What is Lean Material Handling?

The concept of lean manufacturing boils down to a core purpose, and that purpose is to strive towards eliminating waste from the manufacturing process relentlessly. To fully understand this straightforward and seemingly simplistic definition, you need to be aware of what is referred to as “waste” in this context. “Waste” is any activity during the manufacturing process that doesn’t add value for the customer and the manufacturer. Getting rid of this “waste” is the ultimate goal of lean manufacturing techniques. In a nutshell, lean manufacturing is a systematic method of minimizing waste without sacrificing productivity.

Lean manufacturing is considered one of the most important solutions for lean material handling. In the simplest of terms, material handling refers to the process involved in the movement of manufacturing materials within a production building or between a production building and a vehicle. Material handling makes use of a wide array of manual, automated and semi-automated vehicles and equipment. Needless to say, material handling plays a significant role in manufacturing and logistics.


The Importance of Lean Manufacturing and Material Handling

Simply put, lean manufacturing and material handling are critical in the sense that these are focused on the recognition and elimination of wasteful activities with the goal of increasing product flow and speed. They also improve productivity. Many companies implement concepts of lean manufacturing and material handling with the core intention of doubling or even tripling their productivity. Lean manufacturing also offers a wide array of other benefits. It improves customer service. It brings down manufacturing costs. And it reduces the manufacturing department’s impact on the natural environment.


Keep in mind that material handling is the movement, protection, control, and storage of products and materials. This process means that it plays a role in critical processes like manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, consumption, and product disposal. The applications used during material handling help with the following: forecasting, production planning, inventory management, and control, after sales support and service, resource allocation, flow and process management, and custom delivery.

There’s a reason why companies pump a lot of resources into their material handling systems and processes. These are correctly put in place to improve customer service further, heighten customer satisfaction, decrease the delivery time, reduce dormant inventory, and significantly decrease handling costs associated with transportation, distribution, and manufacturing.

The Principles of Material Handling

There are best practices and standard procedures which you need to follow when attempting to design an effective and efficient material handling system. These ensure that all of the processes and the equipment are working together as a unified system. To help you better understand how a material handling system is designed, below is a quick overview of the ten principles of material handling.

Planning Principle

– The planning principle is the first step in the process so you should take the time in going through this step. If you bungle this step, then it’s going to be a lot more challenging down the road because of potential errors and risks. What you should do is define the proposed system and the supporting technologies required by it. You must also identify the specifications and strategic performance objectives of the system. A knowledgeable and experienced team must develop the plan. You have to seek feedback and suggestions from your end users, suppliers, consultants, and the people from within your organization.


Standardization Principle

– In this context, standardization means making sure that everything used in the material handling system is subjected to quality controls using standardization. They should be able to perform all the tasks they are intended to function under standard operating conditions. Standardization also applies to various sizes of containers and other load forming components as well as operating procedures and equipment.

Work Principle

– Simplification is the keyword here. There are usually dozens of processes involved in material handling. The problem is that in most cases, a lot of these processes are either useless or redundant. They impede productivity. The principle of “work” in material handling is about getting rid of these unnecessary and redundant processes. This may involve shortening the processes or combining two operations into just one operation. A lot of time, money, and resources can be saved this way.

Ergonomics Principle

– To understand the ergonomics principle, it’s essential that we define first what is meant by ergonomic. In the simplest of terms, ergonomics refers to the science of finding the most efficient working conditions that best suit the skills of the workers. With that said, the ergonomic principle in material handling recognizes both the capabilities and limitations of a human worker. These capabilities and limitations should be taken into account when designing equipment and material handling tasks. This is to ensure that operations and processes are both safe and effective.

The ergonomic principle takes into account both the mental and physical tasks of the worker. Furthermore, the equipment that you select has to be geared towards eliminating strenuous manual labor and repetitive manufacturing processes. And last but not least, safety should be a top priority when designing the setup of the workplace and the equipment used in the workplace.

Unit Load Principle

– There are various stages in the supply chain, and the movements in this supply chain involve unit loads. In the context of material handling, these unit loads should be configured and sized accordingly in such a way that the inventory and material flow objectives are achieved with the least hassle. A unit load refers to materials that can be moved or stored as a single entity at one time. A unit load can be a tote, a container of goods, or a pallet.

The unit load principle has several key points. One, it is a lot easier to gather and transfer several individual items as a single unit load compared to transporting many items one at a time. Two, don’t expect the size and composition of the unit load to be precisely the same during the manufacturing and distribution process. In most cases, a load’s size and composition change at each stage of the process. Three, smaller unit loads are appropriate for manufacturing techniques that embrace operating goals such as just in time delivery, continuous flow, and flexibility.


Space Utilization Principle

– This principle attempts to ensure that every available space in the manufacturing floor and distribution channels are utilized to their fullest potential. This means that all open space is used effectively and efficiently. neO of the principles that a lot of manufacturers often tend to ignore and take for granted. They end up losing a lot of time and resources because of sloppy space utilization methods.

In areas designated as working sections, spaces that are unorganized and overly cluttered have to be eliminated. Not only do these slow down the manufacturing process, they also waste a lot of valuable time and resources. Furthermore, you should also go over every aisle to ensure that nothing is blocked. If a passageway becomes blocked, then you should improve that aisle or get rid of it altogether.

When it comes to storage areas, your main goal should be about balancing material accessibility and storage density. Storage density should be maximized so that you can store more materials and goods in less space. However, you should not sacrifice accessibility and selectivity over storage density. There should be a balance between all of these three things.

