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Sustainable materials handling

By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
April 25, 2011

In a few days, CeMAT will get underway in Hannover, Germany.  The tagline for this year’s show is “Sustainability of intralogistics.”

It’s an interesting phrase. At Promat, a representative of the organization that sponsors CeMAT described it as a three-legged stool. Yes, the industry was interested in environmental sustainability, but the definition also included economic sustainability as well as a sustainable workplace environment that took into consideration the interests of the distribution worker.

When I got home to New Hampshire, I asked Deutsche Messe, the sponsors of CeMAT, for a little more information. They sent me a statement Dr. Christoph Beumer, the managing director of the Beumer Group and the chair of the CeMAT executive committee, delivered earlier this winter.

I thought it was a remarkable insight into a different way of thinking about materials handling, especially because Beumer addresses the talent shortage we are facing here in the United States as well as the role of government and education. It’s a reminder that these issues aren’t parochial, but are being grappled with in the global push for innovation and competitiveness. So I’m reprinting it mostly intact, with some editing for length.

                                                                      ***  ***  ***
Ladies and Gentleman. The exhibitors at CeMAT chose the tradeshow tagline “Sustainability of intralogistics” for a reason. This phrase means more than green logistics, more than energy efficiency.

We understand sustainability in its deepest sense – that of not living at the expense of future generations. For me this means sustainability based on the three pillars of economy, environment and social responsibility. The goal of sustainable business is to achieve a balance between these three areas.

For intralogistics, for example, this means efficient systems and products, being sparing with resources, and considering the welfare of the people involved in these processes

However, in my view, sustainability also means making sure that talented workers continue to be available to our industry and to technology as a whole. Only in this way can we overcome the labor shortage that is already affecting us, and prepare for the challenges of the future. I would like to explain this more fully.

German intralogistics is rightly seen as the world leader in the field. Most of the discoveries and innovations that help companies around the world to work efficiently, save resources of all kinds and make people’s work simpler and healthier, still come from Germany.

We need excellent minds here at home to maintain and extend our competitive edge, because exports in our sector will increasingly be based on exporting ideas and innovations for the various markets.

More than ever, our engineering talent will be our capital and our raw material of the future. But as a nation and as an industry, we run the risk of losing our advanced scientific learning, and what it brings us – our global lead in the knowledge stakes.

Across Germany, around 40,000 more engineers are needed, and the situation is worsening every day. According to VDI statistics, the average age of a German engineer today is 50. Over the next 10 years, up to 450,000 engineers will leave the workforce. Even with the optimistic assumption that 40,000 new graduates will enter the market every year, we will only barely cover this attrition. Delaying the retirement age is a topic that is ever more relevant, given these numbers. But this alone will not be able to ensure continued growth of innovative capacity and business performance. It will not promote the development of new technologies.

Other countries are not waiting around. Once a technology center has shifted, it is very hard to bring it back. Our country enjoys highly technical and highly automated manufacturing, and we can only ensure our own prosperity if we keep our lead in new technologies. That is our only chance.

How can we meet this challenge? Our first instinct is always to turn to the government. But while the government is responsible for education policy, we also need to heed this call and remind our educational institutions of their responsibility. We need more than just a new policy.

We have to begin to bring about social change ourselves. All little boy starts out as engineers: One of their first words is “car”, the machines they build with Lego blocks are innovative and creative and the bridges and dams they build in backyard streams are legendary. Why do they lose interest? And why don’t we get girls involved in the same activities? Something in our society needs to change. We need to make sure that our future employees see building an innovative machine, a unique bridge or a complex system as rewarding goals. The engineer’s life goal shouldn’t be reduced to not being held responsible by a business person or a lawyer for some catastrophe somewhere.

We need more targeted investment in education and training. More students need to be directed towards technical courses of study. The performance of education in Germany needs to be improved across the board. Whether or not the government has understood this urgency remains doubtful. It is more likely to add a coat of paint to schools and universities with its stimulus packages, than to promote the crafts or properly equip laboratories.

Other countries show us how to do things better. In Finland, for example, twice as many people go to university, as a proportion of the population, as in Germany. According to a European Union survey, Finland’s innovation is above the European average. And it’s obvious to anyone who sees the inside of a Chinese university that that country’s leadership knows the importance of education for its future.

We need to promote targeted immigration of skilled workers. For that, our job market and the structure of employment costs must be made much more attractive, meaning that bureaucratic spending needs to be significantly reduced and our society overall needs to change and become more tolerant.

Before we can implement a targeted immigration policy, we should also reduce emigration. How many academics are educated in Germany and then poached by other countries? We can’t blame them for finding better prospects abroad – including better net income. How many foreign academics come to Germany to study – and are sent back to their home countries with their freshly earned diploma, because they lose their visa to stay in the country as soon as they graduate? Why don’t we try to help them stay? There would be plenty of jobs for them.

To be perfectly clear: The lack of skilled workers is a threat to the recovery of the German economy and of intralogistics.

Our economy and our companies cannot shirk their own duties and responsibilities. There are various initiatives from a variety of associations to attract young girls and boys to technical careers. And I don’t mention the girls specifically just to be politically correct. Technical jobs and engineering courses cannot remain male strongholds any longer. We need to evolve beyond these antiquated attitudes. The global advances made by women shouldn’t stop at the German border. Getting girls interested in technical careers holds enormous potential for the future of our industry.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Intralogistics has been a boom sector over the past few years, and it is one of Germany’s strongest export drivers. Reinforcing this positioning requires a high level of sustainability. Sustainable business practice is not just a goal for clients and users, but also very specifically for many suppliers and manufacturers from within the sector.

Many areas of intralogistics are the realm of medium-sized companies with a strong focus on long-term success. And that pays off. It’s the only way to remain a longstanding, reliable partner for our employees and our clients. This is another reason that German intralogistics is one of the strongest sectors in the country. And because intralogistics are used everywhere that process improvement is needed, it can be a growth industry even in a difficult economic environment.

We need to shape the future of intralogistics.

Thank you for your attention.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.


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Article Topics

Blogs · Sustainability · CeMAT · All topics

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. Contact Bob Trebilcock.


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