Editorial: Has 'Material Handling' Lost Its Sex Appeal?

Oct. 1, 2005
Is material handling just a necessary evil, a non-core function to be outsourced if at all possible?

At a recent industry meeting one of the college professors in attendance said,“There’s no way I would put ‘material handling’ in any course title.” No students would sign up, he said. Material handling is just not sexy.

“Logistics” still holds some attraction. Another academic in attendance at the meeting said he uses the phrase “facility logistics” to describe his operation management courses that cover the activities within warehouses and distribution centers, including facility design, conveyor types and applications, automation options, lift truck management, cross docking and other topics.

Of course “supply chain” anything is hot these days, hotter than logistics (witness the metamorphosis of the Council of Logistics Management into the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals). This popularity owes something to the primetime advertising campaigns from the likes of IBM that have created an awareness in the general population that the supply chain is important and fun, and a place where smart people can make their mark.

Is material handling fun? There’s no question it’s important. Goods will always have to be moved on and off of trucks and ships, to and from storage, and from one value-added process in a factory to the next. Information technology and the hardware to support it will always have to keep up with this flow of material.

There’s no question it takes management talent to run a factory or any type of distribution or warehouse operation. Facility managers have to prioritize opportunities for improvement and budget accordingly. They must establish organizational objectives and individual performance goals, and motivate all employees to achieve efficiency and cost reduction targets.

It also takes technical talent to establish optimal material flows, specify the appropriate levels of automation, and construct racking in accordance with building codes. It takes expertise to develop or specify the necessary software capabilities for tracking inventory, and to get all of this technology and equipment to work together. As the final touch point before goods are shipped off to customers, material handlers can definitely make a mark on company performance and profitability. Too often this mark is made when something goes awry. But just as they pay attention to product quality, customers notice delivery performance that exceeds their expectations. A positive experience—or a “delightful” one, to use popular business terminology— drives word of mouth, and keeps customers coming back for more.

Still, from a corporate perspective, is material handling just a necessary evil, as one observer recently characterized the entire order fulfillment process to me? A non-core function to be outsourced if at all possible? A business activity that’s not worthy of college-level coursework or specialization?

These are important questions for the industry. For obvious reasons material handling’s perceived importance to manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers and logistics service providers, is a significant question for Material Handling Management magazine, which marks its 60th anniversary with this issue.

Interestingly, the title of this magazine when it was launched was Flow. The somewhat abstract name still describes the fundamental goal of moving material and information: don’t let anything sit still in one place for very long. (Marketing slogan: “Go with the Flow.”) As apropos as it might have been to those in the know, as a magazine title Flow could have been about narrative poetry, hydrological engineering or hydraulic valves. The magazine title eventually gave way to Material Handling Engineering, a more descriptive title that went to the heart of the inventory handling processes and technology that the magazine covered. That coverage continues to this day, augmented by a management focus that emphasizes the business benefit of a new distribution center, a sortation system or a warehouse management software implementation.

It’s our job to make material handling as sexy as we can by uncovering the latest technology and inventory management techniques, and reporting those stories in a style that is fresh and appealing. We strive to instill our coverage of the industry with the same ingenuity, excitement and intelligence that we find when we’re out visiting facilities and talking to the people who manage them.

Yes, “material handling” has lost some of its sex appeal in some circles. But regardless of course names or job titles, the function remains critically important to operational success. It attracts many talented people and it inspires a nonstop stream of technological innovation. These factors and others make material handling a fun industry to be part of, an industry that we’re proud to call our own.