Putting an Elephant in Your Warehouse? Not as Weird as You’d Think.

By Alex Batty, MHI Content Marketing Program Manager | @mhi_alex

What do elephants have to do with material handling?

Actually, they could have quite an impact… but not in the way you’re thinking.¬†Aside from the obvious metaphors about moving things around, migration, etc. etc., learning about elephants, in particular their trunks, could lead to breakthroughs in the robotics sector, which has impacts on material handling.

In fact, it’s the way that elephant trunks handle materials is the crux of the research. They are at the same time incredibly powerful, but capable of extreme delicacy – able to carry 600 pounds or pluck a single blade of grass.

This versatility is the next evolution in robotics, scientists argue. Michel Milinkovitch, as quoted in this CNN article, reminds us that “Classical robots are extremely good for performing a specific task for which they’ve been designed… If you want that robot to do something a little different, it will fail miserably. But when you look at living organisms, they’ve been optimized also for versatility.”

You can read the full breakdown of how they’re examining elephant trunks to inspire design here, but the bottom line is that they are using “soft” parts rather than the traditional articulating metallic segments to more closely imitate nature’s way of moving things.

In material handling and supply chain, this evolution in robotics could lead to more flexibility – and more resiliency – for everyone in the supply chain. If one robot can handle multiple kinds of payloads, it allows companies to flex more with customer demands. Customers are increasingly expecting a wide variety of products, yet a custom shopping and delivery experience – and this can be one component of delivering those expectations.

For more on building resiliency into your supply chain, check out the 2021 MHI Annual Industry Report, Innovation Driven Resilience, at mhi.org/publications/report.