Material Handling
Rolls of metal
From strength To strength
The future of automation in the metals industry
By Kim Hindle, chief product officer, CareGo

he events of the last year caused many aspects of life to move to an online format, changing both the sales fulfillment process and interactions between customers, suppliers, vendors and stores. Delivery networks increased exponentially as stores shut down. And while the supply chain struggled, those who had already invested in automation continued to operate more easily than their counterparts who relied more heavily on systems requiring manual processes.

Automation, when applied correctly, can strengthen supply chains and keep things moving. Applying automation, data capture and Industry 4.0 provides an opportunity to improve the overall buying experience, as well. Providing transparency as to where a customer’s order is in the fulfillment process, whether it is staged and ready to go and once it is on a truck and en route, is no longer considered a nice-to-have feature but is part of standard customer service.

Let’s examine why the time is right for automation and the type of automation provider the steel industry should be looking for.

The right automation partner is able to leverage your operations into the world of Industry 4.0.
Why partner with an automation provider?
One of the primary considerations when selecting an automation vendor is the role expected from the partner. In the traditional purchasing process, three quotes are gathered, a vendor is selected, and then there is a tendency to expect an automation vendor to implement and walk away. However, there are many considerations before taking that approach, for example:

  • What level of visibility do you have into the system on your products?
  • What skill set do you require from staff to perform maintenance and ensure the automation performs as expected?
  • How will your automation grow with your business? Do you have business analysts on staff who re-evaluate the automation, its setup, and whether it is meeting your current and changing needs?
  • How will this integrate with your evolving business systems and IT infrastructure?
  • Do you have an internal champion of automation?

Most service centers, toll processors and other facilities in the metals supply chain neither have access to skilled automation maintenance personnel nor the competencies to leverage automation into the world of Industry 4.0 and connect to all systems around them.

Worker using CareGo’s TELIA Handheld
CareGo’s TELIA Handheld offers space optimization, inventory tracking and operator instructions.
The right automation partner is able to leverage your operations into the world of Industry 4.0. The following are some of the key benefits an automation partner should be capable of providing:

  • Understand your business and your business needs. You don’t want to automate the status quo; you want to introduce automation to improve your current processes and deliver more ROI than simply labor reduction.
  • Understand that businesses, and therefore their underlying processes, are not stagnant. In an ever-changing world where we are reimagining our customer experience, or our speed to market, we need to constantly update, re-evaluate and improve our automation processes.
  • Use a combination of automation and smart computing (AI, machine learning, algorithms) to make informed decisions to improve your operation as it evolves.
  • Understand the equipment, the technology and the automation inside out so that you can keep your system running and constantly improving.
  • Be able to train employees and work with management to enable your company to continually get the best from your automation system.
  • Provide visibility, insights and trends in your business to identify opportunities for growth, change and enhancements.
  • Understand the customer experience and how automation can provide visibility to their order, its status, etc.
  • Continuously works on product development to drive forward opportunities to improve the ROI of the automation system, improve your overall automation system in key aspects such as velocity, quality, safety, customer experience, etc.
  • Re-engage your employees, providing attractive roles interacting with big data, analytics and the latest technologies.

Selecting a partner requires a different mindset from a standard procurement model. Partners must work together for a mutually beneficial and constantly adapting system of the future. Purchase, implement and repeat once technology has become obsolete is no longer the way to engage the constantly evolving needs of future applications.

A 2021 product development implementation at Zekelman Industries, Plymouth, Michigan, with two dual lifters.
Two dual lifters
A 2021 product development implementation at Zekelman Industries, Plymouth, Michigan, with two dual lifters.
Why now?
The labor market was already evolving pre-COVID, but the change has been dramatically accelerated over the last year. It is getting harder to attract young material handlers, with many steel operations reporting that they are struggling to staff operations. The opportunity to change the work environment for your employees of the future is key to attracting and keeping young talent.

Moving away from heavy industrial material handling as an entry-level job to managing a high-tech automation environment with skilled labor offers the right environment for future steel industry careers.

Automation also removes personnel from potentially unsafe densely packed steel warehouses; it keeps working during absenteeism issues (think COVID and social distancing); it never takes a break or gets sick; and is always working on the highest priority task.

If you wish to strengthen your supply chain and flow of products to your customer, then consider what you want in an automation provider, and additionally what your customer will want from the experience. Partnering with an automation provider positions companies to gain long-term relationships, deliver a customer experience that will expand as new technology becomes available—and bodes well for profitable growth.

CareGo, Burlington, Ontario, 905/592-4900,