Another Fine Mess

You just can't afford to ignore material handling when it comes to today's time-sensitive, competitive marketplace.

Another Fine Mess

A couple inches. That’s all it took to throw Ford into a public relations chasm a mile wide.

The company was still recovering from the effects of its Firestone-tire-related recall when it found another tiresome problem with its Explorer SUV. This time, material handling gets the spotlight.

After the first recall, affecting models equipped with Firestone tires that lost tread under certain driving conditions, Ford put its new Explorer models under special scrutiny. The automaker was determined to find any weak links in the production chain. It even made the new Explorer two-and-a-half inches wider and two inches longer than its 2001 models to make it less prone to rollovers.

The new Explorer design passed inspection. Unfortunately, the material handling system comprising the production line at Ford’s Louisville, Kentucky, plant didn’t get a second look. Apparently, nobody thought to see if the conveyor was wide enough to accommodate the SUV’s new dimensions. It wasn’t, and it bit them where it hurts — in the tires.

According to an Associated Press report, the SUVs were loaded too far to the right on a conveyor that was too narrow, leaving cuts five to nine inches long and a half-inch deep in one or both of the right tire treads. Result: recall number two, this time affecting 50,000 2002 model-year Explorers and Mountaineers.

The automotive industry should thank Ford for teaching an expensive — no, a valuable — lesson. It’s one that the e-commerce world will never forget. Just say Christmas 1999 to one of the survivors in that sector and watch them shudder. There aren’t many left among those who failed to back up their glitzy online front-ends with back-room material handling logistics operations that could deliver on their service commitments. Whether you’re an e-tailer or a car maker, material handling must be factored into your business plan.

How can other industries avoid the consequences of ignoring the lessons of Material Handling 101? Employing material handling specialists would help. Unfortunately, many companies have gotten away from staffing up on that talent, according to John Nofsinger, CEO of The Material Handling Industry of America.

“In the days I was doing IE stuff we would never do a methods-type analysis without first assessing the shape, size and speed of what was there,” he told me. “Today there probably isn’t such vertical expertise, and this kind of thought process never happens.”

The best recourse is a three-way alliance among the end-user, the information system vendors and the material handling system vendors. With such a system safety net it’s less likely that a stray detail like conveyor width would slip through the information gap.

In today’s time-sensitive, service-competitive business environment, it’s easy to see how logistics details can get lost. Even Nofsinger admits material handling tends to be overshadowed by high-tech’s razzle-dazzle. He likens the material handling equipment industry’s relationship with enterprise system software vendors to a circus parade.

“They get to wear the sequins while we’re out there following the elephant,” he explains. “It’s not pleasant, but between us we can make this thing work.”

Need to clean up your act? Make sure material handling plays a lead role.

Tom Andel

chief editor

[email protected]

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