Chain of Thought

Industrial Batteries Boring? Not to an Astronaut.

I never thought material handling and logistics were rocket science until I met an astronaut. I didn't have to go far to do that. He was in the same room I was earlier this week, listening to a presentation on batteries for industrial vehicles. It was at HK Systems' – I mean, Dematic's – Material Handling and Logistics Conference held in Park City Utah, that I met Jerry Linenger. He was the lone American on a 5-month mission aboard the Russian Space Station Mir in 1997. It was bad enough being away from his wife and family all that time, but a fire aboard the space station required him to not only think strategically, but also to think about the prospect that he might never see his family again.

So here was this retired United States Navy flight surgeon and NASA astronaut who holds doctorates in both medicine and research methodology, as well as dual master's degrees in systems management and health policy, sitting in on a conference session on industrial batteries. Why?

Well, the fact that he was the speaker at the Conference's luncheon a couple hours later was one big reason. Still, he didn't have to attend any of the sessions that morning. He could have just made his speech, taken his fee, and ran. Or, he could have sat in on another session held at the same time that seemed to be a better match to his experiences in the NASA space program: “Understanding and Balancing Project Management Risk,” presented by an MIT professor.

But no, here he was, absorbing all he could about lead acid batteries, NiCads, lithium ions, and fuel cells. Why?

Well, aside from the fact that astronauts owe their life support to space-age battery technology, scientists in general and astronauts in particular are curious lot. They like to compare notes about what they know about something to what other professionals know about that same something. During this session, he heard Mats Herrstromer, HK's battery specialist, detail the pluses and minuses of the different energy sources available to power automatic guided vehicles and lift trucks. Here were some of the key takeaways:

Although lead acid batteries aren't as energy dense as other power sources, they are the lowest cost and most available. Sealed lead acid batteries cost more than flooded lead acid but cost less to maintain. Nickel-Cadmium batteries are good for more charge/discharge cycles, but again, more expensive. Lithium-ion have three times the energy density of lead acid, and manufacturers promise a 10-year life, but Mr. Herrstromer suggests we wait until they've been tested for ten years in lift trucks and AGVs until we buy into that promise. And fuel cells? Too expensive, he said. The hydrogen infrastructure is too undeveloped, and they're not yet sized for peak usage applications, he added.

Bottom line: Until the automotive world brings the cost of lithium ion batteries down, lead acid will probably still be the way to go in terms of cost and availability.

When it came time for Jerry Linenger to make his after-lunch presentation, he covered some of the strategic and tactical challenges of conducting science in space, but he also told this audience of logistics professionals from all walks of industry about the importance of meeting business challenges with the same passion as those challenges that are life challenging and life changing. Hearing him talk about the fragility of life support in space and how he coped with it made me understand why he might want to broaden his knowledge about power sources—even those as seemingly mundane as found in lift trucks.

I won't go into the details of Dr. Linenger's talk here. He did present a probing question to his audience, however: If you could view the earth from space, would you feel big or small? You can read about his life-changing mission in two books: “Off the Planet” and “Letters from Mir: An Astronaut's Letters to His Son.” But I got an even sharper glimpse of his character when I saw him later that day, sitting down to dinner with representatives from Shaw Carpeting, Dematic clients, talking about the challenges of the carpet business as well as the challenges of raising a family.

I don't know whether Dr. Linenger felt big or small while looking out the Mir's window at all of us 13 years ago, but I know what I saw when I watched him soak up all the science and fellowship he could at this logistics conference. Character. And it was larger than life.

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