Tomorrow's MH Systems Will Be Like John Hill Self-Made

Nov. 1, 2004
Hill is a material handling pioneer, but his frontier is the future, he says there's nanotechnology in yours.

"The advancement of the arts from year to year taxes our credulity. It seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end."

This was written by Henry Ellsworth, the first commissioner of Patents, in the 1843 Annual Report of the Patent Office. Decades later, his sentiments were gradually corrupted into the now infamous quote:

"Everything that can be invented has already been invented."

More than 160 years have passed, and there have been enough advancements in material handling alone that if Ellsworth were alive today he'd die of embarrassment (if not old age). Some of the most innovative of material handling's pioneers are still with us. MHM honored a few of them last year as part of its first Material Handling Innovation Awards program.

John Hill

This year MHM honors another pioneering innovator: John Hill of the supply chain consulting and systems integration firm, ESYNC.

Hill's roots
With more than 30 years in logistics, Hill has led the implementation of more than 70 systems involving automatic identification and data collection (AIDC), including bar coding and radio frequency identification (RFID), as well as warehouse management systems (WMS) and transportation management systems (TMS). His customers are leaders in the aerospace, appliance, automotive, basic metals, consumer goods, electronics, food and medical products industries.

"Some of the things under way in imaging technology will lead to the ultimate replacement of laser scanning in virtually all applications. The laser scanner has been the workhorse of the bar code industry since the 1970s."

Hill began his career with 3M Company (International), and has been an officer at Computer Identics Corporation (1970s bar code pioneer) and Eaton-Kenway (AS/RS pioneer) as well as COO of IDX (1980s RFID pioneer) and CEO of Logisticon (first WMS supplier).

He was a co-founder of the Automatic Identification Manufacturers (AIM) Trade Association and is a charter member of AIDC 100, an association of professionals who have contributed to the advancement of the industry.

A former president of the Material Handling Education Foundation Inc. (MHEFI) and the Material Handling Institute Inc. (MHI), Hill also cofounded-MHIA's Supply Chain Systems & Technologies-group. He received the Norman L. Cahners award for contributions to the U.S. material handling industry and material handling education, and this year he was awarded the distinguished Reed-Apple Award by MHEFI for his contributions to material handling and material handling education.

As part of his commitment to furthering material handling education, John serves on the faculty of The Logistics Institute at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Data collection today
Ask John Hill which of his adopted disciplines shows the most promise for future innovation, and he'll take you on a verbal guided tour of AIDC.

"Some of the things under way in imaging technology will lead to the ultimate replacement of laser scanning in virtually all applications," Hill says. "The laser scanner has been the workhorse of the bar code industry since the 1970s. There have been enormous innovations moving from tube-type helium neon lasers to visible laser diodes which are used in many products. We moved from a rotating prism to create the flying spot back in the 1970s to various kinds of oscillating devices that generate a flying spot or moving beam to do the scanning. These are much less expensive, have a longer life and get the job done more cost-effectively than their predecessors."

Today, Hill maintains, devices not only use imaging technology to read bar codes, but to scan inbound loads for more accurate documentation.

"If that load is damaged you can take a picture of it, fire it off electronically to the shipper and keep a record for your own purposes," he explains.

Hill was even involved in an innovative system financing model that helped clients justify investment.

"We knew we had something good, and we could get people excited about bar coding when we were passionate in our presentations, but no one was buying," he recalls. "I think back to Buick in 1971. During that courtship, it became quickly obvious to us that we were never going to sell scanning by itself, out of the box. Without a system behind it, bar coding is only an interesting novelty. At the time, although Buick was intrigued, they had no interest in interfacing a scanner to their existing plant system. We, on the other hand, had people in-house who were systemssavvy and could take the output from a scanner and do something meaningful with it in the context of production control and in-process accounting. Clearly, if we did it on our own, Buick was interested, but, in their view, the price was too high. We wound up leasing the package to them with an option to buy. We were hoping they would keep the darn thing for at least six months because then we might break even.

"Buick bought the system about the fourth or fifth month because its performance exceeded our mutual expectations. The lease-buy option approach turned out to be a win-win for both of us. We learned a lot through that entire process and by the time the system was purchased, we had teamed on enhancements that contributed greatly to the success of the project and its subsequent roll-out to other GM divisions."

You need a champion
Hill's trial-and-error experiences have been replicated many times and in many industries since then. It marked the beginning of a new approach to system solutions, combining the vendor's capabilities with those of an innovation champion on the end-user side.

"That can't be overemphasized," Hill says. "You have to find someone who shares your excitement about innovation, who sees the end result clearly and is willing to work with you to make it happen."

Is that happening today? "I see less willingness on the part of users today to take chances," he answers. "Customers are far more conservative than they used to be."

Hill doesn't believe we'll fall back into the "Everything that can be invented has already been invented" mindset, though. There's still too much in material handling that needs to be accomplished.

Excitement ahead
Two technologies for which Hill has a lot of hope are nanotechnology and object-oriented programming.

"Nanotechnology would probably make material handling systems more replicable, less costly and smaller from the data capture perspective," he concludes. "If you look at RFID and the electronic product code [EPC] concept of global tracking, systems are going to have to be far more sophisticated, faster and more adaptable than they are today to take advantage of the information. Not everyone will buy the same computer system or the same software, so it will have to be adaptable to a myriad of programs and networking concepts."

Hill speaks from experience. He embarked on an ambitious project in the late 1980s in an early application of object-oriented programming. The idea was to develop a WMS into which a user could input data relative to profiling current and projected warehouse activity, taking into account product mix and volumes, equipment and human resources, and out of the program would pop alternatives for changing the physical infrastructure and deploying staff to optimize throughput. The program would then automatically generate and configure a WMS to actually manage and further enhance performance in the new environment.

A material handling system that regenerates itself? Sounds like Hal in 2001 a Space Odyssey, but let's call it Hill's 2005 MH Prophecy. The Hill version comes with a happy ending.

(If you'd like to read MHM's full interview with Hill, go to www.

About the Author

Tom Andel | Editor-in-Chief

Tom Andel is an award-winning editorial content creator and manager with more than 35 years of industry experience. His writing spans several industrial disciplines, including power transmission, industrial controls, material handling & logistics, and supply chain management. 

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