Listening Skills: Incorporating Customer Feedback into Product Design

In a business like ours, where we make materials handling equipment for companies of all stripes and sizes of operation, listening to customer feedback has been a key ingredient to our long-term success. A lot of examples come readily to mind, but there’s one story in particular I sometimes like to “trot out” to illustrate my point.

The L4F series is one of Liftomatic’s high-volume, fork-mounted drum handlers. For 20+ years, it’s been a sturdy workhorse, commonly used in warehouses where there’s a very high level of to-and-fro traffic. Customers like how it can handle rimmed steel, fiber, and plastic drums alike, and how well it performs in situations where non-stop pallet change-out, conveyor work, or truck and container loading is required.

At any rate, there was a time when we shipped our L4F series to customers that we included a portable stand for the drum handler, welded up with simple angle iron into the shape of a box; it propped the unit up when not in use.  For more than 20 years this was common practice.  Our sales people would return with fun stories from customers who repeatedly thanked them for “the table” – since customers would frequently use the support stand itself as an extra worktable. So far, so good, right?

But detailed conversations with some of our clients told us another story: while the shipping stand worked great, it had little overall benefit on their shop floors. Here’s why: since the L4F was built to “make the rounds” of a warehouse on any given shipping day, it saw a ton of action and a lot of heavy-lifting. But whenever there was “downtime” for the unit, that pesky support stand was needed. And as we mentioned before, people in the warehouse would frequently mistake (or misappropriate) the support stand as an extra “worktable”. Needless to say, if the operation was big enough, locating the support stand to prop up the L4F could become a long, boring task.

We started asking around at other plants and warehouses with whom we did business, and sure enough, customers using the L4F found it far more efficient simply to place the L4F in a group of four drums once they were done, back the forklift out of the unit, and steady the unit till the next time it was needed. Also, since the height of the L4F was not the same from front to back, a safe place was needed (be it a group of drums or the stand) so the unit didn’t tip over whenever it wasn’t busy being gainfully employed.

We held an informal meeting with several users to brainstorm a solution. One particularly astute plant foreman asked a simple question.  “Why don’t we just change the back skirts on the unit to make the overall height the same from front to back?  By doing that the unit would stand alone and require no stand, no group of four drums or any other type of support when not in use.”

Bingo.

The sales force brought this back to Liftomatic’s engineers.  The engineers worked up a couple designs.  After speaking with several drum manufacturers to see how the changes might impact the point of contact of the L4F and the sidewall of the drums, the new design was prototyped and manufactured.  We let the selfsame foreman do the testing on the prototype. The result?  It worked better. More sidewall support for the drums allowed the groups of four drums to hang more vertically, thereby taking additional pressure off the Parrot-Beak clamps, and allowing for better downward placement on the conveyors, the truck floors, the pallets, or wherever else.

Feedback is essential, but an ongoing conversation between suppliers and customers is even better. In the case of the L4F, it improved a premier drum handling product, increased productivity, and yielded benefits in the material handling costs and efficiencies of the overall routine – all of this while at the same time cutting unnecessary costs of production for the product. Talk about a win-win for everyone.

We pride ourselves on our ability to listen to our customers. Not just once during the initial sales-pitch, but ongoingly. It’s how you build relationships. It’s how you build reliability and forge trust. Contact us today with your drum-handling order and find out for yourself how far we take into account your own, individual considerations.

Of course, the only down-side to this story is that customers have to buy their own impromptu maintenance tables now…

How Supply Chains Can Survive Our Nation’s Eroding Infrastructure

CNBC released a news story a while back that got us thinking. According to the news story, a report released by the non-partisan American Society of Civil Engineers warned that if wide-scale improvements and upgrades aren’t made to our nation’s highways, bridges, tunnels, railroads, river-locks, electric grid, and the like, there will be a price that industry’s going to have to pay: namely, a staggering $3 trillion loss that could otherwise be saved by effective upkeep of our infrastructure.

Look, if it happens, it happens. We’re not here to play politics or point fingers one way or the other. We’re material handlers, not talking heads on TV. No, we’re here to present several possible strategies that our domestic supply chain could undertake “to pick up the slack” if things stay bad. If local, state, and federal government decides to let our roadways and airports degrade at the current rate they’re going, at least there will be those among us who are prepared and ready to do big business whatever the condition of the interstate or the tarmac. Because the fact of the matter is, this is something we can’t as an industry pretend won’t impact us. Better to roll with the punches than fall with the tree… Didn’t Bruce Lee say that?

Here are some things we as material handlers can expect down the road. First of all, we may well have to increase the load capacity of the individual handling unit. Take Liftomatic for example. On average we ship out 20-25 new pieces of drum handling/materials handling equipment per day. As of now, we ship equipment incrementally throughout the day, but we’re ready for all that to change. We may soon see a time when we need to consolidate our shipments to meet the lessened capacities of big rigs and delivery trucks to negotiate our streets and highways. In other words, we may have to roll with the shipping companies instead of having the luxury of them rolling with us.

