Bring High-Tech Down to Earth

There's a lot of sophisticated material handling equipment spotlighted in this issue. In fact, in putting this issue together I realized that advances in robotics and lift truck attachments are making the stuff we reported on only 10 years ago seem almost quaint by comparison.

For example, a warehouse management system (WMS) used to have complete control of robots. If the WMS went down, a robot was as helpless as I am when trying to reset the password on my Blackberry. That means totally. Today a WMS can delegate autonomous decision pathways to robots. According to RMT Robotics' Bill Torrens, who authored the article on page 30, task driven scenarios can be preprogrammed into management software so that if a deficiency is detected in either a production line or a distribution environment, a robot can autonomously decide how to get product from Point A to Point B without waiting for instructions from the WMS. Fixed robots can call for replenishments to complete their functions and mobile robots can complete the transaction by transporting the needed goods between the stationary ones.

Even lift truck attachments are smarter, as you'll see in our story on page 37. They can send information about the weight they're lifting to the lift truck so the truck can use the data as part of an integrated stability system. One attachment maker offers radio frequency control as an option with some of its sideshifters, eliminating hard wiring.

Very impressive stuff, but it doesn't change the fact that a plain old corrugated box is still what it was a decade ago: the building block of most supply chains. Get packaging wrong, and these sophisticated devices might as well be clothes hangers — kind of like that treadmill in your basement. Every department in a company may have different goals built around their product's box. The goal that dominates can not only determine the cost of packaging, but the effectiveness of these evolving technologies.

Just a few years ago Walmart made a commitment to save $10 billion by reducing packaging by 5%. Jack Ampuja, president of Supply Chain Optimizers, a Buffalo, NY-based consulting company, likes to tell how this retail giant is sharing those savings with suppliers who cooperate with them. In its toy department alone, Jack told me, just by redesigning its packaging for 200 items, Walmart eliminated 727 ocean containers a year.

But a packaging redesign also calls for a re-look at how the new design will affect product protection. Will robots and lift truck attachments make mincemeat out of your corrugated? According to Ampuja, corrugated retains only 70% of its strength after only four days in storage. After 100 days almost half its strength is gone.

That's why the packaging material and the package handling devices you select should be considered in concert. That brings me to Pack Expo — and I hope you too, from October 31 to November 3 at Chicago's McCormick Place. On page 15 you'll see a preview of some of the high-tech stuff I've been talking about. But if you think of this event as just a show, you'll be doing yourself a disservice. Think of it as a lab to test your packaging's compatibility with the new technology.

“We encourage attendees to bring samples of their packaging or their end product so they and the vendors can look at complete supply chain solutions,” says Tom Egan, vice president of industry services for PMMI, Pack Expo's producers. “It's really a huge innovation laboratory where you can say ‘here's what I'm looking to achieve, what can you do to help me?’ This is a great way to begin a discussion so you can narrow down the solutions available to you.”

You may have been thinking about using thinner corrugated or less of it in your secondary packaging. Pack Expo, and in fact, every issue of MH&L, is dedicated to helping you put your business in a supply chain context so you can give such ideas a sanity check. That's a good thing if the speed of technology's evolution is driving you nuts.

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