Tomorrow's MH Systems Will Be Like John Hill -- Self-Made

"The advancement of the arts from year to year taxes our credulity. It seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end."

This was written by Henry Ellsworth, the first commissioner of Patents, in the 1843 Annual Report of the Patent Office. Decades later, his sentiments were gradually corrupted into the now infamous quote:

"Everything that can be invented has already been invented."

More than 160 years have passed, and there have been enough advancements in material handling alone that if Ellsworth were alive today he'd die of embarrassment (if not old age). Some of the most innovative of material handling's pioneers are still with us. MHM honored a few of them last year as part of its first Material Handling Innovation Awards program.

This year MHM honors another pioneering innovator: John Hill of the supply chain consulting and systems integration firm ESYNC.

Hill's roots

With more than 30 years in logistics, Hill has led the implementation of more than 70 systems involving automatic identification and data collection (AIDC), including bar coding and radio frequency identification (RFID), as well as warehouse management systems (WMS) and transportation management systems (TMS). His customers are leaders in the aerospace, appliance, automotive, basic metals, consumer goods, electronics, food and medical products industries.

Hill began his career with 3M Company (International), and has been an officer at Computer Identics Corporation (1970s bar code pioneer) and Eaton-Kenway (AS/RS pioneer) as well as COO of IDX (1980s RFID pioneer) and CEO of Logisticon (first WMS supplier).

He was a co-founder of the Automatic Identification Manufacturers (AIM) Trade Association and is a charter member of AIDC 100, an association of professionals who have contributed to the advancement of the industry.

A former president of the Material Handling Education Foundation Inc. (MHEFI) and the Material Handling Institute Inc. (MHI), Hill also co-founded MHIA's Supply Chain Systems & Technologies group. He received the Norman L. Cahners award for contributions to the U.S. material handling industry and material handling education, and this year he was awarded the distinguished Reed-Apple Award by MHEFI for his contributions to material handling and material handling education.

As part of his commitment to furthering material handling education, Hill serves on the faculty of The Logistics Institute at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Hill sat down with MHM to chat about innovations past, present and future. Here's that interview:

MHM:

John, tell us why Henry Ellsworth was wrong about the advancement of innovation, particularly where material handling is concerned.

Hill:

Innovation continues in the material handling field from a high-level perspective on a continuing basis, but people aren't always aware of it. When I spoke at CLM recently, I didn't talk about warehouse management systems as much as I did the process that new technology forces people to go through in terms of evaluation. If someone is intrigued by the potential of a new piece of equipment but they don't go through the rigorous process of assessing where they are and what they can do with that technology to improve performance, they're really missing a bet.

MHM:

Give us some examples of technologies that have impressed you.

Hill:

Ten years ago I was putting together a presentation and asked Dick Ward of the Material Handling Industry of America what he's seen in his world travels that was exciting enough to capture my audience’s attention. He told me of a lift truck out of Japan that didn't have any wheels, moved on air, was driverless, and had the ability to identify things using some form of RFID. It was like an AGV, but looked more like a lift truck. I haven't heard of it since. But I can imagine down the road devices of that variety doing the work of a labor force that continues to diminish on a daily basis in our warehouses and distribution centers [DCs] across the country.

Another thing I included in that presentation concerned our transportation infrastructure. One thing that complicates travel for all of us has been the horrible increase of traffic on the road. I talked about a DOT study aimed at reducing congestion and virtually eliminating trucking on the public roads. The approach described an underground interstate system that could accommodate both vehicular traffic as well as pneumatically driven containers of material between major points across the country. Where did that one go? DOT allegedly allocated $10 billion for that study. Those are the kind of innovations that will be real breakthroughs and I anticipate that although I may be gone they will have to happen.

MHM:

There's probably a lot of innovation that never becomes reality because competitive entities make it difficult.

Hill:

It takes a long time for good ideas that threaten existing beliefs and infrastructures to surface. RFID is a classic example. There's a German company that for a few years has been successfully selling overseas RFID tags that have the ability to sense and record environmental changes. Imagine putting one on a pallet full of lettuce and monitoring it as it goes from Salinas to Cleveland to make sure the temperature has been properly maintained. Why don't we know more about this? There are already temperature-logging devices that can be purchased for $100 or less and put on reefers -- considerably less expensive than putting a $15-$20 temperature-sensing tag on a pallet. But at some point someone will do the math on that and, depending on their losses in transit or at the receiving dock because the shipment doesn't get to the stores on time, the economics will work.

MHM:

Is there one technological contribution in your career of which you're most proud?

Hill:

It would have to be the bar code. We labored long in that vineyard before we saw any return. Those that followed us had a much better harvest than we did. That's often true of people who pioneer technology. They either burn out or run out of money just before the technology takes off. Although old Computer Identics still survives under another name, the company never got the credit it deserved. That's true of companies in other industries like the genomics and the biomedical field.

The other thing I recall fondly in my career was my time at Kenway because they were really innovative. What I learned from that experience from Jim Allred and Ken Richins and the team of 20 people on my team who didn't know when to go to bed could fill a book. Through their vision and energy, AS/RS, AGVs and integrated systems were pioneered. Those lessons have stuck with me to this day.

