May 4, 2010

Commentary: Necessity mothers invention at NA 2010

Material handling industry may be "mature," but innovation and creativity is flourishing.

By George Weimer

After attending all the material handling shows since 1968, you develop a kind of sixth sense about tones and trends. Some shows seem to be the same-old/same-old with slight modifications and new paint. Others seem to be full of new ideas and creativity. Most are, of course, mixtures of both.

I would rate NA 2010, which took place at Cleveland's IX Center last week, near the top of the scale in terms of creativity. This show was full of innovation with new ideas ranging from the deceptively simple (as in, "Why didn't I think of that?") to the high tech (as in, "Isn't that amazing?").

So, why were the products and services offered at NA 2010 so creative and inventive? Maybe the Great Recession we're just escaping required it. Maybe in the current economic climate, the market today demands major increases in efficiency and quality, big improvements in reliability and accuracy—or no deal.

You might adjust that old saw about necessity being the mother of invention to something like this: The new necessity for material handling buyers is no more "same-old/same-old." The economy is too tough for anyone to get away with the equipment and systems of the past. The market necessarily demands major improvements before it will buy.

How things have changed
The interesting thing is that much of this industry is what economists call "mature." Well it's amazing what a mature industry can do with creativity when it has to.

The changes and innovations were readily apparent to me as I walked the show floor. Forty years ago, when I first started attending shows like NA 2010, the hand-held and truck-mounted computers that are becoming common in the industry would have seemed like Buck Rogers doing inventory.

Forty years ago, high-rise automated storage/retrieval systems with cranes in the aisles were a new phenomenon, and customers for these new contraptions had to work their way through glitches. Today, the efficiency, speeds, and accuracy of such systems are a given.

Forty years ago, the personal computer was just an idea, dismissed by many in the industry. Warehousing managers handled their data with clipboards and pencils. At NA 2010, the increased use of miniature computers seemed to have taken a giant leap from the last several shows.

Forty years ago, a lift truck was a lift truck. A conveyor was a conveyor. The concept that all the tools and systems used in moving parts or boxes should be part of an integrated system was a new and difficult-to-grasp idea. Today, it's understood that a company's material handling systems are a crucial part of its success or failure. The equipment, systems, and information technologies shown at NA 2010 all reflected that concept. Few products or ideas were being demonstrated at NA 2010 as standalone items. Most devices and ideas were designed and promoted on the basis of how well they fit into the overall material handling efforts of a company.

Can a Great Recession spur creativity? I think so. Judging from my walks through NA 2010 and my talks with numerous exhibitors and attendees, the creative juices have been flowing for some time now, and the results are impressive.

More coverage from NA 2010