Past and Future: Perspectives on Material Handling

Introduction by René de Koster
Two decades of Material Handling The world of material handling has changed enormously over the past two decades. These changes have occurred primarily in the areas of information technology and social networks, automation and robotization, ergonomics, safety, sustainability, and efficiency- but also in the place of material handling in the world of academia.

Twenty years ago very little attention was paid to material handling both within academic research and higher education. This was true in the Netherlands but certainly also elsewhere, with the exception of some reputed research institutes like Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Fraunhofer IML. For me, with a background in material handling consulting, this was odd, since storage and transhipment are key to the Dutch economy, providing employment to many people and responsible for a considerable share of the gross domestic product. I wanted to change this, and the best way I could see how was to simply start conducting my own research and teaching in this area.
In teaching, I started a course in Warehouse Management, one that I am still teaching. Many of the supply chain master’s students I have taught in this course found their first job during their warehousing project. Some of my former PhD students continued to conduct research in the field, became professors, and are now teaching similar courses at their respective universities.

In research, I had a number of subjects in mind: te control and design of automated guided vehicle systems, order picking methods, storage strategies, facility layouts, container terminal operations, and compact storage systems. Since then, thanks to several gifted PhD students, we have been able to explore all these aras and move our research forward considerably. New research areas have emerged: sustainability in material handling and, in particular, the human factor in material handling. Operational performance in organisations is largely determined by system design, IT control systems and procedures. But it appears to also depend sometimes substantially, on how managers lead the operation, take decisions, and the behaviour of employees. This area is studied in behavioural operations management. Leadership styles, incentives, the personality of the leader and the personalities of employees interact with the system design and procedures and have a strong impact on the productivity, quality, rate of accidents, and job satisfaction of the employees.

In this book, several authors take a retrospective look at the developments in the field of material handling both in practice and in research over the last twenty years, and make some predictions for the future. Also included are some key representative papers used in courses on warehousing and material handling that highlight what we have learned and taught during this period. I thank all the authors for their valuable contributions to this book, as well as ERIM, Stichting Logistica, and the Material Handling Forum (MHF) for making the publication of this book possible.