When asked to write an article on the State of the Industry, my initial question was �where do I begin?� The subject is so broad, the options are without limit. Perhaps we could focus on distribution and more specifically, materials handling logistics.
The industry definition of materials handling logistics is the movement, storage, control and protection of materials and products throughout the process of manufacture, distribution, consumption and disposal. Today�s materials handling applications in distribution continue to push the envelope and stretch the imaginations of the companies whose job it is to �get the right material to the right place, at the right time, in the right quantity, at the right cost.�
According to the US Department of Commerce and Bureau of Labor Statistics, material handling logistics is one of America�s largest and fastest growing industries. The implementation of material handling equipment and systems in America exceeds $60 billion per year, and producers are employing in excess of 300,000 workers.
Integration is the future
Material handling logistics is a complete process, which includes a wide range of integrated technologies and services. This is where the Integrated Systems & Controls Council (ISC) of the Materials Handling Industry plays a major role.
The five major types of material transport equipment comprising the materials handling system are industrial trucks, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), monorails and other rail-guided vehicles, conveyors, cranes and hoists.
Automatic identification systems are comprised of human- and nonhuman-dependent scanning equipment. Human-dependent scanners are usually handheld and require the human to locate a barcoded label or tag, initiate the scanning and wait for the feedback acknowledgement. These scanners can be online, batch oriented or communicate via radio frequency. Nonhuman-dependent scanning is typically laser-based scanner equipment located along an automated production or distribution line which automatically identifies a barcoded label or tag on-the-fly. Arrays of single-beam (line) scanners and/or omnidirectional scanners in a �tunnel� configuration provide the capability of reading barcode labels or tags on any side of a parcel.
Other types of symbols are finding acceptance in manufacturing and distribution operations. These two-dimensional (2D) symbols efficiently compact hundreds of characters of data into a very small area and are read by vision systems. Although the vision technology continues to evolve for parcel handling applications, 2D symbologies with vision-based recognition systems have become predominant in the semiconductor/electronic components, pharmaceutical and automotive industries. Each industry is similarly based on the identification, inspection and tracking of a component�s entire lifecycle history.
ISC member companies are industry leaders representing the integrated material handling and control systems industry. These companies are concerned, conscientious manufacturers whose dedication to the materials handling industry provides voluntary standards for the mechanical, structural and electrical design of integrated material handling and control systems and formulates industry guidelines for the proper use, operation and maintenance of those systems.
Information takes us further
A variety of changes are occurring and will continue to impact material handling equipment and systems into the new millennium. We will continue to see a shift toward the broader use of equipment and automation in existing facilities rather than new plant capital spending. The materials handling industry will continue to evolve productivity-enhancing technology to speed production and distribution operations, improve yields, maintain quality, ensure information integrity, reduce the cost of ownership, increase return on investment and guarantee customer satisfaction.
Breakthroughs in the information revolution will continue the proliferation of electronic commerce which has brought together the concurrence of goods and information as material and data move along the supply channel.
In particular, the Internet will begin to stimulate a different set of business practices among manufacturers, distributors and consumers. In less than four years, electronic commerce in goods and services is expected to reach $350 billion annually in the US, nearly a ten-fold increase over 1999 projections. For many years, companies have used electronic data interchange (EDI) to speed order communications, reduce labor costs and minimize human errors in the ordering process. Unfortunately, EDI has been affordable to only large companies handling high volumes of goods. The lack of affordability of EDI by the average company can be readily associated with the high cost of adding trading partners to the network.
Electronic commerce (e-commerce) via the Internet, however, provides the small- to average-sized company a low-cost alternative of efficiently being linked to a gigantic, global communications and commerce center. An entirely new line of thinking, driven by the Internet, is evolving to address more efficient techniques of handling and shipping products to improve delivery cycles, placing inventory in motion, providing more flexible manufacturing and developing information systems to support these operations.
As manufacturers of products in the materials handling industry, we have become extremely sensitive to customer satisfaction. As an example, consumers can now easily track and locate their packages being handled by a major parcel distribution company over the Internet. Airline passengers can be assured of the location of their baggage based on data captured by automatic identification equipment. From a retail perspective, will a prospective customer find the right item, in the right color and the right size on the shelf for purchase and if not, how quickly can the store obtain the product through its channels?
These customer satisfaction initiatives can only be achieved with the availability of several key technologies working together and forming an integrated automated system. First, the material handling system gets the product to the right place. Secondly, the automatic identification system ensures the right product in the right quantity. Thirdly, the control system makes sure the product gets to its destination at the right time. And finally, the information and communications system coordinates the other technologies into an integrated automated system.
Keeping up with speed
Since high-volume materials handling systems have broken the 500 feet-per-minute barrier, control systems have had to keep pace with database lookup speed and deterministic response time. Products travelling a little more than eight  feet per second cannot wait long for the control system to activate a diverter before the parcel has passed the decision point. Remote high-speed processing or localized data-bases are the answers for keeping pace with the speed of transport.
Information and communication systems coordinate the information gathered by each of the system components. A variety of networked and non-networked communications techniques have become available and standardization will be mandatory in the future. Ethernet TCP/IP, DeviceNet, Data Highway, SDS, Profibus, to name a few, are all vying for dominance in the material handling systems arena.
Throughout the balance of 1999 and well into the new millennium, the continued restructuring and realigning of the industry will provide substantial real growth potential for material handling equipment and systems providers helping to keep the material handling logistics industry one of America�s largest and fastest growing entities.
Frank C. Goodfinger is vice president, Strategic Partnerships for RVSI Acuity CiMatrix, inventor of the Data Matrix symbology and Code 128. Frank also serves as chairman, Integrated Systems & Control Council (ISC) of the Material Handling Industry. Contact him at 800-669-5234 or fgoodfinger@cimatrix.com or visit the company on the Web atwww.rvsi.com/cimatrix/cimatrix.html.