The Power of Material Handling

The war is over but the struggle to stabilize Iraq continues. In the meantime, we're worried about this country's archaic power grid and the economy is still day-to-day. As a result, companies are reluctant to make big capital investments in sophisticated material handling systems. Sounds like bad news, doesn't it?

But if you knew the dictionary definition of "sophisticated," their trepidation would make sense. Take a look around the exhibit floor here or at any material handling trade show and you'll come to appreciate the elegance of simplicity. Let's look at the definitions of both words.

First, the verb "sophisticate." The definition I found in the American College Dictionary reads: "to make less natural, simple or ingenuous. To mislead or pervert."

How many times have you heard the word "sophisticated" applied to system implementations?

When it comes to material handling, I like the word "simple." That's defined as "easy to understand, deal with and use." That should apply even to automation. And it does these days. Some of today's most cutting edge material handling technologies are making it easier for end users to use. That applies to automatic guided vehicle systems and conveyor systems as much as it does to lift trucks. Years ago it was easy to select a material handling technology for your applications. The application boundaries that separated them were well defined.

Even between lift trucks the demarcations were clear. You used IC trucks for heavy duty or outdoor applications and electrics in the warehouse. But as you've learned from the other speakers on this program, manufacturers of electric lift trucks are adopting AC drive technology, boosting power and battery life in applications both outdoors and indoors.

Conveyor systems are more modular and user configurable to provide a higher degree of flexibility in tighter spaces. And the paths of AGVs can be changed at a moment's notice when there's a change in business requirements.

This has all the makings for a pretty dynamic market for material handling equipment in the next few years. As automation and innovations become more affordable and user friendly, the walls of those neat market cubbyholes will start to crumble. Automated guided vehicles, for example, are getting easier to integrate into user environments. Conveyors are designed with modular controls, making them easier to expand and maintain. Even hoists, which haven't changed much in 50 years, are sold today as ergonomic work assist devices. The Freedonia Group predicts above-average growth opportunities for everyone in conventional material handling markets. They say demand for forklifts and other lift trucks will expand 4.6 percent per annum through 2006 to $7.5 billion.

The new roles for these established technologies were in evidence all over the ProMat show floor earlier this year. Let me share with you what some of the leading vendors of these technologies have been up to lately.

The role of AC drive technology in pitting electric-powered trucks against IC models is the talk of the industrial truck industry. On top of technology advancements, there's legislative pressure to find ways to reduce emissions in the workplace. That's making electric lift trucks a more powerful player.

Some vendors say, if you compare the purchase cost of an electric unit with that of an IC, the IC is cheaper. But the purchase price of industrial equipment is only a portion of the total cost. With an electric truck you don't have a transmission, you don't have filters to be replaced, and the electric motor itself is not subject to wear except for the bearings. Some new generation electric units can work at least 8 hours before you recharge their batteries. And fast charging is getting them back into circulation faster. So if you consider the total cost of an electric in terms of purchase price, plus service costs, plus energy costs, it could be 25 percent to 40 percent cheaper than the total cost of an IC. Today's electric lift trucks can move up to 12.5 mph, with the lift speeds of an IC truck. There are no emissions and the trucks are very quiet. They work outdoors as well. The motors are totally enclosed. You can hose the motors down. The tires are solid elastic, which are like cushion tires but they are also like pneumatics, so it gives you the performance of a warehouse truck."

Several vendors selling both IC and electric are broadening their electric offerings with the application of AC technology. This is being driven, in large part, by regulations taking hold here in California and bound to spread across the country thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency following the lead of the California Air Resources Board. CARB came out with new requirements for lift truck engine emissions in 1998 to be phased in in stages between January 1, 2001, and January 1, 2004. The Industrial Truck Association has been active in commenting on proposed federal regulations, meeting repeatedly with the EPA on this issue over the past several years.

New EPA rules will be phased in in two parts. The regulations that take effect on the first date - 2004 - harmonize federal rules with the CARB rules. These rules deal primarily with establishing more rigorous testing requirements for large Spark ignited engines as well as requiring in-the-field emissions testing. By 2007, it will be the obligation of the manufacturer to collect test data and submit them to the EPA.

The ITA's position is that there hasn't been enough testing of lift trucks to have confidence in the new emissions limits - particularly the ones that the industry will have to meet by 2007. The ITA would like to see a lot more test data collected as a basis for such an important regulation. Another concern is implementation cost of the testing program and technology. According to the ITA, some costs could be more than $100,000 for machines that run the tests, plus whatever staffing is required to manage the testing. As a result, the overall cost of an IC lift truck will probably go up.

