvement. 

Infographic: Mapping the Route to Automation Success

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