System Principle

– The system principle refers to the oneness of every step in the manufacturing and storage process. There should be a smooth, and integrated movement from the little raw materials received to the minute these are transformed into products that are ready to be shipped to customers. Although all of the stages in the process are independent entities, every single one of them should be integrated. Coordination is one of the key terms here. There should be coordination for the following processes: receiving, inspection, production, storage, packaging, assembly, unitizing, order selection, transportation, shipping, and handling of product or material returns.

There are several parties covered by the system principle. Such parties include customers, distributors, manufacturers, and suppliers. Every single one of them plays a significant role in the systems integration. A key point in systems integration are the methods used in the identification of materials and goods, the determination of their locations and status, and the pinpointing of what stage they are. All of these have to be addressed for the system principle to be fulfilled.

Environment Principle

– This principle primarily refers to the consideration of the possible impacts of material handling to the immediate environment. This principle is something you should address especially in these environment-conscious times. Not only is it your responsibility to ensure that you are not damaging the environment, the laws and regulations on environmental protection are also increasing by the day. You could be in a lot of trouble if you are caught breaking any of these laws and regulations.

The environment principle requires you to address three things. One, you should not wantonly waste natural resources. For example, if you only need five drums of raw water, why use ten drums? That’s the core message here. Two, you should always be conscious of the potential impacts of your manufacturing and storage processes to the environment. And three, you should try to mitigate and lessen the adverse effects that you’ve already done to the environment.

The products and items you use which may include pallets and containers need to be designed in such a way that they can re-used over and over again. These have to be reusable. Reusability significantly lessens the amount of natural resources and raw materials that you use. If possible, you should also consider using products and items that are biodegradable so that when you are done using them, you can always have them recycled. Another significant thing about the environment principle is that it addresses materials specified as hazardous or toxic. Toxic substances that are used during manufacturing or storage have special needs with regards combustibility, spillage, and other damaging risks.

Automation Principle

– For a lot of companies, this is one of the essential principles of material handling. It fast-tracks everything while at the same time minimizing the amount of time, workforce, and resources you use for manufacturing, storage, and distribution. Most companies are always directly seeking better automation methods. Automation or mechanization achieves excellent things for a company. It substantially improves consistency, increases responsiveness, improves operational efficiency, and enhances predictability.

Implementing the automation principle also involves reviewing the mechanisms that you are already using. There’s a good possibility that the methods, processes, and strategies you are using can still be re-engineered or simplified and improved for the sake of your business. You should take advantage of automation options whenever you can. Automating your material handling systems is one of the best ways on how to build your operations and get ahead of the competition.

An essential aspect of the automation principle is computerization: almost all manufacturing, storage, and shipping processes these days can become computerized. You should consider computerization whenever it’s applicable. Computerization also allows you to not rely on manual labor.

Life Cycle Cost Principle

– To understand this principle, we need to define what is meant by “life cycle cost.” Life cycle costs encompass all the expenses you make in planning, procuring, implementing, and replacing a new piece of equipment used during manufacturing, storage, and delivery. Meaning that the accounting for the costs begin at the moment you purchase the piece of equipment to the moment you are buying a new one to replace it. Needless to say, the life cycle can’t be predetermined. The life cycle can be in days, weeks, months, or years.

You need to do an economic analysis of all the expenses associated with the life cycle of the new equipment. This is so that you can come up with a plan for preventive and predictive maintenance. You should also come up with a long-term projection for the eventual replacement of the new equipment. You should be prepared for when it becomes obsolete or unusable.

The Implementation of Lean Manufacturing

Lean manufacturing is a continuous improvement philosophy that aims to implement business and operational processes that achieve high-quality products, safety, and worker morale. All the while, the strategy also reduces operational costs and shortens lead times. It’s an advantageous technique because, at its core, it’s laser-focused on eliminating all types of wastes from all processes. On that note, you should be aware of the seven types of wastes. These are as follows:


  • Over-production against the plan.
  • Unnecessary transportation.
  • Excess stock of materials and components.
  • Defects in quality.
  • Waiting time of operators and machines.
  • Waste in the process itself.
  • Non-value adding motion.


However, many lean manufacturing practitioners say that there should be an eighth type of waste and this would be “waste of unused talent and ingenuity.” If you want to implement the principles of lean manufacturing and material handling, you should be focused on getting rid or minimizing all these types of wastes if they are present in your processes. Identification of these wastes as they are manifested within your organization or business is in itself hard work. For example, let’s take a look into one of the wastes, say “waiting time of operators and machines.”

You need to take the time to review how your operators and machines work on the floor. Are there enough operators? Are there enough machines? Are there more operators than machines? Are there more machines than operators? You also need to quantify the times and resources that are wasted because of these discrepancies. After identifying the flaws and errors in the system, that’s when you start planning on how to get rid and minimize these wastes. That’s when you consult with the ten principles of material handling that we have discussed above.


Lean Manufacturing in the Modern Era

Just like any business strategy, lean manufacturing and material handling are evolving with the times. Many factors are affecting these changes, including the rise of the digital economy, super-fast technological advances, changing markets, and shifting organizational priorities. The bottom line here is that you should be aware of these changes so that you can adapt accordingly. In these emerging circumstances, it can be tragic to get yourself stuck in the ways and principles of the past. Lean manufacturing is changing, and you can change along with it.