Wednesday, March 29,
Thomas W. Gerdel
The blue lift truck moves methodically, picking
up pallets of beverage boxes and loading them into a
trailer, two at a time.
But unlike most lift trucks, this vehicle has no
"It can work around the clock, and there's
no labor," said Jonathan Ball, senior vice president of the
B. Webb Co., which is demonstrating its new automated guided
vehicle at an industrial show at the
International Exposition Center this
In the real world, the vehicle, dubbed
SmartLoader, could be loading trucks at a beverage warehouse,
The robotic vehicle is the newest product for the
Farmington Hills, Mich., company that has been making
systems and other material-handling equipment since the days of Henry Ford, one
of its first
Ball said Webb, a private firm with newly
acquired operations in Warrensville Heights, posted a 20 percent
sales increase last year, nearly mirroring the material-handling
industry's 22 percent growth in new
orders. In 2004, the industry had sales totaling
Industry officials said the outlook continues to
be positive as factories and warehouses move to cut
handling costs and
run their operations more efficiently.
"Ever since 2003, the industry has been
growing handsomely," said John Nofsinger, chief executive
of the Material Handling Industry of America. The Charlotte, N.C.-based trade
association, with 700
member firms, is hosting the 2006 Material
Handling and Logistics Show and Conference that runs
Up to 20,000 visitors will see some of the
industry's latest products and technologies. The total of 475
exhibitors is up 19 percent from two years ago, when the event was
last held in Cleveland.
Nofsinger said the industry is in its fourth year
of recovery. Orders for material-handling equipment fell
2001 and 2002, a cyclical decline that was accelerated by the uncertainties
following the 9/11
attacks. However, orders rose 30 percent in 2004
and 22 percent in 2005.
This surge in spending has been helped by strong
corporate profits and tax incentives that allowed firms
to write off
capital expenses more quickly, said Richard DeKaser, chief economist at
National City Bank in
Cleveland. He also cited low interest rates and
rising factory utilization rates. The nation's factories are
operating at 81 percent of capacity, versus 74
percent at the end of 2001, he said.
Nofsinger said some of this growth reflects a
restructuring of manufacturing as more manufacturers spun
warehousing side of their business to firms that specialize in storage and
Also, the growth
of big-box stores has increased demand for in-store shelving and
equipment and has spurred investment in huge
centralized warehouses to supply these retail outlets and
flow of products.
Unmanned or not, the devices all aim to make
warehouses and factories more productive and safer.
hanging from above, helps workers lift heavy loads.
Other machines are designed to fit into smaller
spaces, making better use of floor space. Hyster and Yale,
lift-truck makers that are owned by Nacco Industries Inc. in Mayfield Heights,
now offer models - still
driven by people - designed to operate in very
narrow aisles with front forks able to rotate left or right.
Along with Nacco, more than 50 companies from
Ohio had displays at the show.
Other industry innovations strive to move
In the show's biggest display, a rail-mounted
linear transfer cart whizzes pallets back and forth at 20 miles
hour, double the speed of conveyor systems, said Richard Young, director of
technology at Celerity
Automation Inc. in Paintsville, Ky. The system
borrows from the same linear motor technology that powers
amusement park rides such as the Wicked Twister
at Cedar Point in Sandusky.
Material-handling sales also are being spurred by
increased security measures at airports and the need to
tracking technologies such as radio frequency identification, or RFID. RFID
which once was limited to keeping track of large
objects such as rail cars, is now increasingly used to
track pallets and even individual items such as a
bottle of aspirin or a disposable razor. Suppliers are
under pressure from large chains such as Wal-Mart
and Target to adopt the technology, and prices are
coming down, Nofsinger said.
"It's starting to take hold," said
Daniel Seger III, global OEM technical consultant for Rockwell Automation's
automation control and information group in Mayfield
At the show, Rockwell is demonstrating a conveyor
system that includes a device that reads RFID tags on
each of six
items inside a box. The reader is an example of integrating the new tracking
Rockwell's traditional automation controls.
Looking ahead, officials see continued growth for the material
handling industry, despite the loss of
manufacturing jobs to offshore producers, rising interest rates and
the ending of those special investment incentives
in 2004 .
"We still are consuming more as a nation,
and whether it's made here or someplace else, it still has to be
received and distributed throughout the country," Nofsinger
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