Experts suggest a bit of crystal-ball gazing as the way to survive in an unpredictable economy. Make retrofitting part of your original business plan.
“A lot of retrofitting comes down to starting with a good initial design,” says Ian Hobkirk, director, supply chain consulting, Forte (Mason, Ohio). Retrofitting is about planning for contingencies and change. In a world of expanding business, building a shiny new facility is often at the top of management’s wish list. When times get tough, making due with what you have, or making some upgrades, makes more sense.
Now, the hardware side of material handling is taking a lesson from software manufacturers. Service-oriented (software) architecture allows companies to change or reconfigure their business plans and processes rapidly. By taking this same thought process into material handling flow designs and equipment designs, managers can more quickly react to changing business needs.
Hobkirk says using simulation, for example, during the original design process can be particularly helpful. “Using simulation, we can look at how a system will run five or 10 years down the road,” he says. “By knowing what’s ahead, little things can be done, originally, that will make any future retrofit much less costly.”
Changes on paper cost nothing, he says. Locating a conveyor or stretch wrapping machine to where it will be needed in the future is much easier during the original installation.
What is a Retrofit?
Retrofitting has many designs and definitions. In some cases, it’s a matter of reconfiguring equipment you already have, driven by changes in product mix, SKU proliferation or changes in manufacturing philosophies.
“As manufacturers adapt more cellular approaches to manufacturing,” says Larry Tyler, president of K-Tec (Wickliffe, Ohio), “they realize the benefits of moving smaller amounts of material to the line, rather than bulk loads.”
And, toward that end, maybe lift trucks are not the correct delivery vehicle, he says. Tyler’s “forklift alternative” philosophy proposes locating all lift truck activity to the perimeter of the manufacturing floor and delivering parts to manufacturing cells with hand carts or a train of carts pulled by a single truck.
“What we’re experiencing in some retrofits,” says Tyler, “in large part driven by lean manufacturing and a drive for more flexibility, are more point solutions. People are doing retrofits in pieces, rather than retooling an entire plant. It’s a more incremental approach to problem solving.”
As examples of this incremental approach, Tyler cites companies kitting on carts, or building entire machines, then pulling them from one cell to another, rather than using an assembly-line approach.
Probably “modernizing” is a more accurate term for what is happening in factories and distribution centers these days rather than retrofitting. Ken Johnson, vice president of modernizations, HK Systems (Milwaukee), says business is good; plenty of expansion projects replacing outdated equipment seem to be major drivers.
“Many companies had equipment, things like PLCs [programmable logic controllers] with proprietary systems,” he says, “and now, they’re looking for more stateof- the-art equipment.”
In the big hardware department, as the capabilities of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have improved, so has the need for upgrading. “New, more reliable and flexible alternatives are available,” says Johnson, “especially AGVs with forks and laser guidance.”
He adds that gone is the need for stands to move product onto or off of the deck of the AGV. Forks can now put the load directly onto conveyors or into trailers right at the dock.
Facility or system retrofitting can happen at any time. A shift in consumer demand or increase in SKUs means a company has to be able to react. Johnson uses a staff of people to keep in contact with existing customers and others about the new capabilities of equipment and assesses the needs of the customer. “As my boss [Mike Kotecki, senior vice president] says, ‘We want our customers to have us on their speed dial,’” says Johnson. By working with feedback from maintenance and service personnel, his staff functions as educators, bringing the latest information about equipment to the end users.
“Service and inspection are big and important parts of what we do in the process of modernization,” says Johnson. “We find we have to educate customers on new controllers and software, which often leads to retrofitting of existing systems.”
Persistence pays. Johnson says you just have to keep talking with people. Sometimes, the need is immediate, yet for other times—as one case he cites that took 10 years—it takes a while.
For more information on the subject of retrofitting, contact any of the following sources: