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Improving the Material Handling Industry Workforce through Digital Representations of Human-Based Operations

* By Jesus A. Jimenez *

This year, I was part of a group of professors who traveled to Europe to participate in what we designated as the “Industry 4.0 Tour.” We had one goal in mind: to find the latest developments in Industry 4.0.

We visited several companies, universities and research labs. Our tour had several stops in Germany, Norway, Austria and Slovenia, countries that have some of the most advanced intralogistics systems in the world. We were able to observe fascinating implementations of new automated material handling systems working in large warehouses, as well as promising and advanced intralogistics equipment prototypes.

Industry 4.0

By definition, Industry 4.0 combines the latest developments in technology to advance the manufacturing and distribution of goods. The state-of-the-art technologies include the Internet of Things, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, big data and augmented reality. According to the Material Handling & Logistics U.S. Roadmap 2.0, Industry 4.0 can create opportunities to increase overall system performance, as well as the efficiency of the system’s components. To achieve a higher level of performance in Industry 4.0 ecosystems, the manufacturing equipment, the manufacturing processes, the material handling systems and the facility subsystems must be smart, interoperable, decentralized and collaborative.

During our European Tour, we saw a wide range of material handling solutions: from solutions such as smart pallets capable of transmitting their location and their content to other pallets and material handling systems within the warehouse to solutions such as a decentralized swarm of delivery drones responding to hand commands transmitted by human operators. But we also observed the other side of Industry 4.0. Sadly, we detected a trend in Europe, which is similar to what MHI member companies experience in the U.S. The material handling and supply chain industry’s workforce is shrinking, and it is becoming more difficult to retain at their workplaces.

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This issue of MHI Solutions tackles the important topic of digital technologies in the supply chain industry, especially as it relates the transportation and logistics. Transportation plays a central role in supply chains, whether they are local or global enterprises. And just like the overall supply chain, transportation is facing a digital revolution including new solutions for tracking road, rail, sea and air freight and parcel transportation. These digital technologies are disrupting the industry, but they are also providing im-portant new solutions for transportation inefficiencies and urban logistics challenges. They are also creating new digital business models that enhance transparency and sustainability and contribute to end-to-end supply chain visibility. Like the innovations impacting supply chains, these trends are being driven by the growth of e-commerce and the consumers’ never-ending need for better, faster and cheaper. Ignoring them is done at your own peril.

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