May 2002 | Commentary | Checking In

Material Handling Automation: Money for Nothing, Clicks for Free

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Necessity is the mother of invention but in a down economy it may be the mother of companies giving things away to make the sale.
Sales of large-ticket capital expenditures are down, including warehouse automation and materials handling systems. At the NA2002 Material Handling Industry (MHI) conference, held in Detroit last month, exhibitor after exhibitor positioned their products and services—from forklifts to rack systems to complete warehouse automation systems—as exactly what you need to speed and reduce inventory.

Positioning is nice, but would a materials handling equipment manufacturer give away millions in engineering, integration, and consulting fees just to please customers? It happened at the show, and it was something to see.

Siemens Dematic's Rapistan Material Handling Automation (I shortened the name a little) manufactures automatic guided vehicle (AGV) systems for use in warehouse, crossdock, distribution, and manufacturing locations. At the MHI conference, Rapistan released a software program that cuts the direct cost of the AGV system—which can average $250,000 to $1 million or more—by 30 percent. It even allows novices (like me) with fair computer skills and access to a CAD drawing of their facility, or a tape measure, to self-design and create an installation plan for the system in hours, not the months it used to take. The software is called Q-CAN (short for Quick Configurable Automation) and I saw it in action.

The Q-CAN software starts with a whiteboard where you can import or create a drawing of your facility. You plant flags on the whiteboard representing where you want the guided vehicles to stop—shipping/receiving doors, pick locations, assembly or production areas. You add vehicles and drive loops with the click of a mouse. You can test and fine-tune the flow with a scale and real-time working model of your facility layout. Need to move a station? Click, just move the flag. When you are done, export the instruction set to a floppy disk and load it in your AGVs. Place sensors on the floor and you are good to go. If you need to add or change something after you're finished, fire up Q-CAN and move or add some flags. If you change buildings, load your vehicles in the truck, pick up your sensors and go. It takes longer to say Siemens Dematic's Rapistan Material Handling Automation than to design your own AGV system with Q-CAN.

The company is offering a "shareware" version of the software so prospective customers can build themselves a system, according to Garry Koff, Rapistan's software engineering manager. Why would a company give away what amounts to millions of dollars worth of engineering fees? It could be "it's what our customers want," as Koff said, or it could be a necessity to deal with the slow economy.

Bottom line: a slow economy can offer business logistics managers great opportunities for getting extra value from service providers. Now is the time to make some great deals.

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