Preparing students for careers in material handling

Preparing students for careers in material handling

Bullington, Stanley F


In 1994, the Industry Programs and Activities (IPA) committee of the College-Industry Council on Material Handling Education (CICMHE) conducted an exercise whose primary objective was to get a better understanding of the needs and perspectives of material handling companies with respect to material handling education in US Universities. The modeling and solution techniques typically taught in the classroom for material handling design and analysis problems are quite different to those used in practice. Thus, practicing engineers may often approach a problem differently than the way the same problem is treated in the classroom.

The first formal attempt to elicit information on these issues involved a survey, which was mailed to ten material handling professionals, four of whom responded. These responses were analyzed, and a report was produced. However, based on the small sample size, it was felt that another attempt should be made to gather additional data. It was decided that a roundtable discussion of educational issues would be conducted, with a panel of material handling professionals. Plans for the discussion were developed by the IPA, and a two-hour session was held in conjunction with the MHIA meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona, on November 10, 1996. This report presents a review and analysis of this roundtable discussion. An edited transcript of the session can be obtained on request from the third author (SSH).

A. Panel Constitution

The panel consisted of seven members: Jim Allred, ESKAY Corporation, Juan Brown, Integrated Technologies Group, Brad Moore, Munck Autech, Bill Persch, Demag Material Handling, Art St. Onge, St. Onge Company, Dan Sullivan, Electromotive Systems, and Howard Zollinger, Zollinger Associates. It was moderated by Mikell Groover, then CICMHE President and a faculty member at Lehigh University. The panel members all had significant engineering experience in the material handling industry and occupy positions that require them to be abreast of current engineering practices in their organizations. The organizations represented on the panel indude manufacturers of different types of handling equipment, and firms that specialize in systems design and integration.


The primary objectives of the roundtable discussion were:

* to learn how engineering-related expertise is applied to solve material handling problems in industry

* to identify critical skills and attributes needed by engineers working the handing in the material handling field

* to determine ways by which ties between higher education and the material handling industry can be strengthened.

The discussion centered around five issues related to the above objectives. Highlights of the discussion are provided in the following section.


Five questions were asked of the panel members as a means of focusing the discussion. In this section, highlights of the responses to each of the five questions are noted.

Question 1: What types of engineering problems are commonly encountered in your organization, and what analysis methods are most often used in addressing these problems?

The most common class of problems mentioned could be described as operations analysis problems. Specific problems in this class include the analysis of material flow, system capacity analysis, the design of effective layouts, problems related to facility expansion, decisions on whether to buy material handling equipment or design and fabricate it in-house, and concept feasibility studies.

Several panel members mentioned problems related to the use of various types of hardware, such as the sizing of components, the application of electro-mechanical devices, programmable logic controllers, and the general problem of interfacing different handling equipment types.

Analysis methods which were felt to be most important included simulation modeling, simple operations analysis, group problem solving techniques, project management, and rules-of-thumb. A knowledge of fundamentals of mechanics and electrical engineering was also seen as being important.

Question 2: What are the most important skills and/or attributes needed by graduating engineers entering the material handling field?

Responses to the second question could be classified as relating to communications and interpersonal skills, management skills, unanimous in emphasizing the critical importance of communications and interpersonal skills. Specific skills in these areas included the ability to organize and write effective technical report, to communicate orally, to sell one’s ideas, to plan and and conduct effective meetings, and to facilitate team activities.

Important management skills included effective project management, team building, risk assessment and management, customer change management, and knowledge of total quality management principles.

Important technical skills included the ability to clearly define problems, to collect critical data and information, to calculate equipment and system performance, and to understand equipment and system features. Several panel members pointed to simulation modeling and analysis as a vitally important technical tool in material handling analysis.

Finally, some of the panel members responded to this question by listing desirable personal attributes in employees. Creativity was seen as being important, balanced with the ability to generate practical solutions. It was noted that engineers must show a willingness to perform seemingly mundane tasks, when needed. The importance of values and ethics were also noted.

Question 3: What current, or emerging, trends do you see in the (material handling) industry which will impact thejob ofthe material handling engineer?

