Material handling involves storing, packing, unpacking, and moving goods and products over a short distance or in a limited space such as a warehouse or manufacturing plant. The global material handling equipment market continues to expand, especially after the onset of globalization.

Rapid industrialization and significant strides in technology sectors such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and Internet of Things (IoT) are further fueling the growth of global material handling equipment market. The market is expected to reach $41.18 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 6.8%.

An increasing number of industries including, aerospace, agriculture, automotive, construction, and e-commerce, have started to recognize the potential of next-generation automated material handling equipment. In many parts of the world, more advanced tools are replacing traditional manual material handling systems.

Let’s learn a little more about manual and automated material handling, how they differ, and what benefits and drawbacks they can bring to your organization.

1) What Is Manual Material Handling?

Manual Material Handling (MMH) makes use of physical force to move, lift, retrieve, and store goods and products. Usually, organizations have to rely on human or animal labor for manual handling. Lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, carrying, holding, or restraining are all the activities associated with manual handling.

2) What Is Automated Material Handling?

Automated Material Handling (AMH), on the other hand, involves using robots and other computerized devices for moving, lifting, pulling, pushing, storing, and retrieving goods and products. Automated material handling may involve single mechanical equipment or a set of different devices such as check-in tools, sorters, conveyors, stackers, unloading machines, totes, bins, trolleys, and tote carriers, among others.

3) Understanding the Fundamental Differences

Manual Equipment Handling

It is one of the most conventional materials handling strategies in the world where operators move around the building or warehouse to locate, retrieve, and store goods and materials. Although manual, it does involve the use of powered machines such as forklifts and small overhead cranes.
Manual material handling systems have a slow speed compared to the automated ones. They also lack scalability and agility as you can’t program a manual system to handle more than one operation.
The manual system may lead to errors and inaccuracies as they rely on human labor.
Manual material handling systems require low initial investment costs. However, you may need to invest in training new employees. You will also need to pay for increased labor costs. For instance, in the first quarter of 2019, annual growth in labor costs was 2.4 % in the euro area and 2.6 % in the EU.
As the initial investment is low, manual material handling systems can offer a relatively quick return on your investment. As a result, they are quite popular among small and medium enterprises.
Manual systems may not have higher productivity owing to the error-prone inventory management and other order fulfillment processes. It is also highly time-consuming.
Manual systems have obvious limitations when it comes to optimizing the storage spaces.
Manual material handling system is more suitable for operations that aren’t repetitive or predictable.
Your employees may not need technical skills as they don’t have to operate advanced machines. However, they do need safety training.
Improper handling of heavy loads and the injuries and deaths resulting from these errors are a primary concern for manual material handling systems.
In manual material handling, you will mostly need to rely on your workers to lift, move, push, pull, store, and retrieve goods and products. However, you will need to use lifting handling equipment such as hooks, slings, manual cranes, forklifts, trucks, short distance conveyors, side-loaders, pallet jack and pallet trucks, and manual retrieval and storage equipment.

Automated Equipment Handling

Automated systems, on the other hand, use advanced technology to build computerized systems that require no manual interference for locating, moving, retrieving, and storing goods or products. Although automated, it may involve manual handling such as lifting, pushing, picking, and dropping.
Automated systems are faster, more agile, and easily scalable. You can adapt an automated system to carry out more than one task with careful planning and research. You can also scale it up or down in real-time.
Automated systems are the very definition of precision. So, they are almost unlikely to have any inaccuracies.
Automated systems require a substantial initial investment. The cost may go up further if you are setting up a customized system. However, you can compensate for these increased costs by saving on manual labor and increased productivity and order fulfillment precision.
Automate systems, however, can take more than a couple of years to get your ROI. Most organizations are reluctant to invest in automated systems that have a payback period of more than two years.
Automated systems have higher productivity as they rely on computerized machines, not human labor. You can also tweak the output as per the market demand.
Automated systems can help optimize the warehouse and storage space as they allow you to utilize the vertical ceiling clearances.
Automated systems, on the other hand, are suitable for repetitive or predictable order fulfillment processes.
Automated systems require operators with technical skills. They also need to undergo the necessary training to operate the lifting and handling equipment.
Automated systems are less prone to accidents and injuries resulting from improper handling.
Automated system rely on computerized retrieval and storage systems, conveyor systems, Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs), robotic delivery systems, mechanized loaders, pickers, and lifting equipment, and bucket elevators, and grain elevators.

4) Which One Is the Best?

Both, material handling systems have distinct advantages and drawbacks. Choosing between a manual and an automated system will largely depend on your budget and the volume of your present and future material handling requirements. If your volume is low and unlikely to change significantly in the coming years, you will end up investing a large chunk of your capital in an unnecessary upgrade.

If you do decide to increase automation, you can try it on a smaller scale first. For example, you can make minor changes to your existing manual material handling system but introducing a few engineered systems in your assembly line. Once you have seen the results of this pilot change, you can try it on a larger scale. The decision, however, needs to be a well-informed one, based on thorough research as the ROI period will be much longer.

Parting Words

Although there is an increasing push for automation in the material handling industry, many companies continue to use traditional manual handling systems. However, many warehouses and manufacturers have also managed to find the perfect balance between automated and manual systems as the right solution for their organization. If you need any help in your decision making, we are here for you. Drop your observations and queries in the comments section below, and we will get back to you soon.