JJ Phelan is vice president system sales with S&H Systems, a material handling systems design and integration company. Phelan has been in the material handling industry for more than 17 years. Prior to joining S&H, he worked with Amazon’s North American Core Fulfillment team as a program/project manager and served as chief operating officer and president of material handling systems integrator TriFactor. He also spent nine years as an officer in the U.S. Navy.
Phelan is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering. He also holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School and an MBA from the University of South Florida.
Q: What do you see as the current state of the material handling industry?
A: The material handling industry is on the cusp of a significant breakthrough. Even today, we are witnessing creativity in combining fixed conveyance and sortation equipment with newer technologies—such as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and goods-to-person (GTP) solutions.
Investing in material handling systems has always been justified by the reduction of inefficiencies and waste within warehouses or fulfillment centers. Typically, that’s been non-value activities like associates traveling to or from storage locations to carry out their picking or replenishing tasks. Now that AMR and GTP technologies are becoming more mature and reliable, material handling engineers have options to develop unique solutions that reduce inefficiencies and increase throughput with minimal human interaction or wasted travel and search time. As an engineer, I’m excited to be a part of this evolution in technology, which should result in clients’ meeting growth and success goals sooner.
Q: What are the advantages of using a design and integration company to deploy new material handling systems?
A: Our primary advantage as an integrator—especially one that represents multiple solution providers—is that we can focus on the best technology for a given application instead of forcing a specific manufacturer’s equipment onto an operation where it might not be in the customer’s best interest. Having a broad spectrum of best-of-breed application choices also allows us to incorporate options that provide the most cost-effective solution and/or the shortest leadtimes. In every case, integrators offer customers flexibility and scalability—a competitive advantage in today’s consumer-driven environment.
Q: What did you learn as a Navy officer and an engineer that you apply to your current role in system sales?
A: My time in the Navy had a couple of phases. Initially upon commissioning from [the U.S. Naval Academy in] Annapolis, I was a surface warfare officer, served on a destroyer, and was deployed to the Persian Gulf. I was fortunate enough to be in the engineering plant and lead sailors who kept the ship running, which was right up my alley. After that, I was selected to join a very small all-officer community called “engineering duty officers.” I went to grad school and earned an MS in electrical engineering and then went back in the fleet as a project manager for ship overhauls and modernizations.
Having opportunities early in my professional career that included leadership, process management, and technical problem-solving helped groom me as an engineer in the material handling industry—dealing with multiple stakeholders, managing expectations, and creating value every day.
Q: What is the most significant change you have seen during your time in the industry?
A: I’ve been in the industry since 2004, and to me, the most significant change was when Amazon acquired [warehouse robot developer] Kiva Systems in 2012. Not many companies were willing to take that leap of faith. Yet Amazon made that solution successful and continues to use it at its Amazon Robotics Sortable Fulfillment Centers as well as other types of facilities in its network. As a result, there have been multiple companies that have developed their own version of an autonomous mobile robot, each with its own unique benefits and value proposition. Today, these solutions have been widely adopted by the industry.
Q: How has the growth of online shopping changed distribution?
A: The ability to “swipe and tap” on your phone and have a single item delivered tomorrow, or maybe even today, has caused our industry to go from boring to exciting almost overnight. Today, supply chain is being taught in business and engineering schools in most colleges and universities. Material handling used to be pallet racking and forklifts. Now, it is robotic piece picking, automated packing, hands-free labeling, high-speed sorting, and so many other technologies and applications. Our industry has moved to becoming both creative and technical—using multiple technical skills, such as data analysis, software engineering, electrical and controls engineering, mechanical engineering, and structural engineering.
Q: You give a lot back to your community through volunteer work. Why is this important to you?
A: Well, it’s a little selfish in a sense. Volunteering and sacrificing for others makes me feel good. I’m a happier human when I can use whatever gifts I have for the benefit of others.