Maintaining Your Competitive Edge

When economic times are rough, necessity becomes the Mother of Invention. Exhibitors at ProMat 2003 took advantage of this opportunity and displayed lots of creative and innovative products that will help you handle material-handling processes efficiently, but with an emphasis on cost containment.

Throughout the show, the buzz was on the RFID industry. Recent press announcements and world conditions are focusing attention on this technology.

Manhattan Associates demonstrated an RFID and WMS interaction in receiving operations. "With cases by the pallet," said David Landau, director, product management, "rather than having to scan every case and the pallet ID label, we just wheel the pallet through a gate and instantaneously and simultaneously scan all the cases through the RFID and receive all the cases into the PkMS WMS software, thereby reducing the work of receiving and avoiding missing scans."

To accomplish this, however, the warehouse must be ready for RFID. "I need my suppliers to put RFID tags on the items before they enter the warehouse. We have Infolink systems that allow our customer's suppliers to do a packing function in the factory to print out shipping labels and create electronic advance ship notices and then send them on their way with the inventory. One of the things we are doing with Zebra Technologies is to put the right printer into the supplier factory that creates the right shipping label with an RFID tag embedded inside the bar code tag. When the bar code is applied to the box at the factory, an RFID tag is already written to it so that it can be automatically scanned at the receiving warehouse."

While hopes are high for RFID, there are some hurdles this technology will have to overcome. "RFID lives and dies by functionality, said Clifford Horwitz, chairman and CEO, SamSys Technologies Inc. "But the market is not growing. Attrition is taking place. RFID has shot itself in the foot by over-promising, under-delivering and creating disinformation. The companies that are succeeding are the ones with a compelling proposition."

Horwitz said that there are three components that influence the value of RFID. These components can be put into a 3D matrix. One component of that matrix is the operating frequency level of RFID equipment. The second component is the operating power level each country permits for RFID equipment. The third component is protocol. "There are several RFID languages, which are bogging down RFID acceptance," continued Horwitz.

What SamSys is doing to help customers through the RFID maze is offering technology that can be updated on the fly through the Internet. "This capability helps you 'future-proof' your system," said Horwitz. "You can always upgrade. There's no need for a complete change-out every time a new protocol iteration arrives." Such a feature also makes the technology scalable, letting you add modules as necessary. "And, it eliminates obsolescence, which is the single biggest problem RFID faces," added Horwitz.

A new problem RFID may face involves consumer perception. Recent reports from some retailers are alarming consumer privacy advocate groups. Embedding tags in clothing has been a long held goal of material handlers. However, the alarm comes from when, or even if, those tags will be deactivated once a consumer purchases a product. RFID manufacturers and users must work to reassure the public that their privacy will not be violated through surreptitious tracking of those tags.

Power chain. How would you like to reduce cabling between motors and drives? SEW Eurodrive announced its new drive system that uses chain cabling, taking advantage of the group motor installation provisions in the NEC code. This Daisy Chain innovation reduces cabling and its costs, and saves cabinet space because it takes motor controllers out of the control cabinet. Installers place control systems at or near the actual location of the motor rather than in a centralized cabinet. In addition, the disconnect switch, variable frequency drive, overload protection, motor brake control and bus communications are all installed on or near the motor rather than in a central cabinet. Daisy chaining motors in this manner reduces branch circuit cabling and therefore, lowers overall installation costs.

Go carts.The Automatic Guided Cart (AGC) is making inroads into material handling applications. "For about the price of one AGV, you can now buy two or three AGCs," said Paul Hopersberger, director, marketing communications, JB Webb. The latest carts handle palletloads of material. In some applications, these carts can replace conveyors. "Johnson Controls is using them for this type of application," continued Hopersberger.

Another innovation at JB Webb is the use of linear induction motors on monorails. "These motors help lower the cost of the whole assembly," said Hopersberger, "as well as reduce maintenance. The movement is smooth with better positioning accuracy too."

JB Webb is known for its rugged products. Many of its new product offerings, though, take advantage of the benefits offered by different materials, such as the benefit of lower energy usage. Adds Hopersberger, "We needed to reduce our prices, so we've developed products using lower-cost materials that still offer a high degree of ruggedness. This is our answer to foreign manufacturers with look-alike but shorter life products that also cost less. We're still keeping the durability high. It's through engineering design that we can extend our product value to stay competitive. Our customers are extending the life and functionality of the systems that they have. They are going modular with bolt-together components for a no-welding, yet easy and fast connection. One of the benefits is that such products let companies use non-union people to assemble."

Customer influence. When budgets are tight, it becomes a customer's market. "The economy has forced us to get more creative," said Gary Janz at LB International. "People are enhancing equipment they already have rather than buying new. Plus, executives have ROI expectations of two years or less, which is a bit unrealistic. This is forcing companies to use more phased automation where they are implementing a portion of an automation project at a time, obtaining ROI approval at each phase.

"One of the innovations we see in the future, though, is the use of small AGVs for loading and unloading trucks," continued Janz. These AGVs can handle a variety of loading or other functions, freeing employees for other material handling tasks.

