Trade Resources Industry Views Materials Handling Systems Are Faced with More Complex Order Fulfillment and Challenges

Materials Handling Systems Are Faced with More Complex Order Fulfillment and Challenges

When I was a kid, my Dad often told me I could work hard or I could work smart. Truth be told, that lesson was sometimes slow to sink in. But it's one the end users of materials handling systems appear to be taking to heart as they are faced with more complex order fulfillment and distribution challenges than ever before.

Get Smart: Boost Your Supply Chain iQ is also the theme of the annual Material Handling & Logistics conference sponsored by Dematic in Park City, Utah.

Full disclosure: I served on the advisory committee that helped plan this year's conference. That said, I've been attending the event off and on for the past ten years. In addition to a beautiful setting, I never fail to leave Park City without at least half a dozen ideas to think and write about over the next twelve months.

Based on the attendees I've had a chance to talk to, we're all trying to work smarter. At dinner last night, I had a chance to speak to a senior executive for a leading 3PL who is exploring the use of robotics and automatic lift trucks in his facilities. These pilot programs aren't yet ready for prime time, but they give a glimpse of what distribution facilities might look like in the future if the technologies prove themselves under real world conditions. He linked it to the need to lean out his operations in a way that delivers real value to his customers, and not just cutting costs. In other words, working smarter.

That idea was also expressed by attendees who introduced themselves at the opening session. Asked why they were there, a significant percentage of attendees said they were there to "stay ahead of the curve," as a representative from Kohl's put it. "We're in growth mode coming out of the recession and need to look at automation," or some variation, was another common theme.

Working smarter with the right balance of conventional processes, software and automation technologies was also the theme of the three sessions I attended this morning.

Mike Lawson, an engineer with Merit Medical, a medical device manufacturer from Salt Lake City, explained why his firm installed a multi-shuttle storage and picking system to stage molded parts coming from one line until they are delivered just-in-time to the final assembly line. "Our old system of manually storing and picking molded parts was labor intensive and inaccurate," Lawson said. The software-driven solution has reduced labor requirements, especially on second and third shifts which are hard to staff, and increased accuracy.

I also had a chance to listen as Dalen Mathys-Cook, an executive with Peapod, detailed the process her team followed to strike a balance between conventional processes and highly-automated processes in the design for a new facility the online grocer is building in New Jersey. What's more impressive is how Peapod synchronizes the fulfillment of complex orders with a very short cycle time that can be delivered to a customer's home or one of more than 60 pickup points.

The last session I sat through this morning was a glimpse of where supply chain management is headed in the future. Nancy Greis, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, described the work she and her colleagues are doing with leading companies to use business intelligence to manage the supply chain from end-to-end. Boeing, for instance, has outfitted its airplanes with more than 3,000 sensors and RFID tags that are sending real-time operational data to monitoring systems on the ground. That allows Boeing to identify a potential maintenance issue while an aircraft is in flight and coordinate the delivery of the parts to technicians who can address the issue once the plane lands. "We are on the cusp of a revolution in business intelligence," Dr. Greis said. "We have new tools to manage large scale data sent from our supply chains in a world of smart products and systems."

Working smart, rather than hard, sounds smart to me. 

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Automation: It's Time to Get Smart About Materials Handling
Topics: Machinery