Secondly, the need to keep meticulous track of the exact location of a shipping order is going to be that much more important. Already the major rail companies have websites whereupon you can track a given shipping order on a master screen. But with the advent of RFID tracking technologies, this level of tracking is going to be much more possible and practicable on the micro-level. Our cyberware and online data systems will have to be that much better than our jumbled concrete.

It’s never been an easy road to make a sizable living. It takes hard work, hard facts, and application of those facts to realities as they emerge. Whatever comes down the turnpike, we at Liftomatic plan on being ready to roll.

Our Annual “State of the Industry” Address

Don’t get too riled up there, folks. We’ll save the hours-long “State of the Nation” speeches for the likes of C-SPAN. What we want to report to you is short and sweet: the materials handling industry is back at it and booming again.

Recently, the Material Handling Industry of America issued a report that does us all quite proud. The forecast predicts new shipping orders to grow in the United States by approximately 6% this new business year. To top it all off, another robust year for our industry is likewise predicted for 2014. Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our industry is strong!

There are a lot of sectors of our economy that deserve to be thanked for our own steady recovery from the depths of the “Great Recession.” Herein we name just a couple of the favorable economic factors that account – in part – for our success: first off, there’s the whole American Manufacturing Renaissance that’s taken off. With labor costs rising in China and other parts of the world, American and other multinational companies have seen the wisdom in re-shoring manufacturing jobs to America’s heartland, particularly in the Midwest and Southern United States. After all, if Apple, Inc. can bring back manufacturing jobs to the United States, so can others. Likewise, the rebirth of the American auto industry is contributing to material handling’s steady rise: US auto sales rose by 12% this past year, and a remarkable 21% for the once-beleaguered Chrysler. In addition, a suddenly resilient housing market is helping materials handling companies in a way that hasn’t been seen since 2007.

When goods get going, money starts flowing. It doesn’t take a Nobel Economist or a Congressman to tell you that much. We here at Liftomatic are doing our part in keeping America’s economy strong: it’s all we can do, and we promise to keep on doing. Contact us today to let us know how we can best help rev up your supply chain.

Supersizing the Panama Canal: the Future of Materials Handling Is Here

Panama CanalPlanned by American engineers and built by Central American laborers at the start of the 20th Century, the 77.1 km Panama Canal ushered in a whole new era of opportunity for global trade. Suddenly, in one grand swoop, the world’s merchant marine didn’t need to round Cape Horn at the tip of South America in order to get from Atlantic to Pacific, and/or vice-versa. As a result, new ports and markets were accessible to the free market’s ups and downs in a way that was without precedent.

While the Panama Canal (and the Suez Canal in Egypt) continues to provide easy passage for a large percentage of the world’s mercantile fleet, a growing number of late 20th century and 21st century “super-tankers” are just too bulky to navigate through the canal’s locks safely. Of the 50,000-odd commercial shipping vessels operating today in the world, a minority are super-tankers. While these ships, nicknamed “Panamax” or “Post-Panamax” vessels, constitute a minority of the total number of merchant boats afloat, they also happen to carry a disproportionately large percentage of the world’s total cargo tonnage. Furthermore, these same super-tankers supply a whopping percentage of the world’s total supply of oil and fuel. Without super-tankers operating in the game, the world’s economy would come effectively to a halt.

Efforts currently are underway to upgrade the Panama Canal to meet the standards of today’s merchant marine. In a referendum approved by 76.8% of Panamanian voters, the Republic of Panama adopted a resolution that would expand the Canal’s width and depth at several crucial points, thereby allowing it to accommodate the 37% of the world’s shipping that would else wise no longer be able to navigate its full course.

Being that we at Liftomatic are in the business of supply drum handling and lifting equipment to some of the world’s foremost ports and companies, and being that so much of today’s total steel drum barrel traffic comes in the form of oil barrels, we can’t ignore these developments – if simply on the behalf of our client base. The world is changing. Yesterday’s feats of engineering are beginning to look like flyweights in comparison with the engineering of tomorrow. Everyone who wants a seat at the table in determining the course of maritime trade for the next century should be paying attention to Panama.

Planning for the Long Haul: the Logistics of America’s Afghan Exit

It’s already gone down in the history books as the longest-fought war in our nation’s history. As the Afghan conflict winds down, as American brigades fly homeward to family and well-deserved R&R, and as duties once handled by elite Marines and commandos are now taken over by Afghan Army and police units – there’s one big, giant problem that remains to be resolved: how to solve the logistics of America’s strategic withdrawal from what has been – by all accounts – a ferocious battle. As the New York Times reports, “In all, officials estimate, they will have to wrangle 100,000 shipping containers of material and 45,000 to 50,000 vehicles like tanks and Humvees from all across Afghanistan.”

