What will the next two decades hold for the material handling industry? Driverless trucks? Innovations in robotic systems? Products beamed from point to point in Star Trek fashion?
Last month I attended the MHI Executive Summit and Annual Conference in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of MHI, one of the industry's leading trade associations. One thing that caught my eye during the meeting was a display board MHI had erected in the hallway outlining the history of the material handling industry—and a rich history it has been. While we could probably argue that Hannibal relied on a solid materials movement plan to cross the Alps, the initial entry on MHI's history board was Sir William Fairbairn's 1850 patent on the industrial crane. The first roller conveyor incorporating internal ball bearings came along in 1908, which allowed Henry Ford to perfect the assembly line just five years later.
Innovation continued as Jervis B. Webb produced a power-and-free conveyor system in 1919 to better serve the auto industry. Within the next decade, conveyors were firmly established as the primary method for handling mass-produced goods. Electric hoists were introduced to material handling in the 1940s. And in 1943 during his service in World War II naval logistics, Norman Cahners dramatically changed product handling with his invention of the four-way-entry pallet, which today remains the industry standard platform for stacking, moving, and storing goods.
The 1950s saw primitive bar-code systems, while an early automated guided vehicle designed by Mac Barrett debuted in a warehouse in 1954. Two years later, the steel shipping container was placed into service at the Port of New Jersey, forever revolutionizing the handling of goods and ushering in an era of expanded world trade.
Software and controls came to the industry during the 1960s with simple programmable controllers and mini-computers. This was followed by the implementation of the first universal product code (UPC) in 1974 at a Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio.
The supply chain would be transformed in the 1990s, when warehouse information systems began tapping the potential of Internet connectivity. Radio-frequency identification (RFID), mobile platforms, and direct-to-person automated systems soon followed, designed to optimize distribution processes to meet the challenges of same-day processing and omnichannel fulfillment.
This, of course, got me to thinking what this same chart would display 20 years from now. Will there be milestones marking driverless trucks, innovations in robotic systems, digital printing of products, and new energy sources to power equipment? Perhaps someday there will even be an entry for the distribution of products by beaming them from point to point in Star Trek fashion. Time will tell, but as history has shown us, it should be an exciting ride.
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