Without Totes, Billions of Dollars in Automation Would Be Offline

With today’s labor challenges and manufacturers’ and distributors’ insatiable need for speed, automation is set to get airborne. Spending on automated warehouse systems and robotics is expected to reach $13 billion in investment over the next decade. Over 60% of manufacturing industries say difficulties hiring skilled labor is increasing their reliance on automation.

Speed, accuracy and protection from workforce fluctuations are valuable benefits of automated systems. But to truly reap the rewards of automation, companies can’t overlook the simple truth that without totes, automation doesn’t happen.

A stroll around the grounds of the recent ProMat show illustrated the fact. It’s estimated that no less than 30% of the automation solutions displayed need totes to run.

To make the most of automation investments, buyers best choose ones with the functionality and resiliency to optimize operations. For all the reasons companies choose to automate, it doesn’t pay to put decision-making on autopilot during the tote selection phase of planning.

Read these nine time-tested and tech-savvy tips from the Flexcon team that were learned over three generations of creating totes for America’s most advanced material handlers.

1 – Millimeters Matter in Robotics

Companies choose automation for the speed. Ensuring totes tote dimensions are accurate to the millimeter increases speed while decreasing crashes and downtime.

Companies can sacrifice valuable time in operations using containers with even the tiniest variability.

Seconds of inefficiency compound into hours, days and dollars wasted. The added time a robot has to take to adjust its movement to a tote’s size – as infinitesimal as it seems – adds up.

Not only do totes need to be created to precisely consistent measurements, but they also need to be constructed to maintain that precise measurement when loaded. Totes often bow when filled, and this changes their size. When this happens, robots have to adjust, which slows them down.

“When you have a tote that is built properly, the automation can swing in and grab the tote and pull it out super-fast. But if the bottom bows or the side walls bulge a little bit, then the robot has to go in lower and take the time to raise up to pull it out,” explains Flexcon President, Ken Beckerman.

Variability like this makes a big difference. A variation of just five millimeters can cause a robot to have to make a correction that adds time as well as risk to operations. In the worst cases, the variability can cause a system crash that leads to costly delays. Or it can damage the robot, tote or products inside the tote, Beckerman says.

Manufacturers of containers need to take extra care in construction and materials selection to account for stress and strain that morphs measurements.

2 – Mind Your Materials

Many aspects combine to create a quality tote. Not all plastic resins are the same. Beckerman says he typically gives customers a choice of three grades to balance their needs and their budget.

A tote made of durable plastic and possessing an outstanding design can last. “We have customers who have changed automated systems from one thing to the next and are still using the same totes after 30 years,” Beckerman recounts.

3 – What to Look for in Design

Outstanding staying power and performance depends on the design of the tote. The gauge – which refers to the thickness of the walls – needs to achieve the right balance between strength and light weight.

“A lot of it depends on the engineer designing the tote and their level of experience in adding enough ribs and eliminating weak spots that will make it bow under pressure,” Beckerman says.

4 – Make-or-Break Manufacturing Steps

Where tote molds are made plays a key role in successful manufacturing. The quality of the molding press determines the accuracy and consistency of tote dimensions. “Molds made in China tend to create parts that are irregular and lower quality. We make our molds in America and in Portugal,” Beckerman says.

Fixturing the tote after it is ejected from a mold matters immensely. Just-pressed totes must be fixtured to maintain their precise shape with minimal production tolerances. Some tote makers skip this important step in post-processing and in doing so, sacrifice consistency.

Another potential pitfall is that in their speed to pump out product, some tote manufacturers fail to let totes cool properly. Allowing freshly minted totes time to cure is an essential step Flexcon takes to protect totes’ precise form and prevent warping that can bring customers’ systems down.

5 – Test Totes from Every Angle

One of the most common mistakes of buyers of automated systems is to make decisions in a vacuum. Beckerman says it is crucial to make sure that all stakeholders are involved in the design of the tote. That means the tote vendor, the integrator and the customer.

Every piece of automation that touches the tote must be carefully considered. For instance, a tote may travel on a conveyor. It may be in a storage system. It may be on a robot. Or it may be on a push arm. Consequently, you want to get every player and provider of equipment in the system to touch, feel and approve the tote before you commit, Beckerman adds.

Lastly, test before you invest. Put tote prototypes in the conveyors, carousels and pick lines where they’ll be deployed to see how they perform with machinery, what workers think of them and how well they economize warehouse space when not in use.

6 – Anticipate Evolving Needs

Your company is bound to grow. Make tote choices that support you as you scale. Choosing the right resin and a durable design are only two of the ways.

Flexibility in tote design to accommodate product line expansions should also be considered. One feature that can help totes evolve with product changes is the ability to add dividers to totes. Flexcon’s divider systems have enabled many customers to continue using totes that could keep different parts or products separated within the same container.

Stowability is another key consideration. Designs that enable surplus totes to be stored efficiently are a crucial consideration in today’s costly warehouse real estate environment. Choose features that make totes collapsible or stackable and nestable to minimize space when not in use.

Lastly, work with suppliers who will maintain the integrity of your molds, so when it’s time to order additional totes, consistency will be maintained and they’ll be ready when you reup.

7 – Sound Designs for Workers

Totes for automation still need to work for human interaction, whether that be carrying or picking items into and out of the tote.

Ergonomic handles, smooth edges and a moderate lift burden are all essential design requirements. Totes must be designed for the machines and the associates working with them.

One often overlooked aspect with considerable impact on worker experience is sound reduction. Totes’ construction impacts sound on conveyors especially. Totes can be designed to be quieter in the system by controlling the way sound resonates throughout the tote and the way the way the bottom of the tote integrates with the system.

“If a tote was just squared off at the bottom, it would bang into each roller on the conveyor as it’s moving along,” Beckerman describes. “But what we do is we create a little beveled edge and we round it. Things like that help make a tote quieter.”

8 – Don’t Be Shocked

Working with an experienced creator of totes for automated systems can save you from easy-to-make mistakes.

A biggie is not choosing totes that meet electrostatic discharge (ESD) requirements. Electronics manufacturers and distributors need to protect products from electric shock. That can be a very expensive mistake depending on product value.

Simply spec’ing ESD isn’t enough. If the ESD material is sprayed onto the tote, it can get worn off over time. Impregnating carbon into the plastic itself is the way to ensure a tote’s ESD protection remains consistent.

9 – Add a Tote Expert to Your Team

These tips are just a taste of the ways totes can help – or hurt – your automated processes.

Bar code labels, recessed placards, branding and color selection are just a few of the additional decisions that can impact efficiency and safety. An experienced expert can help you avoid trial and error when it comes to designing and manufacturing the ideal tote systems for your processes.

Talk to the Flexcon team about the best solution for your planned automation.