Having worked with packaging and material handling equipment manufacturers for a number of years, I have been fortunate to be exposed to the logistic needs of a wide range of industries. They ran the gamut from steel benders to retailers to advanced electronics. More recently, I spent a period of time with one of the first direct market companies to have specialized in e-commerce fulfillment. As I look back over these experiences and then project into the next millennium, there are several things that strike me as indicators of things to come.
Increased data capabilities
The rate at which information technologies are giving us the ability to attach bits of information to everything we come in contact with is accelerating at an exponential rate. First came the ability to embed information in a uniform code, the barcode. Next came 2-D barcodes with an even greater amount of information, then the smart tag and now you can write code to certain types of thread. This means that almost everything we touch in the next century will carry some piece of information. Companies with the ability to harness this information will be the market leaders.
Even more amazing is our changing perception of the time value of information. What we used to wait days or even months for, we now have to have in an instant at our fingertips. I call it �Web-time.� The Internet has given us instant information gratification. This phenomenon has begun to creep into our expectations of instant gratification once we have concluded an e-commerce transaction. Previously, you could process and order, pick and ship within several weeks. Now, if you process an order via the Internet, you had better ship within one to two days or you will lose brand loyalty. After five days, your customer has probably forgotten from whom she ordered. What we are looking at for the next century is an insatiable demand to know exactly where things are in the supply chain at any given moment, in addition to the ability of getting goods to the consumer in the least amount of time possible. This will require an efficient product delivery system.
Pushing for more creativity
The good news is that these demands have pushed us, the suppliers, toward our creative limits in coming up with new developments in information capture technology and material handling technology. The down side is that it has created a deep rift between the suppliers and customers when it comes to working partnerships. In our zeal to fulfill the desires of our end users, we have lost sight of the magnitude of effort and time that goes into implementing a successful supply chain.
We also seem to have lost sight of the fact that it is in both our interests to work through implementation obstacles. More and more frequently I hear that resolution is the venue of the lawyers, not the customer and supplier. We would rather spend immense amounts of time and money proving a point rather than solving an implementation problem. Soon we will have to face the folly of this type of relationship and will have to come to terms with an efficient way to work together again as an integrated team.
Looking to the future
Having had numerous conversations with other members in the material handling industry and a long list of customers, here is what I see from the material handling manufacturer�s perspective going into the next century in the realm of logistics or supply chain management:
�           Manufacturers have done a spectacular job with machine design to the point that equipment breaks down less frequently because of component failure. With the growing complexity of automation, controls and software are the Achilles� heel of material handling technology. Because of the growing reliance on automation to get products to market, customers will force the material handling system suppliers to provide more reliable, stable and open design controls systems and data capture networks.
�           With a decreasing pool of skilled labor, equipment systems will become more and more intuitive in operation and more resistant to user misuse. Intelligent diagnostic and systems will become the norm.
�           Decentralization is here for some time to come. The direct marketing concept of �Market of One� is causing suppliers to place distribution as close to the consumer as possible. The mega distribution center is being replaced by more centrally-located, smaller-scale distribution centers, equipped with the latest in sortation, distribution and transportation technology. Manufacturers will have to implement some type of pick, pack and ship system using material handling automation to cost-effectively drop ship direct to the consumer or end user.
�           With the concern for ergonomics and reduced workman�s compensation risk, equipment will become quieter and safer. The savings in health claims will    outweigh the additional costs of abatement. The improvements in worker quality of life will take on added importance over the additional equipment cost.
�           With decisions delegated to more local levels, distributed controls and software will allow track and trace ability at any point in the system. This requires a seamless integration between the material handling system and controls system.
�           Material handling systems will be tasked with running a wider range of packages and materials. However, there also will be the ability to compartmentalize certain processing functions as secondary operations using specialized equipment, such as small-scale sortation systems.
�           Modular equipment design schemes will provide true �plug-and-play� capable material handling systems that can be easily reconfigured to meet production requirements for shorter and shorter product life cycles.
�           Miniaturization of drives, actuators and sensors will bring material handling equipment costs down and reduce the amount of space required for system layout.
�           Information processing technology advances will let the system verbally communicate with the operators in ways that will dramatically increase worker productivity.
Material handling and data management will become increasingly interwoven in the fabric of a successful supply chain over the next century. Without both of them working in concert, companies will be hard pressed to compete in the growing global economy. More importantly, without them, customer retention will be unlikely.
Thomas M. Pinkin is the business development manager for Crisplant Inc., a leading producer of high-speed tilt-tray and cross-belt sortation system, and is president, Conveyor Product Section & Order Selection and Storage Council of the Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA), an international trade association for material handling equipment and systems manufacturers, integrators, consultants, simulators and publishers. Contact Tom at 301-624-1849, tpi@crisplant.com or visit the company�s Web site at www.crisplant.com. For more information on MHIA, call
704-676-1190 or visit www.mhia.org.