Chain of Thought

Global Forces Shaping Material Handling and Logistics

The first MODEX is history. If you were in Atlanta to walk this material handling and logistics show as I did, you probably feel like you completed a marathon. Your aches are a testament to how diverse the material handling industry is. There was a lot of ground to cover—floor-wise and technology-wise. Exhibits ranged from the smallest components that usually go unseen to the sexiest, most sophisticated automated systems that scream “look at me!”

But if you judge a show like this solely by what you see, you do it, and yourself, a disservice. It's what people heard at this show during casual conversations with vendors and their partners that gave them a good look at the future of business. A conversation I had with material handling industry veteran John Hill, who is retiring from his role as vice president at TranSystems, put MODEX in just the right context:

“It's time to look beyond the four walls to highways, waterways, bridges and rail. Material handling is part of every one of these.”

And that's on a global scale. Here are some examples:

• At the TranSystems booth, Heather King, assistant vice president of this supply chain consulting firm, fielded a question from an international visitor asking about the best way to get products to the U.S. from Costa Rica.

• At the Hyster lift truck exhibit, Jonathan Dawley, president of Hyster Distribution, said warehousing opportunities for lift truck vendors will be popping up around ports as distribution facilities help maintain new flows of goods coming in from around the world. His company is pre-planning inventory to meet this demand. Even stacker cranes present a potential opportunity for Hyster, he told me.

• At the Yale Materials Handling exhibit, Bill Pfleger, president of Yale Distribution, said U.S. markets are seeing a bit of Western European influence filter into their products. Yale was showing its new ERP-040VF four-wheel sit-down electric truck which was designed in Europe based on much input from operators. The four-wheel design absorbs shocks from uneven floors better than three-wheel designs, he said, and has equal stability and maneuverability. These are safety as well as productivity features and Pfleger believes these aspects of lift truck design are getting more attention from safety professionals—who are also starting to influence lift truck purchasing decisions in the States, as they have been in Europe.

Rotocaster, an Australian manufacturer of hand trucks incorporating multi-directional wheels for extra maneuverability, addressed safety on a smaller scale. He used MODEX to announce his product's presence in American markets through Magnus Mobility Systems, a U.S. distributor. The demonstration stressed the amount of stress and resulting injuries this innovation relieves among material handlers on foot—who have to negotiate as many uneven surfaces as lift trucks.

Intelligrated, a North American-owned automated material handling system provider, announced a partnership with SDI Group USA, a global provider of integrated material handling solutions, to serve growing industry markets in Sao Paulo, Brazil. And other exhibitors told me they spoke with several visitors from South America looking to grow their supply chain management capabilities.

Hytrol Conveyor Co. and BEUMER Corp., subsidiary of Germany's BEUMER Group, announced a strategic alliance to provide sortation solutions in North & South America.

• Peter Blair, director of marketing for Kiva, maker of mobile robotic fulfillment systems, told me his company is eyeing opportunities in Europe, but first the company needs to address that market's warehouse verticality, possibly with the help of mezzanine and lift makers.

The point is, this first MODEX was an indicator of how international trends are shaping the art and science of material handling. In fact George Prest, the new CEO of the Material Handling Industry of America , summed it up for me:

“The world is flattening. John Nofsinger [Prest's predecessor at MHIA] introduced me to a lot of international friends and we're building on those relationships. A significant part of the growth of our shows has been international. We are committed to a strategic vision that will help us continue orchestrating that.”

Prest and MHIA still have a lot to accomplish to fulfill that vision, and his timeline is set for a 2020 target date. I wouldn't be surprised if between now and then the “Material Handling Industry of America” brand exhibits some evolution of its own.

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