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Why supply chain managers should care about material handling equipment

By Toby Gooley | July 14, 2015 | 1:23 PM | Categories: Material Handling, Supply Chain

Back in March, I attended the biennial ProMat trade show in Chicago. ProMat, produced by the trade association MHI, boasts more than 800 exhibitors and largely focuses on material handling equipment, technology, and services for warehouses and distribution centers (DCs). I was there in my role as a senior editor for DC Velocity, but could not help thinking about what the show had to offer readers of CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly, the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' member magazine of which I am editor. Among all the forklifts, conveyors, and other material handling equipment I found much that could—and should—pique the interest of supply chain managers and executives.

Why should someone who lives in the world of inventory management, demand forecasting, and network optimization devote time to learning about material handling equipment? Because that equipment is what makes it possible to implement supply chain strategies. Without efficient warehouses and distribution centers supported by new equipment and technology, all you have is a plan on paper (or a computer screen). And with supply chains undergoing increasingly rapid transformation influenced by disruptive technology, this has become an area supply chain managers can’t afford to ignore.

Here are just a few examples of the intersection of material handling and supply chain strategy from the show:

  • Much of the more sophisticated equipment on display, such as goods-to-person systems and automated storage and retrieval systems, could play a role in helping companies address broader supply chain concerns—for instance, speed to market and bringing consistent performance to global operations. Vendors are providing complex solutions designed from the customer back—that is, starting with a problem or a new market imperative, and developing equipment and technology that not only address that need, but also revise upstream and downstream processes as needed.
  • E-commerce appears to be the single greatest factor influencing material handling equipment development. The design, or redesign, of everything from packaging equipment to conveyors and sortation systems to order picking and storage systems is being heavily influenced by the unique needs of e-commerce fulfillment. Software, too, is under the microscope; warehouse management systems (WMS), for instance, are being retooled to keep up with e-commerce’s faster pace and its focus on individual piece picking and shipping.
  • Robotics has matured from a gee-whiz novelty to an important tool for bringing consistent, reliable, 24 x 7 performance to an array of tasks in high-throughput distribution centers. Robotic equipment—including some that is designed to work alongside human order pickers and packers—could mitigate the effects of labor shortages and allow more workers to shift from ergonomically challenging, repetitive activities to those that truly require human input. With labor availability, training, and management expected to become more problematic in the future, it’s time to look at robotics as a viable solution.

For more examples, as well as commentary on how this important subject fits into the big supply chain picture, be sure to read MHI’s Material Handling & Logistics U.S. Roadmap report at www.mhlroadmap.org. We've also covered the report at DCV.

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