Chain of Thought

Pieces and Parts at ProMat

As mentioned in my last blog post, there were plenty of joint-venture and cooperation announcements from exhibitors at ProMat. A couple of them involved lift truck manufacturers and automation providers. Dematic is working with Crown to provide an automated order picker, and Egemin Automation Inc. announced that Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc. (MCFA), is now the primary component supplier for Egemin's Hybrid Automated Guide Vehicle (AGV). It's obvious that automation vendors are giving as much attention to their own supply chains as they are to those of their clients. In fact, the disastrous situation in Japan was a popular topic of conversation at ProMat, considering the potential supply chain disruptions it could cause.

For example, Daifuku Webb made it clear in its press announcements that its manufacturing facilities and most of its suppliers are located in areas of Japan that were free from damage, leaving its inbound supply chain intact. Its manufacturing operations continue and are not in areas where there are planned blackouts.

I had dinner with Toyota Material Handling USA's President Brett Wood Wednesday night and he told me pretty much the same thing—that Toyota's locations and people in Japan were okay and operational. He did add that it's a bit early to predict the supply chain implications of the earthquake and tsunami. Based on conversations he's had with colleagues in the industrial truck industry, lift truck manufacturers may eventually have trouble getting some precision components like brakes—which are commonly sourced from Japan.

Quality components are an important topic to Brett, as they are to his industry, and he told me that he's so concerned about the prospect of customers sourcing cheap, non-certified parts that his company is doubling the warranty period on Toyota replacement parts from six months to a year. Although he didn't tie this to the situation in Japan, it sends an important message: paying attention to the small stuff will help you avoid problems with the big stuff.

That theme stuck with me as I walked the ProMat floor on the last day of the show. While the automation on hand was prominently displayed, those who patrolled the aisles looking for news about material handling infrastructure weren't disappointed. In fact the situation in Japan came up even among those distributors. For example, companies in the U.S. are just as vulnerable to earthquakes as their Japanese counterparts. The folks at the Cubic Designs booth told me companies need to pay more attention to the integrity of their mezzanines, particularly where supports meet concrete. They pointed out there are seismic zones throughout the U.S. but no national safety standard concerning mezzanines, and safety regulations vary from state to state. That's why the kind of safety certification vendors like Cubic Designs offer is so important. Mezzanine rarely gets the kind of safety scrutiny from users as their buildings do.

Mezzanines and racks are equally vulnerable to impacts from lift trucks. Robert Brooker, co-president of Damotech, told me that where racks are concerned, standards mostly deal with out-of-plumb or out-of-straight conditions. Impacts and dents are often ignored by users, but each ding further degrades structural stability. And if the user hires welders to make repairs, that can further degrade tensile strength. It's typically not effectively dealt with until after there's a complete structural failure, Brooker said.

Even conveyor is vulnerable to structural damage, and DeWayne Nelson at the Wasp, Inc. booth talked about the difference welded conveyor frames can make in areas of a facility where lift trucks bump into them or where the forces of over-capacity loads exact their toll. He's trying to get market traction with the idea of replacing bolted-together conveyor sections used in such high-risk portions of a workplace with welded segments of conveyor.

This year's ProMat reminded me why I love covering material handling so much. The solutions may vary in sophistication from hardware to software, but all of them are equally important to the structural integrity of all businesses.

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