When I first read through the sales coordinator job description at Bastian Solutions, a material handling system integrator, I didn’t fully understand what this company did. The Bastian mission statement says, “…dedicated to helping customers compete in their respective markets by providing the best material handling system solutions and technology…” Someone on the outside might ask what exactly a material handling system (MHS) is. While the CAD drawings (computer aided design drawings) look like they were drawn by a rocket scientist, an MHS very simply moves (handles) something (material) from point A to point B; an item is going from here to there.
Items might stay somewhere for a while on a shelf or on a pallet, but the idea is to move them. That simple concept, moving something from point A to point B, is fascinating if you stop and think of the different ways a company can apply this concept and to what extent you can apply material handling. As I learned more about material handling systems, I thought–a silly thought I admit–that even Santa Claus would be more efficient with a conveyor system, no more elves with back problems and no more kids getting the wrong gifts. This happens; I can attest to it. As one year, I got a ski jacket I did not like; however, my sister liked it, and she got one I loved. Since she hated hers, we switched jackets! If Santa had an MHS, he could also make it home at a decent hour; though depending on how relations are going with Mrs. Claus after all these years, he might opt to stay out that one night anyway!
An MHS can be applied in different situations besides the obvious: baggage claim at the airport, sorting trash at a recycling facility, assembling a piece of machinery, filling warehouse orders, even filling boxes of chocolates (the Lucy and Ethel method is so much more advanced today!). Think of the grocery store. The cashier scans your box of cereal, sets it down on a short (three feet long maybe?) conveyor belt, and the box moves down to a smiling teenager who bags your groceries. I am not an engineer. I am an accountant; however, I think grocery stores need a divert lane (diverters are so cool) to separate the soft items like bread from the heavy things like watermelons that will smash your bread if the teenager bagging your groceries isn’t paying attention because he is zoned out or too busy staring at the cute girl in lane 7 (snap out of it buddy!). All your groceries start piling up, and everything is getting smashed! Raise your hand if you have had this happen to you. I know I am not alone here.
Going back to the Santa thing though, think how the elves could build the toys along assembly lines that lead to a gift wrapping area, void fill, and ultimately to the loading dock for “the sleigh.” (Santa’s elves are you paying attention? This could change your life! Hello?) There could be distribution centers (DCs) in strategic cities throughout the world for Santa to swoop down and climb into a preloaded sleigh. Yes, the reindeer switching would be a logistics issue, but Bastian would figure that out, too. We are talking shorter and fewer work days; the North Pole could put in a gym, a casino, and maybe a racetrack for all the elves with all this free time on their hands. Good for economy, yes?
One of my favorite applications is the AS/RS (automated storage and retrieval system), the ultimate in efficiency for space and time. Cranes move vertically and horizontally (and don’t forget that Z axis) to grab a pallet of Kahlua 20 feet up on a pallet rack in a matter of seconds, bring it down, and carry it over to an area designated for a multiple pallet shipment to say, a liquor store. Think how that could change a librarian’s life. No, not the Kahlua, I mean the time she would save not going up and then down that 20 foot ladder to retrieve (and a week later put back) a book! Robots can be programmed to move to a location, perform a function, and then move to another location. The applications are endless.
Bottle picking robots can individually select and insert different bottles of wine into a box to create a custom case of wine. No more dropping expensive bottles of wine or liquor and…. robots aren’t late to work, don’t take vacations, and they don’t help themselves to the tempting merchandise! Note to self, probably shouldn’t get a robot named Hal, especially if any employees are named Dave (although on second thought, technically Hal was a supercomputer). Robots will save a company lots and lots of money by reducing breakage, theft, and the most important category of all, time. Time is money, is inversely proportional to profit, and by saving both time and money, a company can–as the Bastian mission statement mentions–exceed in its market.
Because I have a boss who is big on training and educating his staff, I had the opportunity to witness the effect an MHS had on one company before and after an installation. The before part to me (remember I am not an engineer) was actually not that bad. The company must have agreed, until one day someone (probably an accountant) said, “someone has got to do something to get these orders out quicker!”
While I saw lots of people pushing carts piled with boxes, forklifts moving pallets, and a line of people loading boxes into trucks (think water bucket lines when a small village does not have a fire department), they looked pretty efficient; however, what did I know? These employees had probably resigned themselves to the old adage, “We the unwilling led by the unknowing have been doing the impossible for so long we are now qualified to do anything with nothing!” Well, they had no idea how Bastian Solutions was about to rock their world.
