Quaint is the Pioneer’s Curse

Oct. 3, 2013
In noting the passing of industry pioneers, their early breakthroughs seem quaint as technology evolves exponentially.

We just posted the obituary of another material handling pioneer: Joseph A. Sedlak, founder of the Cleveland, Ohio-based consultancy that bears his last name. After posting the item, I thought I’d go back into our archive and see what I could find to give Sedlak’s passing a bit more context. In doing so, another pioneer’s name came up: Bernie Knill, my mentor and chief editor of MH&L’s ancestor, Material Handling Engineering, for four decades. Bernie died in January of 2010.

What I found bearing both of their names is a piece Bernie wrote on parcel sortation. While it only dates back one decade, it’s indicative of how much has happened in those ten years from a technology perspective. In the following excerpt, Bernie quotes Joe Sedlak’s son, Patrick, who is now co-owner of his father’s company. Bernie sets the quote up by writing, “Sortation is not the only decision you have to make in planning a parcel distribution center. A fairly recent option -- and opportunity - involves the Internet.” Then he offers Patrick’s speculation about it:

"Suppose you're a company that markets through catalogs and you ship a lot of parcels to your customers, using different outbound carriers. The ability to get that barcode into all the carriers' systems and track that parcel to their door is very important. Shippers are doing that by integrating a single bar code into their systems and making the information available, either on the Internet or sending it by e-mail. So the Internet is something you have to think about when you install a distribution system. Information flow is what is going to separate you from competitors in the marketplace."

While that last sentence still holds true ten years later, isn’t it funny how quaint that paragraph reads? Referring to the web as “the Internet” and citing its place along with e-mail as the primary means for communicating with supply chain partners—using bar codes. And the idea of getting a barcode into “all the carriers’ systems”—at a time when parcel carriers were more numerous than just UPS and FedEx. Ten years later we’re talking about omni-channel fulfillment, same-day service via e-commerce and shipment visibility made possible by customers seeing into their suppliers’ enterprises—through a cloud.

Think how weird those sentences would have sounded ten years ago.

Editor’s note to whoever ends up writing my obit: don’t quote anything I wrote about technology.