Container unloading issues and solutions

Container unloading 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.

Container unloading challenges

If steel and electricity could replace muscle and sinew in this crucial function, there would be obvious benefits for workers, employers, and the economy. Unfortunately, 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.

Robots are not a solution – at least not for the foreseeable future. However, 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 can transform the unloading process as long as they are designed to consider the complex issues that arise when a container is backed up to the warehouse gate.

Operator unloading pallets with boxes from a container

There is an urgent need for machines that can help with container unloading

  • Manual labor is in short supply and vulnerable to injury.
  • Lifting items of 44 lbs, 66 lbs, or even 88 lbs is very hard on people.
  • Warehouse workers in the USA experience injuries nearly twice that of other sectors.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders caused by manual lifting are responsible for over one-third of all lost work days at $20 billion annually.

But people remain essential to good business results – they solve problems, improve, and deal with unpredictable situations. So when you combine people with smart machines, real gains can be made.

But who will deliver the solution needed, proven and tested, 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 many boxes for logistics professionals seeking to unload 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 center 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.

Container Unloader - MHL

A mechanical aid that does all this and speeds up the process – the holy grail for any logistics business- empowers workers to tackle all the unloading challenges safely, intuitively, and flexibly. Moreover, 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 touched upon in one of our latest articles, Unloading Loose-Loaded Containers: The Efficiency Challenge, 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 labor is the default solution. But there are other alternatives on the market to achieve a more efficient and safe unloading of containers.

Container unloading solution

As a continuation of that topic, permit us to introduce the new TAWI Mobile high-frequency lifter (MHL). Push it on a pallet jack, take it inside your container, connect it to a source of electricity and start unloading from the top of the stack with a gentle squeeze of an ergonomic trigger.

The Mobile high-frequency lifter uses TAWI’s tried and tested vacuum technology to grasp items and release them onto a pallet or conveyor.

Our Nordics Sales Manager, Anders Knapasjö, has been centrally involved in developing this solution, and he answered our questions in an interview:

What is the main problem that the Mobile High-frequency Lifter helps to face?

The purpose of the unit itself is quite simple: its function is to lift objects from a container or trailer onto a conveyor or pallet.

The Mobile High-frequency Lifter takes away 90% of the pain with unloading items of up to 110 lbs. It is very versatile. You can attach multiple suction tools, which makes it possible to lift various objects. This is a plug-and-play machine, you just need an external power supply, and off you go. This lifting solution is nimble; you can move it on a pallet jack from place to place, so one machine can serve an entire warehouse – you don’t need to install one at each gate.

Why has nobody done something like this before?

The problem has always been the cramped conditions inside containers. These are only 7’10” from floor to ceiling.

Most lifting machines require significant headroom above the object to be lifted, making it impossible to lift objects high up in the container. We have solved this with a patented “elbow” and wheel system that inverts most of the steel vacuum tube by 90° from vertical to horizontal. This solution means the mobile high-frequency lifter can reach up to the highest lifting points in a container. Nothing else on the market can do this. Making it ideal for container unloading.

Unloading a container using a mobile vacuum lifter

How easy is it to use?

User-friendliness is key, both in terms of getting to know the machine and then putting it to use. The Mobile High-frequency Lifter is extremely user-friendly, it takes just a few minutes to learn how to use it efficiently. There is one trigger to move an object up and down, and another to release the load.

Is its use confined to unloading?

No. So far we have only talked about using the MHL inside a container. But after you have emptied it, maybe you want to move stuff from one pallet to another. Then you can simply move the product and pick and place your objects wherever you like. Maybe you need to repack items somewhere inside the terminal – again, use our Mobile high frequency lifter. In other words, this mobile machine has the potential to eliminate manual lifting inside the terminal also, making it easy to adapt in a fast-changing environment with high production demands.

Is this container unloading solution as fast as a person?

The difference is that the machine can keep up the same tempo throughout a working day, while a person slows down and needs to rest. So over a full shift, the Mobile high frequency lifter is faster than a person. In general, manual handling will be faster than using mechanical help over the first hour or so. But by the third hour, the speed of each method is the same. After three and four hours, the machine beats the person every time because it never gets tired. This is quite crucial because the logistics business is all about speed.

What implies for a company using this new solution?

Firstly, depending on what you are lifting, the Mobile high frequency lifter can turn a two-person lift into a one-person lift. In this case, the ROI is a no-brainer. In certain countries, you also have insurance issues, such as in the USA where you don’t have the same health service provision as in western Europe. So logistics companies must pay a high insurance premium. If they can tell the insurance company that they have a lifting aid that takes away the risk to workers, this is another big part of the ROI.

But there are multiple efficiency gains with switching away from manual unloading. Staff turnover falls dramatically, while a large new recruitment pool opens up because anyone can lift anything with our product, whether they are old or young, male or female, big or small.

The MHL also means you can work for hours at the same tempo, so you can calculate more rationally how long particular tasks will take and the resources you will need to do them. This in turn means you can plan much more accurately, making for a more efficient flow of goods into the terminal and into the warehouse. It is all about making the logistics flow as smooth and predictable as possible. This brings a lot of positive effects beyond simply lifting inside the container. It is suddenly easier to allocate resources such as people, forklifts and so on – there is a domino effect throughout the business.

So the MHL does everything except make the coffee?

Any machine has its limitations. Logistics involves multiple challenges, and the MHL won’t suit every task. Here are some things to be aware of:

  • To expect this unit to lift everything is unrealistic. It will handle 80-90% of objects, but some will be outside range.
  • Depending on the items and how they are packed, the top layer in the container can be a problem. For example, if the container is crammed to the ceiling, you may manually pull out the top layer before the MHL can take over.
  • When fully extended, the arm is 6’7” long and rotates 360° so that you can reach a maximum of 13in. With a crane system attached to the warehouse ceiling, you can lift objects as far as 32ft.
  • Sometimes a fixed crane vacuum lifting system will be more efficient in the long run for a particular task. For example, if you have a fixed conveyor in the warehouse and are sorting from the belt to pallets, the MHL probably doesn’t have the necessary reach. The MHL is a flexible solution for companies looking to move around with multiple pickup points.

A solution to the dilemma of container unloading

The Mobile High-frequency Lifter is already on the market and available now.

Although we cannot talk about specific customers, TAWI works with all the major logistics companies globally, and all are already using this machine. These companies are constantly changing their logistics infrastructure in response to customer needs. With TAWI Mobile high-frequency lifter, you take a pallet jack and move it around. Often it is better to have two or three MHL units than to have one fixed crane system. The technology is based on a proven concept that is highly reliable.

“It might seem like we are saying that this one unit can fix everything, but logistics has multiple challenges,” Anders Knapasjö says. “

From a larger perspective, what we are trying to solve as a company is to connect the dots within the matrix of logistics challenges – TAWI has a broad assortment of smart vacuum-lifting solutions to do this. Together with our customers, we constantly try to develop new solutions to tick off as many dots in the matrix as possible. The Mobile high-frequency lifter takes out several rows and columns in the matrix. We see it as the start of a new generation of mechanical aids to solve the complex issues identified above.”

More about this solution here

To learn more about this topic, read the first part of this interview here.

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