A few weeks later their conveyor system was in place and running, following the company’s plan to be ready for the elusive and mystical (because no one ever knows how it will turn out until we accountants crunch the numbers), dreaded and feared, yet loved in a strange sort of way, Black Friday. To anyone who does not know what Black Friday is, no longer does it signify the first shopping day of the Christmas season when people get up way too early to argue and fight over gifts they absolutely have to have, get into traffic jams and accidents, and create havoc for store security and the police departments.
No, we have evolved into much better-mannered and civilized people today. Well, except for that lady who felt pepper-spraying people in the electronics department at Wal-Mart was a good idea! What was up with that? Some stores will offer a $14 microwave oven or a plasma TV for $99 if you come in at 3AM. There are probably two available at that price, but to an insomniac who is up anyway, that is a no brainer, and for most people it is just too darn tempting to pass up. Anyway, Black Friday is now considered an economic term, an opportunity for a company to get out of the red (showing a loss) and move into the black (become profitable again).
As you may recall, I had thought that company was doing pretty darn good when I saw the before scenario. My boss is smiling like the Cheshire Cat as he takes me to see the transformation, a.k.a. the after. Well, put me in the freezer and call me a popsicle. OMG what a difference! I was looking at efficiency in motion. I stood there stunned, in absolute awe of the scene before me. Hundreds of boxes moving along the conveyor lines as photo eyes scanned and read the barcodes, directing and diverting boxes and totes here and there and wherever they needed to go to fulfill the order.
Looking down the aisles, I saw employees equipped with voice-directed picking sets that told them where to go to pick something from a location as well as picking locations that illuminated to help direct the operator to the next pick! Workers placed an item into the box or tote that stopped in front of them, which then moved along the conveyor belt to the next location where it would stop so someone else could drop something in. Boxes with completed orders were sent along a belt to be sealed and a label was slapped on. Boxes then went to a sorter where, wait for it, wait for it, they are sorted. If they were designated to ship UPS, they were diverted to the UPS lane and ultimately the UPS door where a UPS truck would pull up later that afternoon and a strategically placed piece of conveyor would move those boxes right up to the back of one of those familiar brown trucks.
Fed Ex shipments were diverted to the Fed Ex lane, USPS boxes, well, hmmmm, I bet you can figure out what lane they were going down! Standing back and looking at the entire warehouse in motion, it was like watching a living, breathing organism. When I was little, I used to watch ant farms for hours, amazed at the efficiency of the ants, each ant moving intently along, some on different paths yet somehow all the ants were functioning together as a unit. This was like a big ant farm and the boxes were the ants.
I looked around for the floor manager who a few weeks ago looked stressed, worried, and at certain moments, probably just seconds from a meltdown as he tried to commandeer his troops to process and ship out an impossible number of orders each day (that increased each day) as the holiday season approached. Today, however, he had–dare I say–an almost stupid grin on his face as he watched all those boxes moving along the conveyor belts, boxes that seemed almost as happy as he was as they bustled along their merry way. The throughput was through the roof, so the floor manager was happy, his boss was happy, his boss’s boss was happy, and we all know when the boss is happy, everyone is happy!
For someone who does not have an engineering degree, pondering how an MHS is designed, the CAD drawings, the programming of the robots and conveyor, and the installation of all that equipment is impressive and mind boggling to say the least. Bastian employs highly-skilled engineers and computer programmers who seem to magically put all of it together and make it work. I am very proud to be a part of this process. I am involved in the ordering and the project accounting, which tracks the progress of the entire project from start to finish. Witnessing the before and the after was a great way for me to appreciate how an MHS can impact a company. It is a beautiful thing that we do here at Bastian. We elevate businesses all over the world.
Initially, an MHS was explained to me like this: Bastian Solutions is likened to the conductor of an orchestra. By procuring and assembling the different components that make up an MHS, we create the orchestra or material handling system. Watching an MHS in action really is like watching an orchestra, or for kids, it is like watching an ant farm.
Any company that is considering an MHS to increase throughput, decrease or reallocate overhead, and dramatically increase their PM (profit margin) should stop thinking about it and just do it. From an accounting perspective, what a company will save in overtime and the extra help alone, a system will pay for itself very, very quickly. Years later when they have doubled, tripled, and quadrupled their sales, the company will wonder why it didn’t do it sooner.
Santa really should look into this. My goodness with all he does for the entire world, doesn’t he deserve one night a year he can have some real fun if he wants to? Get over it. I’m okay with it. Santa was always good to me, and I bet if you think back he was good to you, too. All he has to do is keep Mrs. Claus out of the workshop. Swear those elves to secrecy. What conveyor system?