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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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