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What is Material Handling? The Complete Guide Optimise Material Movement

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Material handling refers to the movement, protection, storage and control of materials and products throughout manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, and the overall supply chain. An optimised material handling system is essential for efficient logistics and operations. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about principles, equipment, best practices and more for effective material handling.

What is Material Handling and Why is it Important?

Material handling incorporates the physical handling, storage, control and movement of raw materials, work-in-process inventory, and finished goods. It plays a fundamental role in the supply chain and impacts:

  • Productivity
  • Operational efficiency
  • Costs and profitability
  • Inventory management
  • Storage space utilisation
  • Safety and ergonomics

Smooth material flow is critical for meeting production and distribution requirements. Material handling solutions affect cycle times, throughput, and on-time delivery across the entire supply chain. Companies invest heavily in material handling systems and equipment to maximise productivity and efficiency while minimising costs.

Types of Material Handling

There are three primary categories of material handling:

Manual Handling

This involves moving materials entirely through human labour, without assistive equipment. Manual handling tasks include lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing, pulling, stacking, storing, replenishing, order picking, and more. It is most applicable for handling smaller loads or in isolated tasks.

Mechanical Handling

This uses equipment to assist workers with handling tasks, while still requiring direct human involvement. Mechanical handling reduces worker strain and enables handling larger, heavier materials. Examples include hand trucks, carts, forklifts, conveyors, lifts, cranes, and other tools that aid material movement.

Automated Handling

This utilises fully automated equipment and controls to handle materials with minimal human intervention. Automated systems include complex conveyor systems, automated storage and retrieval systems, autonomous mobile robots, robotic pick and place, sorting systems and more. Automating repetitive handling tasks improves consistency, output and reduces labour requirements.

10 Core Principles of Material Handling

  1. Standardisation

Standardised handling methods, storage, equipment and unit loads improves consistency and maximises space.

  1. Ergonomics

Design tasks, equipment and workstations to minimise human strain and fatigue.

  1. Space Utilisation

Maximise effective storage density and optimise layouts for material flow.

  1. Automation

Automate material handling tasks through equipment and controls to boost throughput.

  1. Inventory Management

Optimise inventory quantities, locations and turnover to balance costs.

  1. Equipment Selection

Select appropriate handling equipment matched to loads, routing and tasks.

  1. Unit Load Optimisation

Combine items into standardised units, pallets or containers when beneficial.

  1. Environment

Provide proper lighting, safety controls, and ventilation for material handling.

  1. Cost Control

Evaluate equipment and systems based on total cost, not just upfront cost.

  1. Work Positioning

Locate storage, equipment and stations for efficient material flow and minimal handling.

Types of Material Handling Equipment

There is a vast array of material handling equipment available, ranging from simple manual aids to complex automated systems.

Basic Material Handling Equipment

  • Hand trucks, carts – Multi-wheeled tools to batch transfer loads
  • Shelving, racks, bins – Hold and organise inventory
  • Ladders, stairs – Access high storage locations
  • Hoists, jacks, lifts – Raise and lower materials
  • Wheelbarrows, sleds – Move loose materials
  • Totes, containers – Transport materials in batches

Powered Industrial Trucks

  • Forklifts – Lift and transfer pallets and heavy loads
  • Order pickers – Access high storage for each picking
  • Walkie stackers – Operator-driven forklift for short transports
  • Pallet jacks – Compact device to move pallets
  • Tuggers – Tow multiple carts or trailers

Automated Material Handling Equipment

  • Conveyors – Transport materials between process steps
  • Automated storage/retrieval systems – Computerised storage and retrieval
  • Robotic pick and place – Robots to palletise, depalletise, sort items
  • AGVs/AMRs – Automatically guided vehicles for material transport
  • Sortation systems – Route items based on destination
  • Pick-to-light systems – Direct pickers to inventory locations
  • Vertical Lift Modules – High-density storage and retrieval machine

And many other speciality material handling solutions…

Material Handling Process Flow

The material handling process is a systematic method employed to manage the movement of materials and products within a warehouse or between different stages of a supply chain process. This process spans from the initial receipt of materials to their eventual shipment to customers or movement to storage areas. By optimising material movement processes, you can streamline operations, enhance productivity, and ensure the efficient utilisation of available space within the warehouse. Here’s a breakdown of the steps involved in the material handling process:

