It is an understatement to say that 2020 was a year of unexpected challenges and rewards for the materials handling industry. From COVID-19’s impact on consumer spending patterns to heightened demand on supply chains, it was a year no one could have predicted. 

And there’s no doubt that 2021 will continue to bring its own set of challenges as well. As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, manufacturers and suppliers are slowly getting better at predicting demand, staffing appropriately, and using the newest technologies in warehouses to manage inventory. 

According to Material Handling and Logistics, it has taken between three and six months for fifty-five percent (55%) of organizations in the survey to recover from the disruptions. And another thirteen percent (13%) expect to take six to twelve months to see a full recovery.

So what will 2021 bring to the materials handling industry? While it’s impossible to predict, industry experts highlighted areas where we should focus our efforts on now.

Automation continues to lead the way

There is a certain maturity level that has occurred in the automation space during 2020, and businesses will continue this to be successful in forthcoming years. Technology has advanced in automation due to the 2020 demand, and the material handling industry will most likely see smarter, more intuitive mobile robots performing more complex tasks in 2021. 

E-commerce demand, safety concerns, and more diversified customer demands are just a few factors driving the need for more complex automation tasks at plants and warehouses. However, this doesn’t mean that the need for human workers will decrease. Employee’s roles could potentially morph over time, as these newer automation technologies require programming and maintenance never performed before. 

In addition, automation in the supply chain means Artificial Intelligence algorithms can automate a variety of tasks in plants and warehouses. More importantly, AI data can assist in predictive modeling of upcoming trends, allowing manufacturers and supply chain managers to plan accordingly.

Disruption creates opportunities for innovation

To respond to ever-changing industry conditions, manufacturers and supply chains can implement more innovative solutions in order to be resilient. “Big data” can allow groups to identify areas of improvement within their operations. The progress of industrial environments will come from new ways of thinking and ingenious process changes being encouraged by senior management from every organization member. 

Considering all ideas and using a trial-and-error method are the keys to process improvement, which will sustain businesses during any future downturns in the industry.

Lean Management principles play a crucial role in ongoing process improvement

The Lean Management philosophies of continuous improvement will need to take center stage in 2021 for manufacturers and supply chain vendors. At HAWKER®, we implemented Lean Management strategies in 2019 where we looked for potential solutions to eliminate waste, implement systematic process audits, and all key players within our company regularly participate in Rapid Involvement Events (RIE), where we brainstorm and suggest ways to contribute, remove, or enhance our existing manufacturing strategies. 

All of these improvements have not only resulted in improvements in downtime and throughput, but have also positively impacted our culture and worker satisfaction.

2021 will be the year for the material handling industry to stay on its toes. Predicting long-term changes in the marketplace won’t be possible this year since demand will result from any immediate COVID-19 trends. But the more automation, innovation, and ongoing process improvements that are put into place, the more the industry will be prepared!

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