60 Seconds with John Hill, Director at St. Onge
Modern's editors sat down with John Hill, Director at St. Onge. He has 50 years in the materials handling and automatic identification industries.
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Location: Watsonville, Calif.
Experience: 50 years in the materials handling and automatic identification industries.
Modern: What was the state of automation, software and automatic identification when you entered the industry back in the late 1960s?
Hill: Automation was afoot in warehousing and distribution, but it was primarily focused on movement and by that I mean conveyors. People were busily working on automated storage systems and automatic guided vehicles, but those didn’t appear until the 70s. Looking back, the technology was pretty primitive, but we sold these things and they provided value. The biggest contrast between then and now is that the solutions were monolithic. They addressed a single set of problems without a look into the future about what could derail the initiative in terms of changes in the sizes of pallets and packaging.
Modern: You were there at the early stages of the bar code scanning and warehouse management system (WMS) industries. What were those early implementations like?
Hill: The first implementation of a bar code scanning system that was not at the point of sale was Buick Plant Number 10 in October 1971. I know this because I carried a 50-pound scanner into that plant for the demo. Buick wanted to improve traceability, and it was an easy sale once we demonstrated that a scanner could read lines on a label attached to transmissions moving down an assembly line. I first came across the idea of a WMS in 1974 at the National Material Handling show in Chicago. I met with a guy named Vincent Occhipinti, who was a pioneer in enterprise and factory automation software. He had founded a company called Logisticon and was working on things like a wire guidance system to manage narrow aisle flow. He told me that if we could find a way to keep track of lift trucks and where they go, we could communicate with them. He wanted to develop wireless terminals that could be installed on the trucks and communicate with the operators. At the time, I was not interested in joining the company because I thought he was too far ahead of his time. Turns out, in 1975 or 1976 he sold a solution to JCPenney in Southern California using truck-mounted terminals that could be used to input data on cartons and boxes on the facility. He called it Dispatcher, and it was the first WMS.
Modern: So, what’s the state of automation, software and identification today?
Hill: Back in the 1970s I wrote an article with a lead line that went something like “Within 10 years, we’ll be able to track anything from a tin of caviar to a pallet anywhere within a company’s network.” We now have the wherewithal to do what in our naivete we thought we’d be doing by around 1980, and it’s exciting.
Modern: What has changed? Or, what took so long?
Hill: We didn’t have all the tools back then. The most significant contributors have been computing power and the related drop in the price of computing and communications networking. Now, we need to be careful not to take it for granted. People see bar codes everywhere and assume they work, but there’s still a lot of dotting I’s and crossing T’s that has to be done behind the scenes to make sure it works properly. This is a generalization that has a few holes in it, but I don’t see people paying enough attention to the basics; they assume all this stuff works and that’s dangerous.
Modern: How should the industry think about innovation?
Hill: That’s a question I keep posing to myself. For instance, I wonder what it will take for us to really create an Internet of Things, a connected supply chain. Recently, I spent three days at Google’s headquarters with a group of 400 autoID types from around the world. There were people there who were focused on RFID, on bar codes and things like QR coding. I saw more excitement about the future and what they can bring to the party when it comes to the Internet of Things and smart sensors than I’ve seen in a long time. I think our industry needs a little of that excitement.
Modern: If you think about all of the emerging technologies that we’re talking about, which one excites you the most?
Hill: Artificial Intelligence is exciting stuff. The promise is the ability to look in real time at what’s exactly going on in your facility or your supply chain and have enough moxie in your system to adjust on the fly. David Scott, my old partner, wanted to put AI capability into a WMS about what to pick, in what sequence and then load disparate products into trailers. Sounds simple but it was incredibly complex and back then, the developers didn’t understand the complexity of warehousing. Today, they do. It’s both exciting and a little frightening.
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