By Chris Powers
Throughout 2014, MHEDA has celebrated its 60th anniversary by remembering the past that has laid the foundation for the material handling distribution industry of today. As a final piece of that celebration, we pay tribute to the many innovations that have helped transform the industry since 1954. Whether it’s in the types and functions of products available to the conveniences that make office life more efficient, innovations take many forms. In fact, it’s difficult to narrow a list to only 60 because there have been so many significant innovations and moments in the past six decades!
Because of that, we’re sure we missed some. Feel free to suggest others that don’t appear on the following pages by submitting a note to firstname.lastname@example.org for mention in a future feature in The MHEDA Connection or The MHEDA Journal.
The lists below are in no particular order; choosing the items was hard enough, let alone trying to rank them!
Material Handling Innovations
1. Bar Code — Though originally patented more than 60 years ago in 1952, bar codes evolved to include things like the ubiquitous Universal Product Code (1966) and Code 39 (1974) for military items and are the basis of product tracking technologies in use today.
2. Lasers — An acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” the laser was first patented in 1960, and are used in applications such as bar code scanners, automated guided vehicles and other engineered systems products.
3. Bar Code Scanner — Combine the two above and you have this important item, first developed in 1969.
4. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) — First invented in 1953 as a forklift that followed a wire on the warehouse floor, the AGV has undergone countless upgrades and innovations over the last 60 years to become the precise systems they are today.
5. Unit-load AGV — These vehicles that came along in the mid-1970s served several functions — workstation, transportation device and more — which helped these devices gain even more widespread acceptance within the material handling industry.
6. The Unimate — The first industrial robot worked at a General Motors assembly plant in New Jersey beginning in 1961 and set the stage for the complex robotic installations that would follow.
7. Radio frequency identification (RFID) — The technology has been around since World War II but has been refined to handle more precise material handling applications. The first patent for an active RFID tag with rewriteable memory was granted in 1973.
8. Electronic fuel injection system — The patent granted in 1972 for “an electronic fuel injection system for use on internal combustion engines” helped usher in the era of more efficient and powerful engines for material handling equipment.
9. Electric forklift — Sometime after World War II, as warehouses, pallets and indoor storage became more prominent, the use of battery-powered lift trucks became more prominent as well. Improved efficiency, safety and productivity have helped electric forklifts evolve over time.
10. Gelled battery technologies — Introduced in the 1980s, gelled electrolytes cannot be spilled, thus greatly improving safety in battery usage applications.
11. Hydrogen fuel cell — In 2000, the first forklift prototype using a hydrogen fuel cell was created. By 2013, there were more than 4,000 fuel cell forklifts being used in the United States alone.
12. Fast charging — Handheld devices such as flashlights and electric razors have had fast-charging capabilities since the 1970s. By the 1990s, this capability had spread to over-the-road electric vehicles, including forklifts.
13. Narrow-aisle reach trucks — The first of these unique vehicles hit the market in 1954. As building codes have become stricter and space has become more premium, these trucks have gained popularity in recent years.
14. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — Created by the federal government in 1970, OSHA’s mission has been the basic proposition that no worker should have to choose between their life and their job.
15. Racking regulations — In the early 1970s, the Interim Specification for the Design, Testing and Utilization of Industrial Steel Storage Racks by the Rack Manufacturers Institute (RMI) was adopted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and, subsequently, by the Uniform Building Code (UBC).
16. Material handling pallet — According to the 1969 patent, a material handling pallet provides a “support sheet having a topside for receiving material to be handled and an underside, a plurality of elevator members being secured to the underside for maintaining the sheet in a raised position from a supporting surface and to enable insertion thereunder of lift forks.”
17. Plastic pallet — It’s unclear when the plastic pallet made its first appearance, but it was sometime since World War II. It has undergone continuous innovation; for example, a 1977 patent for a fiberglass pallet stated its objective was to “provide an improved composite pallet.”
18. Paper pallet — Light weight, adaptability and elimination of empty pallet return were among the reasons paper pallets gained popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. Durability improvements since the 1945 patent have helped keep paper pallets a viable transport solution.
19. Conveyor belting — Innovations such as plastic belts, quieter components and heavy-duty systems have revolutionized the conveyor industry since 1954, helping end users in a number of industries improve throughput.
20. Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) — AS/RS systems are designed for automated storage and retrieval of parts and items in manufacturing, distribution, retail, wholesale and institutions. They first originated in the 1960s, initially focusing on heavy pallet load. However, advanced technology, such as shuttle systems, has enabled AS/RS to handle smaller, lighter, more precise loads.
21. Emissions regulations — Throughout the 2000s, the California Air Resources Board has implemented strict emissions laws for large-spark ignition engine fleets, which include lift trucks and other equipment with more than 25 horsepower. The rules first went into effect in 2009, with more strict regulations in 2011 and 2013.
22. Color television — The first national color broadcast was the 1954 Tournament of Roses parade, which technically occurred about 10 months before MHEDA formed, but its impact on the American lifestyle was too great to ignore. Besides, it wasn’t until 1966 that every prime time show was broadcast in color.
23. Touch-tone telephone — In 1963, the first electronic push-button system with touch-tone dialing was offered to customers in Pennsylvania. Its ease of use won over customers, and the touch-tone system gradually replaced the rotary dial as the industry standard.
24. Fax machine — After inventing the product in 1964, Xerox Corporation in 1966 released the Magnafax Telecopier, a smaller, 46-pound facsimile machine that was easier to operate, could connect to any standard phone line and could transmit a letter-sized document in about six minutes.
25. Cellular phone — In 1978, Bell Laboratories began testing a mobile telephone system based on hexagonal geographical regions called “cells” that used an automatic switching system to transfer the call as the caller moved from one cell to another. Nationwide usage began in 1983, the start of a societal transformation.
26. Picture phone — The first test system, built in 1956, sent one image every two seconds. It never caught on in its initial form, but the technology is incorporated into webcams and cell phones we all use today.
27. Handheld calculator — Texas Instruments is credited with the first pocket calculator in 1967. The battery-powered device could accept six-digit numbers, perform the four basic arithmetic functions, and print results as large as 12 digits on a thermal printer.
28. Light-emitting diode (LED) — First patented in the early 1960s, LEDs have many advantages over incandescent lighting, including lower energy consumption, longer life, smaller size and faster switching. LEDs are now used in applications ranging from aviation lighting to traffic signals to camera displays and much more.
29. Single-chip microprocessor — The Intel 4004, introduced in November 1971, minimized the size of the integrated circuit and placed all the parts that made a computer “think” on one small chip, enabling the ability to program intelligence into inanimate objects.
30. Personal computer — The Olivetti Programma 101, the size of a typewriter, was launched at the 1964 World’s Fair and retailed for $3,200. Its use in schools, hospitals and government quickly ushered in more robust and compact models.
31. Windows operating system — Technically, Apple’s Mac OS came first. But Windows, released in November 1985, came to dominate the personal computer market with over 90 percent market share.
32. Desktop printers — Innovations in this realm include the first high-speed printer (1953), the first laser printer (1971) and the first inkjet printer (1976).
33. Computer mouse — Until 1964, computer data entry required typing commands on a keyboard. Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse, which consisted of a wooden shell, circuit board and two metal wheels that came into contact with the surface it was being used on.
34. Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) computer language — Designed at Dartmouth College in 1964 to encourage students outside of science and mathematics to use computers, BASIC’s emphasis on ease of use enabled small business owners and the general public to develop affordable custom software.
35. Unix — Developed in the mid-1960s, Unix is an operating system that was an essential element in the development of computer networks and is currently used widely in servers, workstations and mobile devices.
36. ARPANET — The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was one of the world’s first operational digital transfer networks and the basis of what would later become the global Internet. In what a cynic might call a sign of things to come, the first transmitted message crashed the whole system for an hour.
37. Email — By the late 1960s, networks could deliver mail between users on a single system. Eventually, email would become popular enough to transform interpersonal communications forever.
38. World Wide Web — Though the two terms are often confused, the World Wide Web is just one portion of the Internet. (Email, for example, is accessed via the Internet but not necessarily the World Wide Web). Developed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990, the Web is one of the most significant technological developments of the 20th century.
39. Digital camera — Evolved from the same technology that recorded television images, the “film-less electronic camera” was first patented by Texas Instruments in 1972.
40. Global Positioning System — This now ubiquitous satellite navigation tool was developed in 1973 by the U.S. Department of Defense but did not become fully operational until 1995.
41. Tablet computers — Around in various forms since the 1990s, tablets didn’t really explode until the release of the iPad in 2010. By 2014, it is estimated that 31 percent of Internet users have a tablet.
42. Fiber optics — Alexander Graham Bell is best known for the telephone, but he actually created an early version of fiber optic cable in 1880 that could transmit sound on a beam of light. However, it took until the 1970s to become a reliable form of communication that today is used to deliver broadband services to homes and businesses.
43. LinkedIn — It wasn’t the first social networking site, but it is the most prominent within business circles. Founded in 2003, As of June 2013, it reports nearly 260 million users in more than 200 countries and territories.
Other Stuff That’s, Like, Really Important
While at first glance these may seem like silly observations, some of these innovations forever changed life in the business world in subtle ways. At least that’s what we’re telling ourselves.
44. Air bags — Conceptualized as early as the 1950s, the patent for the “world’s first electromechanical automotive airbag system” was granted in 1968. Now mandated by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, airbags have greatly reduced the number of deaths and serious injuries in automobile accidents.
45. ZIP codes — An acronym for Zone Improvement Plan, ZIP codes have been used by the United States Postal Service since 1963 to help ensure the mail would “zip along” more efficiently.
46. Post-It Notes — Resulting from a failed attempt to develop a super-strong adhesive in 1968, the sticky squares went mainstream in 1974 after the inventor’s colleague used them to mark pages in his hymnbook. Now, they’re everywhere.
47. Non-dairy creamer — When Coffee-Mate hit the market in 1958, it meant no refrigerated milk or cream was necessary to have cream in coffee, a blessing for traveling salespeople everywhere.
48. Aspartame/NutraSweet — Sweetening your coffees, teas, sodas, chewing gum and dozens of other foods since 1965.
49. Soda can tab — The pull-tab invented in 1959 eliminated the need for a separate opening device and provided easier access to the NutraSweet that would come a few years later.
50. The Snuggie — Just kidding.
50. Cassette tapes — Although they have since been surpassed by compact discs and digital downloads, cassette tapes were invented in the mid-1960s and enabled the era of portable music, making those rides to customer sites a little more enjoyable.
51. Automated teller machine — This 1969 invention gave consumers the ability to withdraw cash at all hours of the day, simplifying tasks like “paying bills.”
52. Soft contact lenses — Wearer comfort is the primary reason these began to be more prescribed than rigid lenses following FDA approval in 1971. By 2010, the worldwide contact lens market was estimated at $6.1 billion.
53. Smoke detectors — First invented in 1890, it wasn’t until the 1960s that they decreased in size and cost enough to be installed in homes.
MHEDA has brought forth many ideas that continue to help material handling distributors thrive today.
54. MHEDA Convention — First held in 1955, the MHEDA Convention has remained the premier industry event for networking, education and sharing knowledge with like-minded material handling distributors.
55. Exhibitors’ Showcase — In 1963, MHEDA introduced the M-D COMCEN, a “communications center for manufacturers and distributors to discuss mutual problems.” This concept exists today as the Exhibitors’ Showcase.
56. MHEDA-NET — The creation of the MHEDA-NET program in 2004 gave members a chance to meet in small groups all year and share ideas in a non-competitive setting.
57. Manufacturers Board of Advisors — To promote a spirit of collaboration and inclusion, MHEDA has sponsored the MBOA as part of its board of directors since the mid-2000s.
58. The MHEDA Journal — Since 1966, MHEDA has produced a quarterly feature magazine as a benefit to members.
59. The MHEDA Connection — In 2001, the association developed this semi-monthly newsletter that is distributed to members via email and contains industry news and event updates.
60. MHEDA University — MHEDA didn’t invent the webinar, but it has put the technology that was developed in the late 1990s to good use with its slate of stay-at-home educational opportunities for members.
It’s clear from this list that the industry and the society we live in have changed dramatically since our association was founded in 1954. Without a doubt, more innovations are on their way. In fact, something is likely being invented today that will have a tremendous impact on our lives going forward. We can’t wait to see how this list will change in the years to come!