New Inspiration From The Old Denver Airport Disaster

Jan. 1, 2004
Good behind-the-scenes material handling never gets credit.

Ten years ago people wondered whether the Denver International Airport would ever open; now the story is all about making the airport secure.

Ten years ago was 1994 and Material Handling Management (then Material Handling Engineering) reported how a low-tech conveyor system from Rapistan (now Siemens Dematic, Material Handling Automation Division) came to the rescue of a high-tech cart system for handling baggage.

Remember how material handling made headlines - all unfavorable -- in USA Today, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal? Today the Transportation Security Administration is installing in-line baggage screening equipment and the story doesn't rate coverage by any newspaper.

Remember how reporters were invited to watch the trial run of the cart system, which responded by chewing up the demonstration luggage? As MHE reported, "For TV camera people, it must have been more fun than a fire."

The original cart system cost $192 million and Rapistan's conveyor system that got the airport open cost $33,375 million. (?) Two contracts awarded to Siemens Dematic to incorporate inline baggage screening will cost only $86 million - screening equipment and conveyors being less expensive than all those carts and tracks.

So what did become of the original 3,500 carts that were supposed to pick up luggage on the fly at 19 mph? Last I heard the system was downsized to 400 carts leased to United exclusively and used for outbound luggage only.

There are some lessons that material handling innovators should take from the Denver airport experience and apply to their own systems plans:

-- Put your biggest effort into up-front planning. Form teams of material handling engineers, software engineers, controls engineers, operations managers and maintenance professionals from both the user's and the vendor's organization.

-- Lock up the design of the material handling system before the architects finalize the building. In an airport, don't let the location of an atrium or a walkway dictate how you're going to move baggage.

-- Software is too important to be left to programmers. Work out the software architecture in team sessions that cover all the "what if" questions. Maintain tight control over software design; don't let anybody mess with it on the job.

As you may recall, empty cart management software failure was a major factor in the Denver disaster. I'm sure that today's software engineers have better control over their design efforts (although the advice about up-front planning and architects still stands).

Tracking is important to security. Ten-head arrays of laser scanners continuously track the progress of the bags as they're conveyed. The specification required Siemens to reach an accuracy of 99 percent with no misreads. A graphic monitoring system has its own remote baggage control room. It's something to keep in mind next time you check your luggage at the Denver airport.

But the fallout of Denver International Airport's baggage disaster is still with us. There are still some executives in industry who think that material handling systems are not to be trusted.

Airports are affected more than industry. Dave Bowman, vice president and division manager of sortation and distribution systems at Beumer Corporation, tells me that some dozen cart systems have been implemented since Denver. Says Bowman: "These successful projects utilized basic material handling technologies that range from nearly identical (passive, dumb carts) to radically different (active, intelligent carts) than that implemented at DIA. Most notable in all of this is that none of the new projects were in the U.S.; they were all international projects, with Europe claiming the largest share."

Concludes Bowman: "My point in all of this is that for the U.S. baggage handling industry, a good idea that is badly implemented is too often only remembered as a bad idea.

"Once this is done, it can be a generation before someone comes along who is bright enough or naïve enough to revisit the technology as an option for consideration."

Maybe the most important lesson to be learned from the failure of the baggage handling system at Denver airport 10 years ago is that courage is an innovator's most valuable asset.

Bernie Knill, contributing editor

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