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Material Handling Report

Taking Away Touch

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MCN Editor Dan Markham Experts in the field of moving metal discuss the ins and outs of today’s flow of material through a service center.

If there’s a prevailing sentiment that should govern movement of metal throughout a modern metal service center, it’s one that harkens back to a mother’s warning to a small child in any number of settings: Look, don’t touch. 

Whether it’s unloading material from the truck, setting it on a piece of processing equipment or storing it in the warehouse, the fewer times a human being ever puts his or her hands on the metal, the better the system will operate. 

“The less frequently you have to touch it, the faster it gets out the door to your customers,” says Jason Clark, president of Canrack Storage Systems, Etobicoke, Ontario. “There’s a lot less likelihood you’ll make mistakes or have damage to the product.”

And the damage isn’t limited to the metal. “Every time you touch material, you essentially create a safety hazard,” explains Stefan Dolipski, vice president of KASTO Inc., Export, Pa. Rather than the old model, KASTO embraces the idea of bringing “goods to the man.”

A safe working environment is paramount for most service center operators and they increasingly understand the role material handling plays in meeting that objective. “We’re finding more small to mid-range guys are getting more involved in the ergonomics of material handling,” says Tony Granata, owner of Precision Millwright, Villa Park, Ill. 

The simple truth of any metals warehouse work is that any time there is interaction between the worker and the material, there’s an opportunity for mishap. And that condition only intensifies depending on the acumen of the worker. 

Service centers, like all businesses, have struggled to attract and retain manpower in recent years, a situation that demographics suggest will not be resolved any time soon. The lack of personnel, particularly the seasoned, knowledgeable employees who have operated the machinery for decades but are starting to exit the industry, only demands even more out of the equipment.

“Some guys are looking at it from the safety standpoint and others are looking at it from the standpoint there’s a struggle for manpower in certain parts of the country. To avoid that struggle, you need to figure out ways to get better and reduce the steps in your own process to make existing people more productive and safer,” says Granata, whose company provides conveyor systems.

Clark agrees. “Hiring quality people to work in service centers and stay in the job is more difficult than it has ever been – physically getting the people and not having to overpay for untrained people,” he says. “They want equipment to be way more efficient than what it was before.”

But a safe and productive workforce is just one of many drivers for increased emphasis on effective material flow in today’s service center. The increasing costs for pretty much everything are also a factor. 

“Post-COVID, the costs for construction for doing expansions are at all-time highs. More customers are looking at better efficiencies with what they have, looking at their square footage and saying, ‘How do we get more of this covered?’” says Clark. 

Of course, those costs can work the other way. Dolipski notes that whereas once his system would account for 75 percent of a new project, it’s now closer to 50 percent as the total cost of other elements of the project has increased. “When everything goes up, it’s easier to say, ‘I’ll buy another forklift rather than put in a system for $3 million.’”

Dan Brenneman, applications specialist for The Caldwell Group, Rockford, Ill., says one change in demand is the need for handling longer and wider material. “With places like Nucor Brandenburg opening with a 1,500-inch wide mill, we’re seeing the need to handle longer cut-to-length pieces.”

But one trend stands out above all others – the need to automate. Whether spurred by personnel shortages or the desire to remove error, or some combination, service centers want the equipment to do more of the work. And the material handling equipment providers are obliging. Companies across the space are working to create equipment that handles much of the load for the operators. It’s been a long-time coming.

“We were always on this track,” says Lauren McCallin, COO of Steel Storage Systems, Commerce, Colo. , says about automation and other technological advances. “It’s been on the horizon, but the possibilities are pretty incredible now.”

In some ways, that horizon was the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. David Veldung, president of Fehr Warehouse Solutions, Charlotte, N.C., points out the U.S. market was well behind its European counterparts when it came to automation, partly due to differing demographic drivers. 

The pattern, though is the same. “You have the evolution going from regular floor storage to extension racks and then maybe at some point sideloaders. Then the next logical step is Automated Storage and Racking Systems,” Veldung says. 

It might not have always been the case, but service center operators are coming around on the importance of material handling.

“They have to. If they’re investing in a really expensive saw, but they don’t have the right material handling to get material through the saw efficiently, they’re not getting the return on their investment they should,” McCallin says. 

One major development in the process is the desire to not just have the equipment talking to the operators, but also to other pieces of equipment in the warehouse. That can be done not just through the introduction of all-new pieces of handling and processing equipment, but retrofitting older machines into a new system. 
“We’re completely open when it comes to third-party integration. On the software side, we can provide complete integration with an ERP system or production planning. And when it comes to machinery, we’re not tied to any manufacturer, whether it’s a TRUMPF laser or BLM or Behringer saw,” Veldung says. 

And that push for this isn’t going to end. “We have a lot of standalone systems, but the trend is going to more complete integration with the material handling process,” he adds. 

So where is there still room to improve? While much progress has been made, there are still some operators who don’t give the subject the attention it demands.  

“There are companies who have whole departments dedicated to innovation and efficiency and are always looking at ways to improve, but you still have some small service centers who are either unaware of the opportunities or can’t afford them. Or think they can’t afford them,” says McCallin. “We’re trying to reach those customers in particular.”

Veldung agrees, noting that some people can’t look past the upfront costs to recognize the long-term return on investment. “When it comes to regular steel service centers, most people don’t understand the cost savings potential with such systems,” he says. 

Those savings come in many ways. Most obviously, there are efficiencies gained in throughput. Similarly, with many systems automated, companies can operate with reduced manpower, or at least shift the existing manpower to other roles in the warehouse. 

But that isn’t the extent of the savings possibilities. There are costs saved with fewer injuries, which can run upwards of $100,000 per incident. System upgrades can also improve traceability, cut down on mistaken order picking or reduce damage to material. All of these factors improve the bottom line. 

Another area for improvement takes place after the equipment has been installed in the facility, says Brenneman. “I don’t think everyone is performing the preventive maintenance schedules they should be.”

Scheduled maintenance is important in any field. But it’s even more so when it comes to most pieces of material handling, such as the cranes provided by Caldwell. 

“With an overhead crane, you can’t take it out of the building and ship it back to us,” he notes. 

And this is an area where being penny wise becomes pound foolish. “We often find things in a state of disrepair because they’re not maintained. It costs more money if you have to take it out of production,” Brenneman says. 

And, of course, there’s always inertia. Convincing a distributor of the long-term benefits can be challenging to customers hesitant to change. 

“People are used to doing things a certain way for the last 60 or 70 years. If you’re used to that, it’s hard to do it another way,” Dolipski says. “It’s easy to find 10 million excuses why you didn’t try.”

Still, Granata says, an increasing number of service centers have come to understand and appreciate the value of an efficient flow of metal through the warehouse. “You’re seeing more people doing warehouse analysis programs, asking if they need a bigger building or do I need more equipment. They’re looking at the bigger picture.”

Maximizing space in the warehouse is not just done on the floor, but in the air as well. (Photo courtesy Fehr Warehouse Solutions)