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Insights from MHI's New 'Material Handling and Logistics Roadmap'

Bill Ferrell, professor of industrial engineering at Clemson and one of the authors of the newly published Material Handling and Logistics Roadmap, discusses the findings of this comprehensive study and what they mean for the industry's future.

The Roadmap was designed to identify trends likely to impact the industry’s future and to guide businesses as they plan ahead. “The material handling industry represents a lot of primary and secondary jobs. While we are really competitive right now, there are some trends that have the potential to dramatically change the landscape,” says Ferrell, one of five authors of the study.

To gather information for the Roadmap, MHI held four sessions around the country during 2013, where representatives of industry, government and academia shared ideas about these trends and the challenges and opportunities they present, Ferrell says. The five writers then organized the material and wrote the document.

The first key trend identified in the report is e-commerce and the mass personalization that it is driving. “You and I are getting more demanding as consumers, particularly in terms of customization and personalization, which is becoming very precise and individual, ” says Ferrell.

Changing demographics are another major trend. More people are living in urban areas, and many young people are choosing different lifestyles, Ferrell says. “For example, more young people living in these densely populated urban centers are choosing not to get a driver’s license and not to buy cars,” he says.

These changes also are affecting the work place, and the aging workforce is an issue on many people’s minds. “As the workforce changes, we need to find an integrated solution. In the future we are not going to have people lining up for jobs and you pick who you want,” he says.

Several trends identified in the study have to do with technology. These include mobile and wearable computing, with “Google glasses just being the start,” he says. Since smartphones can now indicate location, premium delivery services in the future may include delivering to individuals, wherever they are, rather than to homes or businesses. Additionally, “robotics are going gang busters … and sensors are everywhere,” he says.

Sustainability and collaboration also continue to be issues that businesses “will have to be extraordinarily aware of and sensitive to,” Ferrell says. “When we are trying to deliver in these highly dense, urban areas, I don’t think every company will be able to own its own delivery trucks. There are a lot of inefficiencies in the way we deliver today and as urban areas get more densely packed we will have to find new ways of looking at and thinking about distribution.”

These examples offer just a flavor of the breadth of trends that will impact this industry, says Ferrell. After a period of feedback, Ferrell hopes another study will be done. “We need to continue to look at these trends and ideas because change is happening quickly. Some of the things we thought would be happening maybe in 2025 are now looking a lot closer than that,” he says.

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