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Industry 4.0 and Material Handling Equipment

Forward-thinking companies are adopting sophisticated tools to keep their systems running without breakdown or interruption.

Contributed by: MHI’s Conveyors and Sortation Industry Group

Everyone is familiar with the original industrial revolution, which took place in the early 19th century. It represented a sea change in how the western world manufactured products, becoming a society largely reliant on modern machinery for agriculture, mining and other industries. The second industrial revolution came not far on its predecessor’s heels, ushering in electricity, railroads and better machines.

The third iteration of the industrial revolution is much more recent, having launched late in the 20th century and representing a much more digitally focused revolution. Computers entered the picture and traditional industrialization slowed down.

Today most observers would say we have entered the fourth industrial revolution. Its hallmarks include automation, data exchange, the internet of things (IoT), cloud computing, AI and other advanced technologies. Its impact is widespread, and the material handling world is right at the center of all the fourth revolution is delivering. Welcome to industry 4.0.

Data integration enhances efficiency by allowing processes to be tied together. Image courtesy of Murrelektronik.

Material handling’s next evolution

In the context of the material handling world, industry 4.0 represents a giant leap forward. Machines, devices, sensors and more are linked together, providing a complete picture of operational efficiency that allows end users to better predict and understand bottlenecks and inefficiencies.

This resultant energy efficiency equates to more eco-friendly material handling, says Dan Barrera, product manager at Bosch Rexroth. “When you’re minimizing the amount of energy you’re using, you’re also delivering an eco-friendlier process,” he explains. “The more efficient you are with your equipment, the less impact you have on the environment.”

While this isn’t necessarily the main driver behind companies’ adoption of more modern and efficient equipment like conveyors and sortation devices, it’s an important outcome that helps meet sustainability goals.

For most companies, the main driver in industry 4.0 is keeping production moving, says Barrera. “When productivity stops, you’re losing money,” he says. “So simple tools or functions that can help prevent that matter.”

Those tools today look like conditioning monitoring and predictive maintenance. Both play vital roles in keeping conveyors, sortation systems and other material handling equipment ticking along at optimal speeds.

“Ideally, you’re going to have data integration that allows processes to be tied together, working more efficiently,” says Matt Clark, logistics account manager at Murrelektronik, Inc. “This looks like an intermediary device that talks to the controls and all the devices in a facility.”

With edge devices, sensors, drives and controls—along with an intermediary device like that mentioned by Clark—you can constantly monitor whether your equipment is running as it should. This represents the first step in business transformation.

“To get there, you do have to invest upfront time and work into the system,” explains Barrera. “You must teach your software that system A—say a conveyor—and system B—maybe a sortation system—should run a certain way. Then they can collect the data, crunch the numbers and give you an accurate picture of how they are running.”

Clark says that the benefits at this stage include faster upscaling. “You don’t have to reprogram each piece in your system,” he says. “You can bring your system online much faster, use less complex wiring devices, and receive data to automate decision making.”

While some companies are replacing conveyors and sortation equipment with robotics, there are still plenty of applications where conveyors are appropriate. Image courtesy of Murrelektronik.

From here, you can move your systems into predictive maintenance mode. “Now the computer knows how your equipment should run and can monitor it to tell you when maintenance is required,” says Barrera. “AI tells you where to look before something breaks down.”

For instance, if the bearings in your conveyor system are starting to show wear and tear, the software can inform you that they may cause trouble in the next few months. AI will point out the specific component, location or area where the problem might occur.

Currently, adopting predictive maintenance tools remains a near-future option for most companies. Conditioning monitoring, however, is beginning to reach a more common point of implementation. “You see a lot of adoption within big-box retailers and other companies with larger distribution centers,” says Barrera. “These companies want the analytics to make sure that production runs as it should, fixing problems before they happen and running as efficient as they can. These all translate into saving thousands of dollars.”

While in some cases, companies are moving to replace conveyors and sortation equipment with robotics like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). However, there are still plenty of applications where conveyors are appropriate, especially when coupled with advanced 4.0 tools. If you have high-capacity requirements, high daily sort times and low space requirements, conveyors and sortation—enhanced with modern 4.0 tools—remain a strong option.  WMHS

MHI’s Conveyors and Sortation Industry Group’s mission is to promote the market growth, awareness and effective use of traditional and emerging conveyor/sortation technologies in manufacturing, warehousing, distribution within the supply chain. For more information, visit

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