Chain of Thought

Material Handling Making Mainstream News

The mainstream news media are discovering the contribution material handling and logistics technologies are making to the economy. During the holidays I heard a network news reporter credit (or blame) retailers' increasing use of supply chain management software as the reason there are fewer after-Christmas bargains to be had. Looks like purchasing managers at the retail level are getting better at matching their supply to anticipated demand.

And last week's Wall Street Journal showed how Crate & Barrel's investment in Kiva robots has helped it avoid the need to quadruple staffing to match an equivalent rise in holiday business.

These are indicators that the curtain separating the inner workings of warehouses distribution centers from C-level decision makers is being lifted. The only problem I have with the coverage is it still tends to pit labor against technology. The WSJ story was titled “Holiday Hiring Call: People vs. Robots.” Looks like the next lesson that needs to be conveyed is that end users are not just playing “either/or” in applying technology to reduce labor. They're also making better use of the workers they already employ. That's part of the maturation process of becoming a lean organization.

For example, in a story on robotics that will appear in MH&L's January issue, we'll tell about the case of Otis Technology—a small company that wouldn't have fit the profile of a robotics user only a few years ago. Since applying RMT Robotics' “Adam” robotic vehicle, although it has helped them make material handling leaner, it hasn't inspired the company to downsize its labor force. Instead, it is retraining the laborers who were pushing carts to do more value added work such as packaging.

“By retraining those individuals to do something more valuable, the volumes they can get out the door increase and the profit of the organization increases way beyond the investment in these little vehicles,” said Bill Torrens, director of sales and marketing for RMT.

It looks like robots are joining lift trucks in the business mainstream. Don't be surprised if your local material handling equipment distributor starts adding them to its line of solutions. That WSJ article I cited gave a foreshadowing of that by noting that Kiva is testing a program to rent out robots seasonally to help retailers deal with holiday surges. I believe that kind of thing is called a harbinger. That would make a great robot name, wouldn't it?

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