That’s a little bit like Hannibal first building the Alps, and then crossing them with his army of elephants.

But that (as is usually the case) isn’t all. The question still remains: where in the heck will all these hundreds of billions of pieces of equipment be stored once they arrive back on friendly soil? Military quarter-masters best stock up on Tylenol for themselves before they undertake the Herculean task of re-stocking military warehouses and artillery parks!

Being that our materials handling company was founded as a direct response to World War Two, we think our drum lifting equipment is in a prime position to help America’s armed forces. We’ve had the requisite familiarity (and honor) of delivering American armies safely out of their own traffic-jams for going on 60 years now. If we could help out during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, we are surely going to be of use in this conflict. Our handheld and forklift-mounted drum-lifting equipment is the perfect solution for getting arms and supplies aboard trucks, cargo planes, and transport ships and safely back home in one piece.

When the going gets rough, that’s when the Liftomatic gets lifiting.

Handling That Fits the Material: Our Ability to Customize

The way we see it, the handling should fit the material like a hand fits the glove. One of the strongest advantages Liftomatic holds over other manufacturers is our ability to endlessly adapt to the material handling needs of any given client, strategizing on their behalf, providing modular solutions, and then adopting new, customized products that meet their functionality and budget. Ever since our first work on behalf of DuPont after World War Two, we’ve staked our profitable good name on making sure clients in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, have the exact application at their disposal that the job portfolio entails.

Our track record speaks volumes for itself. Whether it’s customized below-hook attachments, forklift attachments, or portable equipment you’re searching for, here’s how it works with us: you can send us your roughest outlines for a drum or barrel handling application, and our engineers will then work tirelessly with you, for as long as it takes, to ensure that our product meets the standards you feel comfortable and confident with. Our breadth of experience in domestic and foreign markets also gives us a familiarity with the way “things are done” in a respective region of the world. We realize that the solutions which might be applicable to, say, Indianapolis- will most likely not work when servicing the materials handling needs of a 21st century nuclear power plant in Indonesia.

Our material handling design expertise is a force to be reckoned with. Having practically invented modern drum handling techniques, it’s better for us simply to show you what we can do, while others can only boast. Contact us today with the specifics of your custom job.

The Coming Wage Crisis in Chinese Manufacturing

With a booming industrial economy in cities like Shenzhen, Wuhan, and Shanghai, and with a migrant labor force of 300 million (in other words, the entire population of the United States), China is facing a demand for higher working wages that has never been seen in the course of human history. Tens of millions of blue-collar workers are demanding higher pay – as is only natural – and there is little that multinational corporations can do to entirely curb or stonewall their demands – unless by means of automation.

Already we’re beginning to see a 2.0 model for Chinese manufacturing that reduces overreliance on human capital in favor of automated production machinery and materials handling systems. When we at Liftomatic first visited Chinese factories back in the olden days of the 1990s, we came upon staggering levels of redundancy for Chinese workers. I remember personally one factory we toured, where we encountered a worker whose sole job was to keep the key to the fax machine. In America, that employee would have been laughed right off the factory floors!

While that level of egregious waste has long since been trimmed in Chinese factories, automation and roboticization are relatively recent developments. With automated production processes allowing for greater production levels that in turn use less overall expenditure of long-term capital (the initial expense of buying the machinery eventually offsets the costs of maintaining an increasingly demanding workforce), Chinese and multinational factory owners are discovering what we in American manufacturing have long-since known: that automation and optimization pay off handsomely in terms of ROI.

At Liftomatic, we’re an essential part of that paradigm shift away from manual labor in Chinese assembly plants. Our advanced drum barrel and materials handling equipment is a fundamental part of saving money for Western companies that would otherwise have to pack up shop in China and search for greener pastures. If you’re an American, Canadian, or European company currently involved in China, it’s something you should seriously look into. Quality automation is an absolute necessity for business survival in places like the Pearl River Delta, especially in this coming generation of industrial activity. Just a bit of friendly wisdom from the folks here at Chicago’s (and Shanghai’s) own Liftomatic.

Paving the Roadways of Southeast Asia – One Liftomatic Drum-Handler at a Time

South East Asia Manufacturing

Is Vietnam one of the next big manufacturing centers?

A lot of international analysts and investment firms are already citing outlying Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and Indonesia as the next big manufacturing bonanza. For example, FoxConn, chief manufacturer of electronic components for all things Apple Inc., has recently sunk $10B in capital to develop new factories throughout the IndonesianIslands. The labor costs in Hanoi, Penang, Java, Sumatra, and Borneo are cheaper than other places like China, Taiwan, or South Korea, and big business is taking due notice. Sounds like a perfect opportunity, right? Well, in one sense yes, theoretically, if the matching infrastructure was in place.

