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Designing for Material Handling Excellence

Image by Tompkins InternationalTompkins International recently celebrated our 15th year as a Material Handling integration firm. As I reflect on these 15 years and the success of this business dimension, I see some very important lessons that have significantly contributed to our success in designing and implementing material handling systems. Here are the top 3 interrelated lessons that I encourage you to ponder:

  1. Life Cycle Usability: We recently wrote a report based on a survey on the age of material handling systems. We discovered a surprising outcome associated with this survey: most material handling systems are in use 10 years after installation, many are in use 15 years after installation, and some are still operating after more than 20 years. The challenge beyond the challenge of these systems being used beyond their useful life is the fact that these systems are most often designed as a component of a 5 to 7-year strategic master plan. So, the key point to remember when designing a material handling system is to consider how a system designed with a 5-7 year planning horizon is going to operate over a much longer period of time. What we often see here is an operating horizon that is twice, three-times and four-times longer than the planning horizon.  You must build maintainability and reliability into the system design so that it can operate over the operational life of the system.
  1. Adaptability: Due to the unprecedented rate of change taking place in business today and the impacts this rate of change has on material handling systems, it is very important that the systems be designed while considering:
  • Modularity: Seasonality, promotions, growth, product life cycles, and ongoing daily volume fluctuations beget the need for our material handling systems to operate over a wide range of capacities.
  • Flexibility: As times evolve, things change. Products get larger and smaller, they get lighter and heavier, etc. Material handling systems must be designed to operate over a wide variety of different products and packages while still operating efficiently, effectively, and safely.
  • Rigidity: While we are designing material handling systems to be modular and flexible, we also need to design these systems so as to reduce rigidity. Rigidity constrains operating performance and can limit the value of the material handling system over time.
  1. Simplification: We often spend as much time improving our designs as we do developing the initial design. The rigorous review of the material handling system design can also cause a significant reduction in the cost of the material handling system. Many material handling equipment suppliers are interested in selling “more steel” so we do not see them rigorously pursuing simplification. Since our goal is to “sell less steel” we invest more thought to assure the lowest cost, highest value, and highest ROI. We strongly believe “More Thought and Less Steel” is the correct design thought process and this only occurs via rigorous simplification.

So, the lessons to be learned are:

  1. The system you are designing will be used well beyond the planning horizon.
  2. The system you are designing will be required to perform across a broad range of operating requirements.
  3. For the system you are designing to be of maximum value, it must be designed with “More Thought and Less Steel.”

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Jim Tompkins

Jim Tompkins is an international authority on leadership, logistics, material handling, outsourcing, and supply chain best practices. As the founder and CEO of Tompkins International, he provides leadership for Tompkins globally. He has written or contributed to more than 30 books. Jim has been quoted in hundreds of business and industry magazines such as The Journal of Commerce, Supply & Demand Chain Executive, and FORTUNE, and he has spoken at more than 4,000 international engagements