Businesses are under intense pressure to step up their quality of service, while reducing expenses and boosting the bottom line. Michael Field, president and CEO of The Raymond Corporation, explains how automation can help.
SCB: What are some high-level trends that you see in industry automation today?
Field: There's a real penchant to try to improve. Everybody’s trying to get a leg up, to understanding both their top and bottom lines. E-commerce is definitely a factor for the business we're in — warehousing, distribution and material handling.
SCB: I would imagine that labor availability has been a big issue, and so businesses are turning to automation to at least partially address that problem.
Field: Labor is definitely an issue in that discussion. They’re trying to meet the demands of e-commerce.
SCB: Do you think that companies in the past might have been sitting on the fence in terms of deciding to jump into automation, and that they might now be making that move because of the intensifying pressure of these trends?
Field: Yes. We're seeing people looking at their investment strategies. They’re making strides toward adopting automation as a way to improve their organizations. But those who are looking for silver bullets aren't going to be as successful in accomplishing those goals as the ones who are a little more patient. The ones who are asking, "How do we understand is what our current business, and how do we improve it? Where are our issues, and which problems are we really trying to solve?"
SCB: How are companies actually enhancing productivity and operations in the face of these issues?
Field: Almost every company we're working with is making changes that are long-term and sustainable. They're using a lot of data to analyze what the current state is, then playing it out is to determine the future state — what they’re going to do differently and which investments they need to make, whether it be in fixed assets, changes to process flow, new training approaches, labor availability, and many other facets. More than anything, it's a commitment to improving.
SCB: It sounds like that can be a strong incentive for keeping people once you get them.
Field: It is. In many cases, training helps everybody feel better about what they're doing. They feel more proficient, and you see real results because of that. And there are new training capabilities that are available now, whether it’s an e-learning approach where you do things online and remotely, or virtual reality, to help people quickly come up to speed and understand what their job requirements are.
SCB: A lot of these things are meant to make companies more responsive to customer demands. But there’s also the financial aspect to consider. What are they doing to reduce their costs and enhance the bottom line?
Field: It comes down to understanding what they're doing well, and where their opportunities are. Again, it’s through financial and operational data, getting to the root cause. We're seeing a lot of customers use lean management approaches to dig into visualizing what's going on in their facilities. The ones that are most successful have an almost daily management approach to seeing changes. They take on challenges one small step at a time, solve that problem, make sure it's gone forever, then build upon it.
SCB: What are some major innovations out there in technology and telematics?
Field: Telematics is starting to change the face of material handling in many ways. It’s not just the fact that you're communicating with the truck. You're also able to see what's going on in the truck, how it’s being driven and utilized, and where it’s located. Real-time locating systems are becoming available that can show you what's going on in a facility. It's my belief that the more you understand and can visualize what's happening, the more you can improve it. That’s the piece that is most likely to drive improvement as we go forward.
SCB: What form is all this going to take in the future? Ten years from now, what kinds of exciting innovations might we see?
Field: I'll answer it in maybe a different way than you expect. The advent of 5G technology is going to allow us to do things that we probably can't imagine ourselves doing now. The type of computing that you're going to be able to do at the level of a particular vehicle or work center is going to be different than it is now, and will hopefully allow you to make more lasting decisions.
SCB: Do you envision automation ever completely replacing humans?
Field: I don't believe in a complete lights-out approach in the warehouse. There's a lot of value to be added because of people being in there. But we are going to be more thoughtful about which processes are repetitive and the best candidates for automation, versus other areas that need high levels of expertise and even AI-type approaches, to help us understand what's changing or is different today than it was yesterday.
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