You Ready for Mach 3?

Time is money, and no industry can save more of it for other industries than material handling. You might have the greatest product in the world, but if it isn't assembled, stored, retrieved and delivered with the most cost-effective technologies and systems, chances are you're not paying attention to the latest in material handling.

Now, you all know that, but seemingly the rest of the world is catching on fast. This was especially clear at the big ProMat show I attended last month at Chicago's McCormick Place. Maybe you were there, too. If so, then you saw and heard a lot of evidence that suggests the worst is over in terms of the recession and, more importantly, the virtue of material handling has become clearer to a lot more people in your markets. I say this based on some surveys at the show as well as some conversations I had with exhibitors, speakers and visitors.

As I noted last month, some leading international companies, like Finnish phone giant Nokia, have seen the virtues of material handling very clearly indeed and have focused on the industry as the key to their own productivity increases. Judging from my ProMat tour, I'd say a lot of companies have seen these virtues as well.

Attendees and exhibitors at ProMat let me know that they were more confident about the economy (assuming, as so many noted, that it's a "short war") than they have been in quite some time. Many noted that the equipment being offered today is just "too good" to be ignored. Indeed, the array of material handling technology, ranging from innovations in conveyors to amazing increases in speeds in AS/RS and tote handling systems was almost startling.

Even more encouragement came from some of the speakers at the show. A lot of you may recall getting a free razor in the mail a few weeks ago. It's what Gillette is calling the Mach3 and I must say it's pretty good. In fact, I'll probably buy some refills, which, of course, is what they wanted me and you and several million other guys to do. Now, I'm not shilling for Gillette here, but the reason a lot of us will buy the refills is not because the razor was free. It's because the shave was so good and that, when you think about it, is amazing. Why?

Well, Gillette and it competitors must make millions of these gadgets and each one -- every single one -- has to deliver an accuracy and a sharpness and an alignment for those qualities. They're produced in highly automated (and highly secret) procedures with specially designed machinery and material handling systems. Gillette's chief manufacturing guy, Thomas Lyden, talked at ProMat about his company's redesign to produce the Mach3.

Gillette's South Boston plant was retooled and converted to Mach3 dedication before the product introduction, Lyden noted. The refurbished plant now includes state-of-the-art automated storage and retrieval systems and "sophisticated automatic guided vehicles that transport parts from the fabricating machines to assembly and then to storage or packaging," Lyden noted. "The new facility," he added, "is now producing a billion razor cartridges a year at triple previous assembly rates."

Another speaker, Modine's general manager, Lyman Tschanz, pointed out that his company needed to adjust its output of radiators to Daimler-Chrysler's new Toledo assembly plant to fit "a very specific window." In other words, just in time, or the window would close it out of the Jeep Liberty SUV business. Modine's approach was to use the latest in material handling in its automation of its Racine plant. Delays, Tschanz noted, would shut the Jeep plant -- and the window, too.

Time is money all right, and material handling is all about optimizing time to produce and time to market. Material handling sophistication can cut costs. It can increase efficiency. It can boost overall productivity. It can mean the difference between open windows and lost business. It's central to modern manufacturing success. In effect, it's the key to the future of industrial competitiveness.

Some pretty big and leading outfits have discovered all of that this year. You might want to let the rest of your customers in on the secret. To borrow a term from the shaving people, seems material handling is ready to move into Mach 3 speed itself.

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