Invisible But Invaluable

For material handling, it's what's inside that counts.

Those who judge books by covers and people by looks would probably not be easily impressed by changes in material handling technology in recent years. That's because many of the revolutionary changes in this industry are happening beneath the surface. These changes are responsible for much of the productivity improvement and cost efficiency today's technology can help you realize.

Maybe that's why some of the unsung heroes of mechanization's mysteries made themselves more noticeable at ProMat 2003. I learned more about what goes on inside conveyors and sorters at this year's show than at any other I can remember. Take controls, for example. The reason sortation systems can handle higher product volumes while running slower —therefore requiring less maintenance — is because of variable frequency drives and pneumatic controls. While OEMs like HK Systems, Ermanco, Siemens Dematic and Intelligrated showed steak as well as sizzle, component sup-pliers like Humphrey, Rockwell and Wago ex-plained what helps these OEM partners cook.

"The further we get into the market, the more people want to do with these conveyors," said Dale Dratt, vice president development at Humphrey Products, makers of modu-lar controls.

Even software providers were co-presenting with hardware makers to convince customers that a new day of affordability and ease of use was here. The way to do that in these uncertain times is to show what’s under the hood.

"I envision providing customers with what Dell Computer has been offering," said Pete Metros, president of Siemens Dematic Material Handling Division. "They say, 'This is Dell with Intel inside.' We say, this is a Siemens Dematic system with Manhattan inside."

Bad things can happen beneath the surface, too. Their consequences often aren’t discovered until millions of dollars have gone to waste. While technology has helped raise the productivity of many plants and distribution centers, there are still plenty of wasteful accounting practices that should be targeted. Robert Humphrey, chief operating officer of Humphrey Products, says U.S. companies have been doing such a great job improving plant productivity that manufacturing represents only 6.6 percent of a company’s costs.

"It drives me nuts when I read about manufacturers going to Mexico or China," he told me. "Why? For 6.6 percent?"

A perfect example of wasteful paper-pushing was discussed at a ProMat session on lift truck fleet management. Warren Eck of Yale Material Handling explained how the paperwork alone can cost companies $90 per purchase order.

Lowes Home Improvement, with 820 locations, saves $2 million a month in administration costs by using fleet management services. It has nothing to do with maintenance, but with how they do business upstairs, Yale's president, Donald Chance, explained to me. All they had to do was centralize fleet management instead of relying on separate service centers.

That's innovative thinking; looking at a problem and seeing a solution beneath the surface. Just as material handling innovation is not always recognized at the technology level, it also goes unnoticed at the management level — where you reside. Tired of being Mr. or Ms. Cellophane? Shoot me an e-mail and tell me what you've done to make your company more productive. MHM’s editors will profile the top material handling innovators later this year and toast their achievements at an awards banquet during the NA/2004 show in Cleveland next March. Show your CEO what it means to have you inside. [email protected]

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