Maximizing Energy Efficiency in Material Handling Operations

In the industrial manufacturing sector, where efficiency and productivity are paramount, the spotlight is increasingly turning toward a critical aspect of operations: energy efficiency. Material handling, a cornerstone of manufacturing processes, plays a pivotal role in shaping the overall sustainability and economic viability of industrial operations. The automated material handling equipment market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAVR) of 9.4% from 2023 to 2030. That means a clear understanding and effective implementation of energy-saving tactics will be even more significant – and important – moving forward.

As industries worldwide grapple with the challenges posed by rising energy costs, environmental concerns, and the imperative to meet stringent sustainability goals, the need to optimize energy consumption in material handling operations has never been more pressing.

Historically, the materials handling industry has not prioritized sustainability due to implementation costs. However, increasing pressure from consumers, regulators, and industry groups is pushing companies to adopt responsible practices.

The 2023 MHI Annual Industry Report, “The Responsible Supply Chain,” reveals that 48% of respondents feel growing influences to embrace sustainability, 37% are focusing on sustainability support for suppliers, and 13% are restructuring their supply chains for a circular economy. Notably, the C-suite now holds responsibility for sustainability efforts, with three-fourths of respondents collaborating with suppliers. This shift is driving a demand for innovative solutions.

This blog aims to examine maximizing energy efficiency in material handling, focusing on the pivotal role played by industrial manipulators. These sophisticated machines, designed to lift, move, and position materials with precision, are central to the fluidity of manufacturing processes. The choices we make regarding material handling equipment and operational practices have far-reaching implications for both the environment and the bottom line.

Energy Consumption Basics

The first step toward increased energy efficiency is understanding the energy consumption of automated technology. Efficiency in industrial material handling involves selecting power sources that balance performance, environmental impact, and cost-effectiveness. Here are several power sources that are considered efficient in various contexts:

  • Electricity: Electric-powered equipment is often chosen because it is efficient, clean, and controllable. Electric motors are well-suited for applications such as conveyors, lifts, and automated material handling systems. But the efficiency of electric-powered systems hinges on the source of electricity.
  • Pneumatic: Pneumatic systems are known for their energy efficiency, especially in intermittent usage scenarios. They can provide quick and precise movements without the need for continuous power. Note that proper system design, control, and maintenance are needed to optimize pneumatic systems.
  • Hydraulic: Hydraulic systems are efficient for heavy-duty lifting and applications requiring high force. They offer precise control and can handle varying loads. But, like other systems, there are variables to consider: the efficiency of hydraulic systems can be influenced by the type of hydraulic fluid used, system design, and maintenance practices.
  • Regenerative Technologies: Regenerative braking and other regenerative technologies capture and reuse energy during deceleration. However, the applicability of regenerative technologies depends on the type of material handling equipment and the nature of the operation.
  • Advanced Battery Technologies: Lithium-ion batteries and other advanced battery technologies are becoming increasingly popular for electric-powered material handling equipment, offering high energy density, and longer operating times. While initial costs may be higher, advancements in battery technology contribute to long-term gains.
  • Renewable Energy Sources: Integrating solar, wind, or other renewable energy sources into the facility’s power supply contributes to sustainability goals and reduces its environmental impact. The feasibility of renewable energy sources depends on factors like geographic location, available space, and local regulations.
  • Efficient System Design: Optimizing the design and layout of material handling systems can minimize energy consumption. This includes considerations for conveyor systems, automated storage solutions, and facility design. Collaboration with experienced system designers and engineers is essential for maximum impact.

The most efficient power source for industrial material handling depends on factors such as the specific application, load requirements, operational demands, and sustainability goals. Often, a combination of different power sources and technologies is used to create a comprehensive and efficient material handling system.

Energy-intensive processes

Operations that consume significant amounts of energy due to the nature of the tasks, equipment used, and overall system design are considered “energy-intensive.” Some of the most energy-intensive processes in material handling include:

  • Conveying Systems
  • Material Sorting and Diverting
  • Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
  • Lifting and Lowering Operations
  • Palletizing and Depalletizing
  • Heavy-Duty Forklift Operations
  • Packaging

Since these commonly used processes and systems require substantial amounts of energy, they are the areas where energy use reduction can have significant effects. Efforts to reduce the energy intensity of material handling processes often involve optimizing equipment, implementing energy-efficient technologies, and incorporating smart controls and automation.

Ongoing Improvement through Audits

Additionally, conducting energy audits and regularly maintaining equipment helps identify areas for improvement in material handling operations by assessing the performance of material handling equipment and automated systems. Identifying opportunities to optimize equipment can lead to increased operational efficiency, reduced downtime, and improved throughput.

Audit findings offer insights that enable informed decision-making regarding energy-efficient technologies and equipment. This helps businesses allocate resources in a manner that will achieve the best ROI. Audit data is also helpful for risk mitigation (if hazards are identified), benchmarking performance, increasing employee awareness regarding energy conservation efforts, and providing a foundation for continuous improvement initiatives.

Key Influences

Several factors influence energy efficiency in material handling operations. Addressing them is paramount for optimizing energy use, reducing costs, and enhancing net operational performance. Some involve equipment and system set-up while others apply to operational practices. The former include:

  • Equipment Selection and Design: Choosing energy-efficient material handling equipment, such as conveyors, cranes, and forklifts, is fundamental. Modern, well-designed equipment often incorporates energy-saving features.
  • Smart Automation: Integrating smart automation and control systems allows for optimized and synchronized operations. This minimizes idle time and reduces unnecessary energy consumption.
  • Regular Inspections and Maintenance: Implementing a proactive maintenance schedule helps prevent equipment inefficiencies and energy wastage. Regular inspections and timely repairs keep equipment operating at peak efficiency.
  • Efficient Use of Space: Optimizing the arrangement of loads and the use of storage space can minimize the need for unnecessary, energy-wasting movements. Efficient packing and organization contribute to load optimization.
  • Optimized Facility Layout: The layout of the material handling system, including the arrangement of equipment and storage areas, plays a significant role in energy efficiency. An optimized layout reduces unnecessary movements and transportation distances.

Operational practices – including energy monitoring, resource recovery, and employee education also affect energy efficiency. Consider the following

  • Task Sequencing and Scheduling: Proper sequencing and scheduling of material handling tasks reduce idle time and improve the flow of operations.
  • Regenerative Technologies: Implementing regenerative braking and other energy recovery systems can capture and reuse energy during deceleration, especially in systems with frequent starts and stops.
  • Advanced Motors and Drives: Upgrading to energy-efficient electric motors and drives contributes to energy savings. Variable frequency drives (VFDs) and high-efficiency motors are examples of such technologies.
  • Real-Time Monitoring: Implementing energy monitoring systems and analytics allows for real-time tracking of energy consumption. Much like audit data, ongoing, real-time data provides insights into areas for improvement and helps in making informed decisions.
  • Sensor Technologies: Integrating sensors for real-time monitoring and feedback enables systems to adjust operations based on actual needs, avoiding unnecessary power consumption.
  • Skills and Awareness: Providing training to operators and employees on energy-efficient practices promotes total system efficiency. Well-trained personnel are better equipped to use equipment optimally and identify opportunities for improvement.

Addressing these factors holistically, through a combination of technology adoption, employee training, and strategic planning, can lead to significant improvements. Regular assessments and a commitment to continuous improvement are essential. 

Emerging Technologies

Several emerging technologies are contributing to increased energy efficiency in material handling. Here are four examples that apply to industrial manipulators:

  1. The Internet of Things (IoT) enables the connection and communication of devices and sensors in material handling systems. Real-time data analytics help optimize energy usage and monitor equipment health.
  2. Predictive analytics utilize data and machine learning algorithms to forecast equipment performance, identify potential issues, and schedule preventive maintenance. This reduces downtime and energy use.
  3. Wireless charging systems eliminate the need for physical connections, providing flexibility in charging electric-powered material handling equipment.
  4. The use of advanced materials and lightweight designs in equipment construction reduces the energy required for movement and lifting operations.

These emerging technologies, among others, are at the forefront of transforming industrial material handling, offering innovative solutions to maximize power use, reduce environmental impact, and improve operational performance. The adoption of these technologies is expected to become more widespread as more businesses prioritize sustainability and energy consumption initiatives.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the pursuit of energy efficiency in industrial material handling is more than a noble endeavor for sustainability; it’s a strategic imperative for businesses looking to thrive. With careful consideration of critical factors influencing energy consumption, ranging from equipment choices to operational practices to emerging technologies, you can make the best choices for your operation. The benefits of such improvements go beyond cost savings; they can also provide greater operational agility, reduced environmental impact, and heightened competitiveness.

Energy efficiency demands a multi-prong approach — a convergence of smart technologies, a culture geared toward sustainability, and strategic decision-making. While researching solutions, you may find that industrial manipulators could be an asset in improving your facility’s energy efficiency. If you’re ready to discuss which material handling device could be right for you, contact us today.

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