When J.M. Lapeyre was a teenager in 1940s New Orleans, his father challenged him to design a machine for peeling shrimp at the family's seafood business. Walking through the facility one day, he stepped on a shrimp and noticed how it squirted from its shell. That observation led to his invention of the world's first automated shrimp peeler.
Fast forward a few years, and the family company needed better conveyor belting to replace the rusting metal belts feeding the peelers. The plastic belt he designed led to the launch of Intralox, now a major producer of belts and conveyors.
It is interesting to see the events that spark companies from other industries to enter the material handling space. There are many examples.
Clark was manufacturing street trolleys, axles, wheels, and railroad drills when it needed a powered cart to move parts between departments. Mechanics at its Michigan plant built the "Tructractor," a flatbed internal-combustion vehicle that became the first powered industrial truck. It didn't yet have forks, but it was the forerunner of the modern lift truck.
Loberg and Hagen was a small Michigan machine shop that made turbines for the Navy during World War II. A friend asked the shop owners to build a small conveyor to load and unload feed and seed on his farm. Eventually, the company got very good at manufacturing conveyors and today is known as Hytrol Conveyor Co.
In 1926, the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works started making weaving looms in Japan. The motors that powered the looms proved so reliable that the company began building cars around them in 1932 under a slightly revised name, Toyota Motor Corp. Today, Toyota is also the world's largest forklift manufacturer.
Opex Corp. got its start manufacturing mail-sorting systems. One system uses small robotic elevators to sort mail within a grid. Then, someone figured out that a larger version could store and retrieve products for warehouses, and the Perfect Pick goods-to-person system was born.
Crown Equipment once made temperature controls and television rooftop antennas, until it was asked to subcontract on industrial lift tables. Put a lifting device on wheels, and you have a lift truck.
In the early 1980s, researchers at Westinghouse Electric sought to make circuit board inspection easier. Inspectors had to look in a microscope, then move their eyes away to record defects on a clipboard. They realized it would be faster if they could record their observations verbally—and even better if the system could prompt them through a checklist. The engineers took the idea and started Vocollect (now Honeywell), the maker of the first voice-directed system, which eventually found a market in DCs.
Where will the next major inventions in our industry come from? Don't be surprised if they spring from necessity somewhere completely unrelated to supply chain.