These areas typically suffers from a dearth of roadways that are good enough for year-round, heavy-duty truck transport – an essential part of any successful global manufacturing hub. But that’s quickly changing. Recently, we at Liftomatic renewed a relationship with a multi-national oil company that had been contracted to help further build highway infrastructure. The road material used to build these highways is super-heated bitumen.  Having successfully completed a project several years ago in the Philippines, Liftomatic was tasked with revisiting the company’s proprietary technology for handling steel disposable bitumen drums.

Bitumen drums have the thickness of a soda can so they can be literally “cut open” at the job site for re-melting and application of the bitumen. Normally this wouldn’t be (much of) a problem, but the heat of the bitumen causes problems for certain components on the Liftomatic attachments and the drum thickness requires exacting clamping characteristics for the equipment to ensure safety and efficiency standards that Liftomatic is known for.

New markets require new thought processes.  Working with our international colleagues and staff, we are confident that the results will be an ever-improving successful and durable drum handling technology that does the job nice and cleanly, allowing roadways to get built without a corresponding devastation of the natural environment surrounding the roadway. Much of Southeast Asia seems primed for industrial development, in no small part thanks to the work of Liftomatic. We pride ourselves on the jobs we’ve helped generate on behalf of multinational companies operating abroad.

Whoever Thought Chinese Workers Wouldn’t Demand Higher Wages…

The city of Guangzhou, part of the up and coming Pear River Delta of China.

The city of Guangzhou, part of the up and coming Pear River Delta of China.

.… most likely didn’t grow up in China. As we’ve been discussing in our recent series of blogs about our longstanding work in that country, China has seen unparalleled, explosive growth since the bad old days of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Ever since the Chinese Communist Party designated the “pursuit of wealth” to be a “national virtue”, Chinese entrepreneurs haven’t needed much else encouragement. Whole cities have sprung up overnight in the Pearl River Delta. A decade ago these megacities were little more than fishing villages. By 2020, some estimate that the Pearl River Delta of China – an urban region encompassing the major cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Zhongshan, and Zhuhai – will have a resident population of approximately 42 million people. Keep in mind this isn’t even taking into account the next-door cities of Hong Kong and Macao!

What’s our reason for talking about all this? Well, in a word: money. Namely your hard-earned, North American investment money. The reason that Chinese workers keep migrating to cities like Shenzhen (a megacity that sees an hourly population increase of 318 new residents) is because of the factory jobs that have sprung up there like mushrooms and wildfire. One third of the products manufactured on Earth come from the Pearl River Delta. But just like any city (or cluster of cities) that builds its reputation on manufacturing, the initial unskilled labor pool quickly acquires skills and specialized capacities. The quality of the manufactured goods rises, and there is a corresponding demand on the part of the labor force to gain access to higher wages, the same as with major manufacturing hubs in the U.S.A. like Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, or Detroit.

How will North American multinational companies – especially ones already doing business in China –cope with this seismic demand for higher wages – one that is already making its first few earthquakes felt? Well, one solution lies in the automation of manufacturing facilities, just as has been done in the States. But that’s just for starters. Stay tuned for our next blog from Liftomatic for more details…

Doing Business in China: Dispelling the “Mysteries” of Chinese Business Etiquette

Chinese currency yuan and U.S. dollarsThe Internet abounds with an overload of websites – supposedly written by “experts” – about the “correct” way of doing business in the People’s Republic of China: that there is a specific, procedural “etiquette” one must follow to the dot if one hopes to get anywhere with one’s Far Eastern counterparts. Not to name specific names… but there are whole English-language websites devoted to the concepts of “Confucianism” and “losing face,” and how an awareness of these factors increases one’s chances of scoring a big contract. We can say, from over two decades of personal experience that while adhering to some of these guidelines can sometimes be of great use, there are exceptions to the rule. In fact, we can personally recollect so many exceptions to the rules as to state with some degree of certainty that there is no one pertaining set of rules. Adherence to soft-spoken Confucian “understatement” in a loud and fast-talking city like Wuhan, for example, may very well get you laughed out the door in a most un-Confucian sort of way.

The fact of the matter is simple: the “etiquette” of doing business in China is very much the same etiquette as doing business anywhere in the modern world. Profit is king. Content is king. The means by which these qualities are delivered, whether by way of a handshake or otherwise, are of little import. So long as you are polite, and friendly, and adhere to the corporate “bottom line” rule: i.e. so long as you bring valuable content or an ingenious product to the table; something by which both parties in the room can profit from; than you can go far in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Ningbo, Shenzhen, or wherever else you care to name. The same as you would in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or Sheboygan, U.S.A. Globalization has had its impact on doing business with China to such an extent that there is very little lost in translation when it comes closing the deal.