Materials Handling: Where it all began

by Dave Luton
Dave Luton is a consultant in the
Greater Toronto Area.

How time flies. Over 30 years ago, in the mid 1980s, I commenced writing a regular warehousing column for MM&D. The first column subjects were based on a new logistics concept for the time.

Originating in Japan, it was commonly called ‘Just-In-Time’ (JIT) manufacturing, or the Toyota Production System, after the company where it was developed. The initial columns focused on its impact in key logistics functional areas like shipping and receiving.

In the 1980s and 1990s continuing evolution resulted in increased emphasis on lean manufacturing as a continuing refinement of the JIT process. Some of these positive achievements on a macro level, compared to the ‘just-in-case’ production philosophy that had prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s included:

  • Lower manufacturing space required
  • Reduced inventory (including work in progress – WIP) and finished goods
  • Lower labour costs
  • Faster turnaround time.

JIT has lasted so long because of its emphasis on the reduction of resource use to achieve production goals and the emphasis on continuous improvement. The reduction in resource use was achieved through higher efficiency and better quality products, meaning fewer rejects.

JIT also succeeded because of the emphasis on continuing second-round smaller productivity enhancements. Like the old cliché, ‘the devil is in the details’, many of JIT’s gains come from relentless attention to continuous improvement. As you examine each component you realize how extensive a field they cover.
1 Reduction of mistakes and errors (get it right first time)
2 Make it right the first time – elimination of defects
3 Reduce scrap and waste through rapid, efficient change-overs
4 Ideally reduce lot sizes to one
5 Maintain good housekeeping and avoid clutter.
6 Use a pull production system (Kan-Ban) rather than the older push production systems
7 Maintain constant plant production load with balanced department loading
8 Use streamlined workflow.
9 Use preventative maintenance to avoid unscheduled downtime
10 Have a flexible multiskilled workforce

There are a lot more advantages, but it is easy to see fundamentally why JIT has lasted so long. Even as it faces technological and process change, it provides operating advantages that allow adaptation.

But enough of the past; just as it did 30 years ago, logistics continues to evolve. The change ranges from technical—especially use of mobile computer platforms and software. There are also innovations like Uber or other delivery applications which permit advancements in mobile maintenance such as tire changes or auto glass repair or delivery service direct to consumer.

It is not clear where some of the trends will take us in the future, but the potential for change is significant. Consider the size of supply chains, which have tended to grow in scope over the last few decades. For some products, like spare parts, their slow moving inventory suggests continent-wide supply systems.

Today a radical new technology—3D printing may replace traditional storage and distribution of spare parts entirely. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process of making solid objects from a digital file. In an additive process, successive layers of material are laid down until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the final desired object.

Key to this technology’s transformative power is that this is done on site, in the quantities needed. No more need for elaborate spare parts delivery and supply chains.

Other changes include the impending growth of very large logistics companies like Amazon. Their influence is interesting because they emphasize local delivery, while at the same time their large size threatens to dominate certain industry sectors.

Whether governments will continue to allow this dominance will be an interesting question for future logisticians. Personally, I believe we are entering a period of increasing government regulation of logistics. Some of this will be directed at new technology like 3D printing. Other future technological changes will include: Improvised mobile use of track and trace technology; changing in manufacturing caused by 3D printing technology; increasing use of robots working with humans; and, driverless truck technologies.

One of the areas that has not received much attention is possible restrictions on future fuel use in response to climate change. Is it possible that we will face fuel rationing? Or will some sectors, like ocean shipping, have to adopt use of sails? Some sectors of government seem to want to greatly increase government regulation in this area.

Whatever happens in the future, we can say it will not be boring!