  1. Receiving:
    • This is the first stage where materials are received, inspected, and sorted. Proper equipment such as forklifts and conveyor systems are utilised to ensure smooth unloading and movement to the designated areas.
  2. Storage:
    • Post-reception, materials are moved to storage areas. The storage process should be optimised to ensure easy retrieval and minimal handling, thus reducing handling costs.
  3. Picking:
    • This involves selecting and gathering products in the right quantity as per customer orders. Automated equipment and systems like Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) can be used to enhance picking efficiency.
  4. Packing:
    • Once picked, products are then packed and prepared for dispatch. Automated or semi-automated systems can expedite this stage, ensuring products are securely packed and ready for shipment.
  5. Shipping:
    • The final step involves loading and unloading materials for shipment. Here, the use of equipment like forklifts and conveyor systems is essential to ensure timely and accurate deliveries.
  6. Returns (if applicable):
    • Handling returns efficiently is also a part of the material handling process. Efficient systems should be in place to manage returns, restocking, or disposal.

Each of these stages requires a coordinated effort and the right material handling system in place to ensure that the flow of material is optimised throughout the supply chain. By following the principles of material handling, organisations can create an effective material handling system that caters to their specific operational needs and enhances overall supply chain efficiency.

Key Benefits of Effective Material Handling

Optimising a facility’s material handling system provides significant benefits:

  • Faster processing and order fulfilment
  • Increased throughput and productivity
  • Lower operational costs
  • Reduced labour requirements
  • Improved inventory control and accuracy
  • Better space utilisation
  • Enhanced worker ergonomics and safety
  • Higher customer service and satisfaction

Given its enormous impacts on supply chain efficiency, material handling deserves significant planning, resources and capital investment. By following proven principles and best practices, companies can achieve smooth, economical material flow.

In Summary: Material Handling Systems in Warehouses and Supply Chain

Efficient material handling is vital for manufacturing, warehouse and distribution operations. Manual, mechanical and automated solutions each have advantages depending on the application. Optimising material movement, storage, inventory and costs through ergonomic equipment selection, standardised processes and automation ensures high productivity. Material handling should be a key priority for driving operational excellence.

At Pallite, we specialise in creating materials and warehouse storage solutions that work seamlessly with most material handling systems. Get in touch with our team today to find out how we can improve your warehouse.


Written by David Rose

Frequently Asked Questions about Material Movement

  1. What is Material Handling?
    • Material handling refers to the process of moving, storing, controlling, and protecting materials, goods, and products throughout the process of manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and disposal.
  2. What comprises Material Handling Equipment?
    • Material handling equipment includes a variety of tools and systems used to move, store, control, and protect materials, such as conveyors, forklifts, and automated storage and retrieval systems.
  3. What is the difference between Manual and Automated Material Handling?
    • Manual material handling involves the use of human effort for moving and handling materials, while automated material handling utilises machinery and control systems to handle materials with minimal human intervention.
  4. What is Bulk Material Handling?
    • Bulk material handling refers to the process of storing, transporting, and controlling bulk materials such as liquids, minerals, and food in large quantities.
  5. What is a Material Handling System?
    • A material handling system encompasses a range of equipment and methods used to move, store, control, and protect materials within a facility or at a site.
  6. How is Material Handling related to Logistics?
    • Material handling plays a crucial role in logistics by ensuring the efficient movement and storage of goods, which in turn enhances the overall supply chain operations.
  7. What are some common Material Handling Injuries and how can they be prevented?
    • Common material handling injuries include strains, sprains, and fractures. They can be prevented by adhering to safety protocols, using the correct equipment, and ensuring workers are properly trained.
  8. Who is responsible for the Safe Operation of Material Handling Equipment?
    • The responsibility for safe operation of material handling equipment lies with both the employer and the employees. Employers must provide safe and well-maintained equipment, while employees must adhere to safety guidelines and operating instructions.
  9. How to calculate Material Handling Costs?
    • Material handling costs can be calculated by considering factors such as equipment acquisition and maintenance, labour, and energy costs, among others.
  10. What factors should be considered when selecting Material Handling Equipment or a supplier?
    • Factors to consider include the specific needs of your operation, the reliability and reputation of the supplier, the total cost of ownership, and the safety features of the equipment.
  11. What are the different types of Material Handling Equipment and Conveyors for handling bulk materials?
    • Various types of material handling equipment include storage, engineered systems, industrial trucks, and bulk material handling. Conveyors such as belt, screw, and pneumatic conveyors are used for handling bulk materials.
  12. What are some common Material Handling Hazards as cited by workers?
    • Common hazards include improper lifting techniques, inadequate training, and unsafe equipment or work conditions. Ensuring proper training and adherence to safety protocols can mitigate these risks.


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