Automation: Don’t forget the basics

By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
March 06, 2012 - MMH Editorial

Fundamentals count. It’s one of the truisms of sports. Pro football players still hit the blocking sled even though they have been at the game since grade school. Golf pros and baseball players work on their swings every day.

It’s also true in materials handling where poorly executed fundamentals can bring an operation to a screeching halt.

That’s a sermon John Hill has been preaching for years. He likes to say that technology and automation are no silver bullets. If your operations are already headed for a cliff, automation will just push them over the edge quicker if you don’t take care of the fundamentals. 

Hill’s point was driven home to me during a trip last week. I spent Thursday in Grand Rapids visiting the US headquarters of Dematic, TGW Systems and viastore. I’ll write about each of those visits over the next two weeks.

Earlier, I was in Chicago with about two dozen materials handling and supply chain professionals. Most were employees of Dematic. They were gathered to plan the company’s annual logistics conference, held each September in Park City, Utah. If you have never attended this event, I recommend you put it on your calendar.

The others included a consultant and senior executives from 6 very large companies from a variety of industries. Between them, they oversaw operations at dozens of DCs handling a couple billion dollars worth of inventory. Since this wasn’t an official press event, I won’t drop names. But during a discussion about some high level concepts, like network design, supply chain visibility and the state of automation, one of the executives asked if anyone besides him had problems with stretch wrap.

It turns out his DC receives containers of floor loaded product from China. Those receipts have to be palletized before the inventory can be put into storage. Since the shipping cartons are of varying sizes, he can’t build nice, neat pallets. So they are stretch wrapped before leaving the receiving area. Apply too much stretch wrap and he wastes film and ends up with a mess when he picks orders. Apply too little and the pallet is likely to fail, spilling boxes all over the floor. Then someone has to rebuild and rewrap a pallet. “I’d like to see a session on stretch wrapping,” he suggested.

Now, materials handling processes don’t get much more basic than stretch wrapping a pallet. But as he was describing the problem, the other executives in the room were nodding in agreement. It turns out it was a headache for them too. Despite running some of the most automated facilities in the country, they all thought a session on stretch wrapping was a good idea. 

As Patriots fans know, a safety, a dropped pass or a missed tackle can cost a team the Super Bowl. A similar lack of attention to basics like cycle counting, inventory control and, yes, stretch wrap, can mean the difference between ordinary and best-in-class distribution processes.



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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