Other vendors are working on strategic evolutions of their products, with the emphasis on lowering costs or improving productivity. "At Sealed Air Corporation, for example," said Bill Gray, director of marketing, "We've taken the opportunity to listen more closely to what our customers have been asking for, essentially ways to use products we've already developed, more efficiently or slightly different from what we had imagined. We've taken our popular Instapacker tabletop system, for example, and can now produce flat pads, unattended, or foam tubes for a variety of configurations. And these things can be done in batches, away from the packaging line. For the customer it means more flexibility and control within the facility."

IPL Products Ltd. is taking a similar evolutionary approach. "We focus on our customer's business and go overboard on details," said Eric Fredrickson, marketing manager. "We just look for ways to do a better job than anyone else and not leave room for improvement. Our company has more designers than salespeople and customers are bringing new applications to us every day."

Chimed in Bud Cherry, Cherry's Industrial Equipment, "We've always focused on the basics of material handling and tried to give the customer what he needs, but doesn't know how to do. For example, we've created a pallet dispenser that will automatically lower a replacement pallet to floor level for removal with a hand pallet truck."

The "soft" side of automation. Software upgrades are taking a more evolutionary approach as well. "Our customers are changing the software as their businesses change rather than catch up every few years," said Chris Heim, CEO HighJump Software. "Our approach to helping them is all about adaptability, allowing our customers to change their WMS software as their business alters to maintain a competitive advantage. For example, modifications can include Web store fronts or moving from shipping pallet loads of product to shipping 'eaches' to customers.

"With the tightened budgets these days, having adaptable software allows us to implement less expensively than our competitors and allows our customers to take control of the software so we're not having to continually charge them for software customization as they go along," concluded Heim.

Incremental automation. Like JB Webb, Westfalia Technologies has noticed the trend of buying less expensive, and subsequently less well made, automation equipment.

"The first focus for our products has been quality," said Daniel Labell, president, Westfalia Technologies. "These days, people tend to buy less expensive systems, which often cause problems in the startup as well as in the long term. I think this hurts a lot of material handling systems. We're seeing more retrofit work of older jobs that didn't go well or had consistent problems. Most of the time, those problems come from a lack of quality - buying cheap equipment to save money on the beginning, leading to maintenance problems down the road.

"We think we can help our customers by convincing them to buy better quality systems, and we provide that as our niche," continued Labell. "We're not the cheap guys on the block. You can buy cheap cranes or expensive cranes and the differences are huge. For example a single-mast crane has so much mast sway that when the load is up high it takes six or seven extra seconds to position, and that's something that salespeople rarely tell their customers.

"On paper the throughputs are there, but in real life, you don't get what was promised," continued Labell. "You get masts cracking. Our systems are dual-masted for more stability. This is a key machine that stores all sorts of pallets, and that focus on quality gives us a satisfied client."

Also focusing on quality for improving customer competitiveness is SK Daifuku Corp. "The MSS III box buffer is quiet and smooth," said David Janke, vice president, sales and marketing. "It is highly reliable. We are meeting a customer's requirements for uptime of 99.87 percent. That speaks to the quality of the equipment and provides for lower cost and higher reliability. This box buffer is an AS/RS, high-speed for case and carton storage. As we lower the total life cycle cost and prove the reliability of our equipment, our customers can demonstrate to their clients that distribution is a core competence. The accuracy, speed, flexibility and ability to customize orders and lower their inventory cost, all these things add to our customers' competitiveness in the marketplace.

Along with a growing emphasis on quality equipment at ProMat, was the display of equipment that addressed newer problems.

"We bring to the market four newly designed picking machines for medium- and slow-moving items in the warehouse," said Claus Henkel, CEO of Knapp Automation. "These are semi-automated picking machines that bring the product to the picker, and the picker only picks in the Golden Zone. There is no more walking or searching for product. It's neither a carousel nor an AS/RS. It is faster than an AS/RS and lets you pick and replenish at the same time, which you couldn't do with a carousel. We call it the OSR Order Storage and Retrieval System.

One goal for Creative Storage Systems was to find savings in storage and shipping. "What we had not done in the past is look at how to store and ship product less expensively," said Robert Lawless, president and CEO. "The Universal Flow is designed to eliminate pallets from a storage system. This way you can eliminate about $9 per load shipped. We did a cost estimate for a company shipping 1,066 pallets a week. In a five-year timeframe, they would save $3.4 million using slip-sheets, which are 47 mil-thick pieces of paper. They use that in conjunction with a Cascade slip-sheet adapter. They load the product onto the pallet-flow system. The Cascade adapter has a pusher so that when you get to where you want to put the load, the hydraulic attachment pushes the load in place in the truck."

It also helps, though, to have strong partnerships or alliances with other equipment manufacturers for solving customer problems. "In these lean times, our strength is being able to bring in best-of-breed and appropriate and integrated material handling systems that may involve companies besides HK Systems," said Mike Kotecki, senior vice president. "We may say what our customer needs to succeed in a difficult economy is a semi-automated approach rather than a fully automated system. They may need a less-sophisticated software package than we offer. We need to be smart enough to bring to the industry appropriate solutions, rather than the most expensive solutions, through our alliances with other material handling vendors so the client can afford it and quickly obtain an ROI rather than a gold-plated solution."

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