Sean Wallingford is president of Warehouse Solutions in North America for Vanderlande, overseeing the company’s portfolio of warehouse solutions and systems, intelligent software, and life-cycle services. Before joining Vanderlande, Wallingford was vice president of product management for Intelligrated Software at Honeywell Intelligrated, where he had previously served as the company’s senior director of strategic operations. Wallingford studied electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee and holds a law degree from Northern Kentucky University.
Q: Where do you see the material handling market heading in 2022?
A: Although the growth of e-commerce is not new, the pandemic will continue to accelerate its adoption. We will also see the continued modernization of global supply chains, even as many organizations encounter challenges like labor scarcity and shortages of raw materials that will lead to increased leadtimes and costs. In many respects, 2022 will feel like a continuation of 2021, with the same trends impacting the material handling market.
Q: What is the most significant change you’ve seen during your time in the industry?
A: In North America, there is a shift occurring toward the larger, more integrated and complex material handling systems that are already common in Europe, where the availability and cost of land and labor forced most warehouse operations to embrace automation years ago. Those same market drivers were much less pronounced here, but that’s changing as distribution centers find it challenging to fully staff their facilities and real estate values increase. The pandemic is accelerating this shift.
The other significant change I have seen is the move toward standardized and productized systems. Previously, the only “gating” factor in the design and sale of material handling systems was the imagination of sales engineers. That introduced a lot of risk and often led to long, overly complex implementations. Today, the industry is moving toward a more standardized approach that is still adaptable for specific needs while decreasing the time to go live and providing customers with tangible benefits and realistic expectations for performance, cost, and maintenance.
Q: Vanderlande is now a part of Toyota Advanced Logistics. What are the benefits for your customers of being part of the Toyota family?
A: Our customers are rightfully mindful of the manufacturing supply chain when investing in their material handling systems. Vanderlande, of course, is owned by the experts: Toyota invented lean manufacturing. In addition to having access to their technology, such as automated guided vehicles, we also benefit from their strong financial backing. Our customers are investing in complex systems that will be in use for many years to come, so having a partner with a solid financial foundation is important. We also continually work with Toyota to improve our performance, response times, and costs.
Q: Vanderlande is a full-service solutions provider. What are the advantages of working with a company with a wide assortment of systems and services?
A: To start, the global reach of Vanderlande is a significant advantage. With employees in 100 countries, we benefit from a constant global feedback loop that often provides us with advance notice of developing trends that will impact our customers. Typically, new problems in one area of the world have already been solved somewhere else, so we often have solutions in place that our teams can immediately utilize.
Offering a complete set of solutions is also very beneficial. We don’t have to go outside of Vanderlande for the core components used in our systems. That is a significant risk-mitigating factor and one that enables us to ensure that they always perform at their peak without the finger-pointing that can occur when using software and components that were not purpose-built to work together.
Q: How can automation help solve the current warehouse labor crisis?
A: The labor crisis is real. Most material handling operations today are struggling to fully staff their facilities. Automation helps, and is crucial, because it enables distribution centers to reallocate people to the more complex tasks and roles that exist in all warehouses. It’s also important to use automation to take on the most difficult jobs—for example, ones that are associated with the repetitive stress injuries that prompt many people to leave our industry.
Q: You have experience in operational software. How are AI and machine learning enhancing the software available for today’s warehouses?
A: First, you have to remember that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning rely on large data sets that are normalized in order to recognize patterns, build a model that addresses them, and act accordingly. In the past, our industry revolved around custom software, and that by its very nature made it impossible to create data sets at the scale needed to do this. The standardization of systems and software makes that possible, and the more standardized they become, the larger and more useful the data sets get.
Specifically, AI and machine learning make it possible for software to recognize what’s happening in the system in real time. That is where intelligence really comes into play, and it’s what enables modern warehouses to automatically reroute products to avoid congestion, utilize robotic picking, and proactively address the failure of components before breakdowns occur. It’s important to remember that it’s a constant feedback loop, so the systems and the data they draw on improve over time.
Q: Why is the standardization of systems and technologies so important?
A: Predictability and standardization are synonymous with one another. Organizations today need to know what performance their new DC system will achieve, what it will cost to deploy, and how long it will take. Standardization is crucial to answer those questions accurately and to create systems that can automatically adjust to the demands operators place on them. You want to consistently tackle the same problems in the same ways and then scale the resulting practices to additional facilities. That is when you begin to see the full potential of automation.