A Quest for Innovation

April 1, 2004
To quest is to seek. To question is to start the journey.

So I'm driving to the I-X Center here in Cleveland to cover the opening day of NA 2004, MHIA’s material handling and logistics show and conference. On the radio, two DJs are talking about what's going on in town and they mention NA. My ears perk up because when do you hear the words "material handling" used together on morning drive radio? Never. So, naturally the question arose: "What's material handling?"

Some of the best innovations in material handling started with such smart questions. While at NA, I thought I’d look for prime examples. There were too many to mention in this space, so I’ll cite two, representing the range from sophisticated to simple.

SI Handling’s vice president of production and assembly systems, Bill Casey, offered the former. The folks at Harley-Davidson wanted to improve ergonomics on their motorcycle assembly lines so there’d be less strain on the workforce. They were also interested in increasing productivity. The smart question: If you could take X number of seconds out of 100 workstations over the course of two shifts, seven days a week, how would that aid health and productivity? Harley assembled a team of factory engineers, line workers, union representatives and safety specialists. Together they generated more what-if questions that led them and SI to come up with a series of programmable workstations that automatically adjust to the physical characteristics of the worker at each station. That translates to higher productivity with less strain on the worker.

Keith Soderlund, sales manager at Creform Corporation, gave me the simpler, but no less ingenious example coming out of Boeing. Creform makes modular, custom-configurable material handling systems of plastic-coated pipes, metal and plastic joints and accessories. Boeing wanted to know if it could make in-process component kits slide in and out of kitting carts more smoothly. The innovative answer took the form of a tapered clip that replaced the standard clip used to join mating sections of the cart. It eliminated the abrupt edge that was causing the kits to get hung up. This simple change contributed to a smoother operation and better productivity.

Such discussions about innovation went well beyond show hours. That night, at MHM’s Innovation Awards banquet, I got into a conversation about radio frequency identification (RFID) with Jim Bennett, vice president of sales and dealer development for The Raymond Corporation. What could a lift truck maker contribute to the field of RFID?

"There’s nothing we can do to change what the RFID equipment and the software can do," Bennett acknowledged. "The only thing a lift truck manufacturer can do is determine where you put the equipment."

There’s still much to be learned about how RFID technology behaves under various circumstances. Raymond is asking the necessary questions about equipment interfaces while collaborating with Connect Logistics and IconNicholson in a "living laboratory" setting. What this team knows is that lift trucks generate electromagnetic fields. What they need to know is, will these fields interfere with the RFID equipment and will the RFID equipment interfere with the intelligent controls of the lift truck?

"We’re sending signals saying stop this, do this, manage that, and we need to understand how adding RFID equipment affects that," Bennett told me.

The questions today’s material handling innovators are raising, simple and complex, will have an impact on every industry and every sector of our economy. We’re already seeing the effects reported in business publications such as Industry Week, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. Maybe the next time "material handling" gets air time on morning drive radio, the DJs will know what they’re talking about.

Tom Andel, chief editor, [email protected]

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