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A Solution to the Dilemma of Container Unloading

Unloading containers is one of the few remaining labour-intensive aspects of the modern economy. Thanks to the range of items and the cramped spaces in which they are packed, the only processes that are still manual in logistics are the loading and unloading of these big steel crates. And yet, with the boom in e-commerce, the supply chain is flooded like never before by containers crammed with consumer goods.

The Container unloading challenge

If muscle and sinew could be replaced by steel and electricity in this crucial function, there would be obvious benefits for workers, employers, and the economy. This has not happened mainly because automated systems have limited flexibility. Even if a machine can handle a wide range of items stacked in various ways, there will always be something that demands human intervention.

Flexibility is expensive - mimicking a human being's ability to identify, reach, grasp, twist and lift multiple items comes at a prohibitive cost.

  • Manual labour is in short supply and vulnerable to injury.
  • Lifting items of 20kg, 30kg, or even 40kg is very hard on the people who do it.
  • Warehouse workers in the USA experience work-related injuries at a rate nearly twice that of other sectors - higher than construction and mining.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders caused by manual lifting are responsible for more than one-third of all lost work days at the cost of $20 billion annually.

Robots are not a solution - at least, not for the foreseeable future. Unloading containers is an excellent example of an industrial process in which semi-autonomous systems - machines combined with human operators - are more likely to offer an efficient way forward. In theory, machines have the potential to transform the unloading process, so long as they are designed to take into account the complex issues that arise as soon as a container is backed up to the warehouse gate.

But people remain essential to good business results - they solve problems, improve, and deal with unpredictable situations. When you combine people with smart machines, that's when the real gains can be made.

But who will deliver the plug-and-play solution that is needed, proven and tested, mobile, compact, user-friendly, and easy to re-configure as tasks change?

In a word, we will.

In a departure for this blog, we will make some noise about a new machine from TAWI that we think will tick a lot of boxes for logistics professionals seeking to destuff a container or trailer.

"We have had so many customers coming to us and sharing the pain of manually unloading inside a container or trailer, into a warehouse via 3PL, package terminal, distribution centre or wherever," says Anders Knapasjö, Vice President Nordic, Baltic & Germany for TAWI. "Logistics companies have problems with ergonomics, it is hard to find people to do this job, and a swift return on investment (ROI) is both essential and difficult to achieve with existing mechanical solutions. This is the essential dilemma of container unloading."

It is hard to overstate the problem of finding people to do this job, Anders says. Unloading a container takes between 2.5 and 5 hours, and you typically go from one container to another, meaning hours and hours of physical labour. "People typically work with container unloading for a couple of months, or even days, before they realise: 'Oh my God, I cannot do this!' Companies are looking for an ergonomic solution to ease the lifting, to be able to say to prospective employees that they won't need to lift manually, and so that people in this job can be sure to go home with healthy backs and retire in good shape after years of lifting."

A mechanical aid that does all this and speeds up the process - that is the holy grail for any logistics business- empowers workers to tackle all the unloading challenges in a safe, intuitive and flexible manner. Making this process more efficient could unlock a new source of value for any business that relies on getting large numbers of packaged goods to market.

As we wrote recently on this blog in a review of this problem, there has been no system suitable for unloading the full spectrum of heterogeneous parcels on the market. Consequently, for operations managers seeking a rapid turnaround of container cargo, the need for efficiency and a swift, clear return on their investment usually means manual labour is the default solution.

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