Take an Active Role in Material Handling Control

May 1, 2003
Dr. Usher teaches university courses in quality control, reliability and maintainability, engineering economics, facilities location and layout, and fundamentals

Dr. Usher teaches university courses in quality control, reliability and maintainability, engineering economics, facilities location and layout, and fundamentals of industrial engineering. He has provided consulting services to a variety of organizations such as IBM, Quaker Oats, KFC, American Air Filter, the Material Handling Industry of America, Brown & Williamson, and the U.S. Navy.

Dr. Usher has been actively involved in the Institute of Industrial Engineers, and serves as the immediate past president of the College Industry Council on Material Handling Education (CICMHE). He is a licensed professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. You can visit his web site at http://www.louisville.edu/~jsushe01, but first, here's the complete text from our interview. -- Tom Andel, chief editor.

MHM: How would you characterize what's happening in material handling today compared to maybe 20 years ago?

Usher: You're seeing more people who don't want to buy gigantic systems that they don't understand and that they can't modify. Systems have gotten much more flexible. People are realizing that flexibility is more important than one-time optimal performance. They want a system that can be changed easily without a lot of headaches. The only way to do that is to distribute the control down to a lower level. Rather than having deeply imbedded control logic that's so far removed from the user, you place it down on a PC level, where a person can go in and change the operation of the system themselves without having to get the company engineers to fly in to do that work. Any time you make systems easier to use people are more apt to use them.

MHM: Give us an example.

Usher: Look at global positioning systems. Tons of people have GPS now -- hikers, bikers, campers. They're even going into cars, because they've made the technology easy to understand and use.

MHM: What flexible innovations in material handling have impressed you lately?

Usher: I saw a cross belt sorter that does not have motors on the cross belt sections. Just one big drive motor powers all the cross belts together and when it reaches a destination that it wants to activate, it flips up these plates underneath that catch on a roller and spin things off. That's unique because it's less maintenance, it's simpler, and quieter.

MHM: There seem to be many innovative ways to automatically sort products these days.

Usher: Something that does something better but not as reliably is not true innovation. You need improved performance and reliability to be a true innovation. Going from a vacuum tube to a transistor was true innovation. Just building something faster or bigger, that sorts more packages, isn't innovative unless it also improves uptime and lowers maintenance costs.

MHM: You spoke about that at a Material Handling Industry of America meeting last year, as I recall.

Usher: Yes, [MHIA executive vice president] Dick Ward wants to push the idea of an industry standard reliability testing document. I told him based on the reception I got last time, I don't think the OEMs are interested because customers aren't demanding that. Until customers start saying, "I'm not going to buy your product because your competitor proved theirs is more reliable," I don't think they'll be visionary to perceive the need to generate this document until it's right in their face and they have to. Customers have to be savvy about how they automate. Systems are so complicated that they tell the vendor "Give us what we want, build it, install it and make sure it works." They don't have enough knowledge to define very rigid reliability requirements. They don't buy system after system. When the government buys fighter planes, they have rigid reliability specs because they've bought fighter planes many times. A customer buys one of these big material handling systems once in their lifetime, so they don't have enough experience.

MHM: How do you specify reliability?

Usher: Uptime is a function of repair, rarely a function of how often it fails. If it fails often but you can repair it in five minutes because you have the control program on your PC and you know how it works, it's not a big deal. It's when it fails and you have to fly guys in to fix it, then you have serious system problems. A lot of the quality aspects of these systems revolve around how long it takes to repair. So the move to put controls in the user's hands and make systems simpler to get back up and running is the way to go.

MHM: Is that happening in industry?

Usher: The other night I was watching a TV special about how these machines that excavate coal were built bigger and bigger to get more and more production out of them. They were building them so big the users couldn't maintain them or keep them running. They were getting so huge that to change a bearing or motor required another machine of equal size. The material handling industry got caught up in that years ago. But today's customer wants smaller, more elegant design that's easy to repair and reconfigure, able to be disassembled and moved. If I'm going to spend all this on this system I'll have to be able to modify it.

These conglomerations of technologies may work for a while, but you end up with offices filled with operations and maintenance manuals from 16 different vendors as well as 16 different software programs. That's what people are trying to get away from.