Trends which were noted included some that relate to the job of the engineer, some that relate to a company’s internal environment, and others relating to the external business environment. An important continuing trend seen in many environments was the rapid rate of change.

As a result of the restructuring of organizations which has been prevalent in the recent past, most companies’ engineering staffs have been reduced. Therefore, the engineer will often be asked to handle tasks in multiple disciplines. Team building and project management skills will be increasingly important, as will the ability to function effectively as an internal consultant.

The trend toward just-in-time (JIT) production, with the resulting reductions in inventory levels, will continue. The distribution system analogy of JIT, cross-docking, will become more prevalent. Levels of automation will continue to increase. Specifically, the usage of electronic data interchange, automated assembly tracking, automated data capture, and more “smart” devices on the plant floor, will rise. With the increased usage of automation, reliability and maintainability issues will become increasingly critical for effective system operation.

Several trends were noted relating to the external environment of the firm. These included the globalization of the business world, the tendency to view logistics as the foundational process of the enterprise, increased efforts to simplify the supply chain and reduce cycle times, and the establishment of direct dialogue between manufacturers and the end consumer.

Question 4: What are the most important topics that should be covered in a “principles of material handling” course?

Once again, the panelists emphasized communications skills and the ability to sell ideas. Operations analysis techniques which were mentioned included simulation, operations research, layout planning, traffic flow planning and analysis, process mapping, lifecycle cost analysis, and general data analysis.

With regard to handling equipment, it was felt that emphasis should be placed on gaining a familiarity with the different general equipment types, as well as an understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and possible applications. The selection of an appropriate equipment type for a specific problem situation is also important. Some specific equipment types were mentioned as needing more emphasis. These included control systems, real-time material tracking systems, and containerization systems.

In summary, the panel members placed great importance on giving students an overall understanding of the “big picture” of material handling. The ability to take a systems viewpoint when looking at a problem is crucial. In order to do this, students must be familiar with the principles of world-class manufacturing and distribution.

Question 5: How does your company work directly with universities?

All of the represented companies are engaged, to some degree, in direct contacts with colleges and universities. Co-operative education and student internship programs are the most frequent form of involvement. One company is assisting a university with material handling course development. Another has helped arrange an international study tour for students with its parent company.

Several of the companies work with universities in research activities. Two types of involvement were noted: participation in research colloquia, and sponsorship of university research projects. Examples of research projects that were mentioned were primarily related to technology and hardware development (e.g., machine vision systems, automated guided vehicle systems).


The roundtable format proved to be an effective means of eliciting useful information from material handling industry experts, especially when compared to the written survey. There was a high level of interest and participation on the part of the industry participants. This concluding section of the report attempts to address two questions: (1) to what degree were the objectives of the roundtable achieved?, and (2) what lessons were learned?

The first two objectives of the discussion were seen by the panel members as being closely related. The bulk of the discussion was applicable to these objectives. In particular, a rather comprehensive list of important skills and attributes needed by material handling engineers (both now, and in the future) was generated. Educators and students can infer several important points from this part of the discussion.

The material handling professionals seem to be making a case for a broad engineering education. For example, communications skills, general problem-solving skills, creativity, knowledge of other disciplines, systems thinking, and business awareness received much more attention in the discussion than detailed technical skills. Although the importance of practical approaches to problem-solving was emphasized, coverage of theoretical topics can be viewed as a valuable method for learning to think creatively.

Industrial material handling problems are largely openended. This indicates a need for using project and case problems extensively in material handling courses. Such problems generally provide good opportunities for exercising students’ problem definition ability, communications skills, team skills, and project management skills.

Finally, the third objective of the discussion was not fully achieved. The fifth question attempted to address the objective, but was stated in such a way that it resulted in the generation of a list of current practices regarding industry-university cooperation, rather than specific ideas for strengthening those ties. Also, there was insufficient time remaining to explore thoroughly the question. Therefore, this issue may deserve more investigation in the future. Another possible future activity might be the incorporation of the points raised in this discussion into the development of a course outline for a basic course in materials handling.

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Oct 2000

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