Then there were my days at Logisticon; many of whose pioneers populate SCE companies around the country today.

MHM:

You make it clear in all of your presentations that bar coding is not dead. Are there innovations still to come out of bar coding?

Hill:

Some of the things under way in imaging technology will lead to the ultimate replacement of laser scanning in virtually all applications. The laser scanner has been the workhorse of the bar code industry since the 1970s. There have been enormous innovations moving from tube-type helium neon lasers to visible laser diodes, which are still used in many products. We moved from a rotating prism to create the flying spot back in the 1970s to various kinds of oscillating devices that generate a flying spot or moving beam to do the scanning. These are much less expensive, have a longer life and get the job done more cost-effectively than their predecessors.

What I've seen lately are a host of devices that use imaging technology to do the same job. These are camera-like devices available in hand-held units and fixed-station configurations.

MHM:

Where are those devices being applied now?

Hill:

These devices can be used to scan an inbound load and simultaneously, if that load is damaged, you can take a picture of it and fire it off to the shipper while keeping a record for your own purposes. That's innovative and I wish I had been in on it. Back in the early days of bar coding, we knew we had something good, and we could get people excited about it when we were passionate in our presentations, but no one was buying.

I think back to Buick in 1971. During that courtship, it became quickly obvious to us that we were never going to sell scanning by itself, out of the box. Without a system behind it, bar coding is only an interesting novelty. At the time, although Buick was intrigued, they had no interest in interfacing a scanner to their existing plant system. We, on the other hand, had people in-house who were systems-savvy and could take the output from a scanner and do something meaningful with it in the context of production control and in-process accounting. Clearly if we did it on our own, Buick was interested -- but, in their view, the price was too high. We wound up leasing the package to them with an option to buy. We were hoping they would keep the darn thing for at least six months because then we might break even.

Buick bought the system about the fourth or fifth month because its performance exceeded out mutual expectations. The lease-buy option approach turned out to be a win-win for both of us. We learned a lot through that entire process and by the time the system was purchased, we had teamed on enhancements that contributed greatly to the success of the project and its subsequent roll-out to other GM divisions.

That whole experience has been replicated so many times in my career where a new approach was helped by a partnership with a pioneer on the user side. This can't be overemphasized. You have to find someone who shares your excitement about innovation, who sees the end result clearly and is willing to work with you to make it happen.

MHM:

Is that happening today?

Hill:

Although generalizations are dangerous, I see less willingness on the part of users today to take risks. Customers are far more cautious or conservative than they used to be. There are 100 different reasons to follow rather than lead, Wal-Mart, of course, being a notable exception on the RFID front.

MHM:

They've probably seen their share of high-profile failures, haven't they? Plus, the times we're living in are scary, and the prospect of making a big investment and a big leap of faith is probably not very attractive to a lot of people.

Hill:

I certainly agree. One technology that I forgot to mention comes out of the multiple efforts under way to bring nanotechnology to the commercial marketplace in some meaningful way. Initially, applications will be in the world of electronics, computer systems and controls, but there has to be longer-term potential for those of us in the world of material handling and the supply chain. If I were a lot younger, I'd be taking a hard look at technology.

MHM:

How would it change the material handling systems we see today?

Hill:

It would probably make them easier to replicate and adapt, less costly, smaller from the data capture perspective, etc. I would hope that some members of the academic community are already looking at the technology and determining where it could be deployed.

MHM:

What other technology are you enthusiastic about?

Hill:

Back in the 1980s, Grady Booch led development of object-oriented software design to simplify program development and make it more repeatable. I understand that he's now at IBM working on the use of the same concepts for networking. If you take a look at RFID and the electronic product code [EPC] concept for global tracking, systems are going to have to be far more sophisticated, faster and adaptable than they are today to take advantage of the information. Not everyone will buy the same computer system or the same software, so realization of the benefits will depend upon the ability of myriad programs to seamlessly communicate and interact in real- or near real-time. It appears that Booch is working on an approach that will help people address this issue.

MHM:

How does that apply to material handling?

Hill:

In the late 1980s, a few of us worked on the use of object-oriented programming to develop a WMS to beat all WMSs. It never went anywhere, but if you're looking for things that down the road will come to pass, envision a program to which a user could input data relative to profiling current and projected warehouse activity. It would take into account product mix and volumes, equipment and human resources – and out of the program would pop alternatives for changing the physical infrastructure and deploying staff to optimize throughput. The program would then automatically generate and configure a WMS to actually manage and further enhance performance in the new environment.

We got pretty far with development, but ran out of money. Someone, however, will eventually do it and bring such a program to market. Users will buy it, fix their facilities, generate their own WMS application software and use it to manage their operations. Six months or two years later when activity profiles change, they’ll be able to return to the program offline, input new data and projections, examine what-if scenarios and regenerate the WMS software.

MHM:

Sounds like Hal in 2001 a Space Odyssey. Maybe it will happen by 2011.

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