An Open Letter to an Old Friend

June 1, 2003
You're welcome to share in this intervention.

Dear Art:

I need to tell you some things you won’t like hearing. But if an old friend won’t tell you, who will? You and I go way back, pal. In 1980 we were both indoctrinated into a new era. I was new to material handling, but you were reborn to it. We both became infatuated with high technology. The bigger the automated storage and retrieval system, the better. Sophistication was in.

Where did that get us?

We’re smack dab in the middle of 2003, the economy is flat, and companies are afraid of making capital expenditures -- especially on sophisticated technology. And guess what. I don't blame them. Do you know how The American College Dictionary defines the verb “sophisticate?” It says: “to make less natural, simple or ingenuous. To mislead or pervert.”

How many times have we both used the word “sophisticated” to talk about system implementations? Too many. It's come back to bite us. And I’m sorry to say, people are starting to say nasty things about you behind your back.

Do you realize how many barriers stand between you and the rest of our readers? Dick Ward, executive v.p. of professional development for the Material Handling Industry of America, listed some of them at the MHIA’s spring meeting. The list is from a survey of this year's ProMat attendees. Topping the list of things that have kept people away from you were “inability to justify” and “too complex to operate/maintain.” Just so you know, a lot of technology vendors talked about this at the spring meeting to strategize how these perceptions about you can be changed.

But now that I have your attention, what do you say we make a Mid-Year resolution? Let's rally around the word “simplicity.” That's defined as “easy to understand, deal with and use.” You've heard the expression, “Keep it simple, Stupid?” Well, Art, consider this a KISS-off letter. I’m sending it off to you and any of your adherents in material handling who still haven't gotten the message. If you’re going to flourish, you’ll have to show those ProMat technophobes that their perception of you is not reality any more. In fact the most cutting-edge material handling technologies are designed for ease of use. That applies to AS/RS, automatic guided vehicle systems and conveyor systems as much as it does to lift trucks.

Oh, and that reminds me, Art. About those lift trucks. Did you know that regulators are trying to design-in a level of application “sophistication” that no user will appreciate? It’s happening on the left coast. The California Air Resources Board -- you know, CARB -- wants to ban the use of internal-combustion-engine lift trucks of 8,000 pounds capacity or less after January 1, 2005. That’s the heart of many OEM lines, IC and electric! These bureaucrats could have just specified emission standards and been done with it, but no, that wasn’t enough for the CARB-raters. They’re into “prescriptive” solutions. Even after shelling out $2 million in enticement funding to get IC users to switch to electrics, there were only 200 conversions. The Industrial Truck Association says that probably represents less than one percent of the IC models sold in California during that trial period.

You’re good, Art, but I’ll bet even you won’t come up with a simple solution to this one for a while. So, while ITA battles with CARB and MHIA wages its PR campaign, let’s resolve that by the end of this year we'll have lived up to our mid-year resolution to deep-six sophistication for sophistication’s sake and celebrate simplicity. That’s the state of the Art I know and love.

See you soon, I hope. Oh, and give my best to your partner, Science, will you?

Tom Andel, chief editor [email protected]