Andel and Handling: Tease Your Brain to Succeed

The most creative solutions aren’t always stress induced. There’s a lot to be said for boredom.

Necessity isn’t always the mother of invention. Sometimes boredom is. That’s the case with Kevin Gue of Auburn University. Ten years ago this associate professor of industrial and systems engineering was sitting in on a particularly boring faculty meeting. He’s one of those guys who’d rather be solving problems than hearing about them.

Anyway, during the meeting’s drone, Gue pulled out a sheet of graph paper and started playing with the blocks. He drew a 10 x 10 “storage” grid and started to figure out how many blocks he could put in it so that every block would be accessible from an aisle. He got better at it as time advanced. First he got to 55, then 57 then 59 and within an hour he got to 61. He’s not sure he could have done better than that, even if the meeting had gone on longer.

But his exercise didn’t stop there. He intrigued himself with grid storage and eventually wrote a paper that showed an algorithm for high density storage in grids. He likened it to the “15 Puzzle,” which consists of 15 sliding numbered blocks and one empty space. The challenge is to mix the blocks up and try to rearrange them back into their original order. You can only slide the blocks; you cannot remove a block from the puzzle. Gue wondered, what if we were dealing with a 40 x 40 grid, and what if you didn’t have one empty space but a lot of them, and what if this were a dense storage system and you wanted to retrieve specific boxes?

That led to a real concept Gue is trying to sell called GridFlow. I’m telling you about it here because how he arrived at this approach to storage problems is similar to how the best logistics teams solve their own problems in industry. Our story on McGraw-Hill’s challenge to keep material handling efficiency alive for a dying format (print-on-paper textbooks) is an example of making best use of labor. In this case, replacing RF terminals in the pick area with a voice-driven inventory system was the solution to the puzzle, and though this one had fewer blocks to manipulate, it was no less challenging because it involved players who spoke different languages.

The companion piece in our strategy set this month involves IDEXX Laboratories, which supplies medical products—some temperature controlled—to veterinary practices. The puzzle they had to solve was how to move a greater variety of these products in fewer boxes to cut down on deliveries that take their customers’ staff away from clients.

Before you read how these companies solved their puzzles, let’s return to Kevin Gue and his GridFlow concept. His vision is to develop material handling systems that are hyper-flexible. Picture that 15 Puzzle, but instead of blocks you have little square conveyor modules, plugged together like Legos. Working together, these modules provide high density storage and retrieval and, without aisles, coordinate their collective movements to get the right things out to a picker at the right times.

What started out as a boredom breaker for Gue turned into a project sponsored by a National Science Foundation grant that’s about to end this year. There are a lot more problems he wants to tackle with his concept. He just needs a fresh source of funding.

Sounds like another puzzle for him to solve. If you’re interested in helping him—or if you’re just sitting in a boring meeting—visit his site at http://kevingue.wordpress.com.

Follow me on Twitter @TomAndel.

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