More recently, CARB posed another challenge. It wanted to "electrify" all lift trucks below 8,000 pounds capacity. Although that proposition was successfully challenged by ITA, it's apparent where the trend is headed. In addition, the EPA launched a proposal to drastically reduce emissions of soot and nitrogen oxides from diesel engines by more than 90 percent by 2014. The national program, launched on April 15, requires stringent controls and reductions of sulfur in diesel fuel to achieve major air quality improvements throughout the USA. This would directly affect lift trucks, tractors and other off-road equipment in the material handling, construction, agricultural and industrial sectors. The proposal would take effect for new engines in 2008 and be fully phased in by 2014. All of this seems to make electric lift trucks even more attractive. And it will be easier for lift truck vendors to go electric because the controllers are becoming more affordable and they can pass those cost savings on to their customers.

The one thing all lift trucks share is flexibility. When you need to move something quickly, a lift truck is always there and ready. And the attachments available today add to its utility.

But the idea of removing the label "inflexible" from its products has inspired AGV vendors to come out with a new generation of products. Many are building user programmability and operational flexibility into their offerings. They want to build a bridge to users who previously couldn't justify an investment in automation. That's why some new AGV products incorporate man-aboard capability. These are being touted as competition for man-aboard tuggers. They operate in either manual or automatic mode and the user can input tasks or check maintenance and alarms through a touch screen graphical display. In automatic mode, material can be moved to a destination without an operator.

Some systems let you change the system guidepath and destination in just a few seconds using a click and drag feature in their Windows-based control system. You can add hundreds of pick and drop locations without changing software, saving engineering cost and time."

These kinds of systems are becoming more attractive to automakers who are trying to eliminate lift trucks from their plant floor, and they are finding it easier to cost justify them. Three-year paybacks are coming down to a year or less. Daimler Chrysler has a six months or less payback requirement. They operate 24 hours without breaks, and do automatic charging. A 24/7 operation like this is an ideal situation for justifying an AGV system.

All that infrastructure you needed for an AGV system--which costs about $150,000--is gone. No continuous wireless communication system is needed, and you reduce the role for the host computer. That will open up applications in the warehouse, including cross-docking. Cost? In the $60,000 ballpark, compared to $100,000 for the traditional AGV systems.

There's a subtrend to AGVs as well as lift trucks, and that's fleet logistics services. People aren't looking as much at replacing what they have as they are at finding a total solution to a material handling problem. For that, they're finding it easier to justify paying a fixed cost per month for a service vs buying a piece of capital equipment.

Even conveyor systems are starting to be marketed as a more flexible solution to material movement problems. Modularity and programmability are the main reasons.

Manufacturers have developed acceleration and deceleration algorithms to keep movement under control so there's no twisting, turning or jamming. This makes it easier for users to adapt configurations to their building constraints while reducing the possibility of carton jamming. These systems don't have to run at 500 feet per minute. Half that speed can get the same job done with much less wear and tear and less maintenance.

Intelligent control modules can do some thinking for themselves, and even talk to each other, without relying on a computer system. For example, these modules may decide to release a slug of cartons if the conditions warrant.

Pre-programmed PLCs make it easy for the installer to set up and program the system. Conveyors are also getting a lot quieter, thanks to precision bearings. The moving parts are primarily plastic and the belt is captured in rollers, eliminating tracking problems. This also results in greater belt pull, so a 300 foot stretch of conveyor can be equipped with a single drive. Any time you can eliminate a drive that saves several thousand dollars in controls.

And because of the wider range of speed and power control available with motors and drives, conveyor speeds and position control can be more precise. This can reduce product damage. On top of that, the newest servo devices use energy efficiently, reducing the user's electric bill. They can temporarily work through power sags and surges, which is an important feature for anyone who remembers the big blackout of 2003.

Other electrifying material handling trends to watch:

Robotic Picking. The use of robotic devices for order picking is gaining acceptance as ROI and accuracy rates are being realized.

Verification Systems. The use of integrated weight-on-the-fly sub-systems in fulfillment operations has become standard practice for accurate picking verification.

Configurable Software. Standard, pre-tested, modular, configurable software for AGVS, ASRS, and conveyor sortation systems is making material handling automation easier to manage and support throughout its life cycle.

Where will all this automation simplicity lead? Let's look at the world of retail. The retail store distribution center has evolved into a retail support center that offers more deliveries more often, smaller orders, expanded value-added services and reduced inventory. Floor ready order fulfillment now allows items to be priced at the distribution center, picked in family/store aisle groupings, and handled with critical/non critical item separation. Fewer touches by operators are resulting in less damage and greater accuracy. And the power to do all these things is being used and managed more efficiently. More than ever, the end user is gaining more control of his energy expenditures -- both human and electric. That's not the result of sophistication. It's simplicity itself. And that's why the future for the material handling industry and its customers is so bright.

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