Solution Is Within the Problem

Transport packaging is key to automated material handling.

Solution Is Within the Problem

Some problems can be anticipated, others cannot. At the ASRS/AGVS Users Group annual conference, a lot of discussion revolved around making do with what you’ve got. I suspect this was a good reflection of the current economy. Except that some of these users had been “making do” since the 1980s. Retrofitting and preventive maintenance were high on everyone’s list as ways to beat unanticipated downtime.

One material handling manager told a story of upgrading the brakes and positioning capabilities of his company’s AS/RS crane. He installed a fancy laser positioning system. Then, on those pleasant Arkansas summer nights, when the boys on the dock left the doors open, moths, attracted by the lights, ventured into the building in multifarious numbers. The moths were particularly attracted to the reflectors of the laser positioning system, thus blocking the path of the beam and challenging the system — to say the least. Oops, hadn’t anticipated that.

I talked with a number of attendees about another problem, one I figured could be anticipated — pallets. From equipment vendors to users, the response was usually a variation of “yeah ... pallets,” usually said with dismay, hatred, fear or confusion.

Pallets figured into a number of challenges for AS/RS users. One manager told me that between the time his system was commissioned and when it went into operation, the company’s product line changed. When the distribution center started receiving unitized product from manufacturing, it discovered that the pallets, specified for the original products, were not robust enough for the new products that would be loaded into the AS/RS. The solution was to add slave pallets to the top deck before putting the new products into the storage system. Fortunately, his pallet supplier was willing to give him credit on the several thousand unusable (for his automated system) pallets. He added he still keeps slave pallets around because of the poor quality of incoming pallets.

Quality. That seemed to be the key complaint among the dozen or so automated equipment makers and users I spoke with. A representative from a well-known manufacturer of automated material handling systems related a story about a dot-com installation (that shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) he was involved with a couple years ago. It seems that during the installation of the machinery, he asked for some product and pallets so on-site testing could be completed. The warehouse manager turned to a subordinate and said, “Go get us some pallets.” The subordinate asked, “What kind?” The boss said, “Whatever the competition is using.”

If this wasn’t so funny it would be frightening. This is an ongoing problem: Packaging requirements are still being specified by corrugated salesman; or pallet purchases are being based on the outdated recommendation of the company’s now-retired purchasing agent.

Too many company managers fail to realize transport packaging and the selection of material used to get the product safely to the consumer are complicated issues. Without knowing the environment the package or unit load will travel through, you can’t make accurate decisions. Knowing where your packages are headed does not necessarily set limitations; it can also give you some advantages. Being cognizant of trends in material and machinery saves your company money. Stay current with innovation in the industry and you’ll head off inappropriate purchases.

Thinking about those moths sneaking into the Arkansas warehouse, I suppose we could solve that problem by revisiting those much-talked-about theories of the lights-out warehouse of 15 years ago. And pallets? Well, some folks will always be in the dark about pallets.

Clyde E. Witt

executive editor

[email protected]

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