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Press & Articles about SJF Material Handling (page 2)

SJF remains very active in the material handling community - often authoring articles about material handling equipment, services or opinions. As a leading voice in the material handling industry, SJF and its employees have been prominently featured in several trade publications. We have compiled these articles here on these pages for your perusal.

Recent Articles

Archived Articles Page 2

DC Velocity

Safe Lifting

Equipment Spotlight

By Amanda Loudin

With some top-of-the-line models costing up to $100,000 a pop, it's obvious why you need to take good care of your lift trucks. But there's a lot more to it than an occasional lube job.

Funny how the very same people who wouldn't think of pushing their Integras to go 70,000 miles without an oil change, hauling loads of bricks in their Miatas or allowing a novice to grind up the gears on their new Touaregs behave almost casually when it comes to the welfare of their lift trucks. And it's all the funnier-or maybe not so funny-when you consider that those forklifts they treat so off-handedly cost anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 apiece.

Maybe it's the forklift's reputation as tile indestructible workhorse of the warehouse, maybe it's time pressure, maybe it's ignorance. Whatever the cause, that neglect invariably results in premature wear or even a smoking, screeching breakdown.

How can you protect your lift truck investment? Keeping the trucks in prime condition requires a three-pronged approach. First, you match the truck to the job; then you keep up with maintenance; and finally, you operate the trucks as directed by the manufacturer.

The Match Game

Step one in keeping your lift trucks in top operating condition takes place before the rubber hits the DC floor with the selection process. You have to match the truck with the specific job you need done. "Every application is unique in some way, shape or form" says Martin Boyd, manager of product planning at Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. Inc. of Irvine, Calif. "But choosing the right model is absolutely crucial in determining not only how productive the truck will be but also how efficient your overall operation will be."

Figuring out what features you want in a truck requires a lot more than just picking one from column A and two from column B. It's more a matter of sizing up your own operations, says Susan Comfort, marketing director, order-pickers and very narrow aisle products for The Raymond Corp. of Greene, N.Y. "When evaluating trucks for the job, you have to consider all the tasks the operator is required to do," she says. "You also have to consider the load-its weight, length, width, and the height it will be raised to. Then look at the warehouse layout-the aisles and rack staging area-and determine the amount of run time per shift for each truck." But looking at current requirements is not enough, she adds. "You also have to consider and anticipate any changes in the tasks, the loads, the work period and the warehouse."

That attention should extend to the lift-truck attachments and options, too. Pick the wrong fork for a hydraulic-shift truck, for example, and the operator will lose valuable time making up for the shortcoming. Putting a lift truck to work in a paper operation without fitting it with a special clamp to help maneuver paper rolls could make it nearly impossible to move the truck into tight spaces. And using a vehicle in a cold food storage environment without outfitting it with a "cold package" designed to help it adapt to a wide range of temperature variations will cause it to fail soon after driving out of a freezer as condensation builds up on the electronics.

When shopping for lift trucks, make sure that you're working with reputable and well-informed dealers. "It's vitally important that your salesperson spend the time to understand how the truck will be used in your specific application," says Boyd. "The two biggest mistakes a lift truck salesperson can make are to bypass the application survey stage and to base the configuration of the new equipment on old equipment presently being used."

All too often, DC managers ask their dealers to replace "exactly what they have," adds Jon Levine, vice president of counterbalanced product sales at Yale Lift Trucks in Greenville, N.C. "But many times loads or routes have changed since the last time they purchased trucks. You can't assume what was suitable in the past will work for the future."

Just as your applications may have changed, the truck models themselves have likely undergone a few alterations since the last time you were in the market. For instance, says Levine, many of the older trucks advertised as having a 4,000-pound load capacity could actually move more than that-which meant operators weren't afraid to use them to move the occasional 4,500-pound load. Nowadays, however, a truck rated at 4,000 pounds can't go over that limit. Assuming it can and using it for that purpose could cause premature wear or endanger workers.

Staying in Shape

As with any vehicle, lift trucks need periodic maintenance to stay in top operating condition. That's a thorough going-over, not just an occasional lube job. "If you don't maintain your lift trucks properly," says Lyle Pichelman, sales engineer at SJF Material Handling in Winsted, Minn., "they'll die on you when you nee them the most." A neglected lift truck depreciates rapidly, he warns. "When the time comes to replace it, the value will be a fraction of what it should be."

The obvious way to keep your lift trucks out of the repair bay is to heed the manufacturers' recommended preventative maintenance schedules. "If the repair manual recommends changing the hydraulic fluid every 200 hours, change the fluid every 200 hours," says Boyd.

That also means following the OEM's recommendations to the letter. If, for example, the manufacturer recommends using Boron- free engine coolant, don't substitute a cheaper coolant containing Boron. That substitution could cause costly and irreversible damage to aluminum intakes and aluminum core radiators.

In fact, it may be in your best interest to take the trucks back to the OEM for servicing, says Levine. Today's trucks are more sophisticated than their older counterparts, requiring a great deal of technical know-how on the mechanic's part, he notes. "It's not like in the past where a simple fix could do it."

Richard Graumann, manager of aftermarket sales at The Raymond Corp., suggests tracking maintenance and downtime trends to identify vehicles that could be mismatched to their applications or nearing the end of their useful lives.

Daily pre-shift inspections-which are required by OSHA-can alert operators to developing problems, too. Dirk Von Holt, president of Jungheinrith Lift Trucks in Richmond, Va., strongly advocates making it the driver's responsibility to begin his or her shift with a thorough inspection. That includes checking fuel, battery electrolyte, oil and coolant levels as well as the condition of the forks, carriage chains, tires and even the seat belts.

Run it Right

Of course no maintenance program can offset the wear and tear caused by screeching stops, stuttering starts and careening turns. Levine says that one of the most common misconceptions about lift-truck operation is that anyone can do it. "There's no reality to the thinking that if you can drive to work, you can drive a forklift truck," he says.

Though OSHA issued specific lift truck training standards in 1999, training efforts still tend to be spotty. Training costs money, to be sure, but managers who take the training requirement seriously will save the company money in the long run. Whether they outsource training or handle it in house, operations that follow the protocol laid out in the standard generally have fewer accidents, and therefore, report less downtime and enjoy lower insurance rates.

But the benefits don't end with lower insurance rates and less downtime. Training can lead to more productive operations as well. "Operators that have been fully trained on a particular piece of equipment tend to be more comfortable using it because they're familiar with how it will respond in a given situation," says Boyd. "Operators who have not gone through the training are often hesitant in certain operating situations because they are not clear on how the lift truck will respond. This hesitancy undoubtedly has an effect on productivity."

Amanda Loudin is a freelance writer who specializes in logistics and distribution topics.

Plant Services

Move Inventory, Not Workers

A plant can save space, time and money with a carousel

By Frank Sterner

Many companies think material handling automation is a nice idea, but something for the big guys. After all, computers and automated systems cost money. Automation is designed for high-volume shops. It takes up space. It requires training, and that means hours spent away from production. Once installed, automation needs to be maintained-and that means more downtime. Too often, the decision to automate is put off until a future day when the company thinks it's big enough to need it-or big enough to afford it.

In reality, material handling automation comes in many sizes. It saves far more productive hours than it takes in training, installation and maintenance. It can actually save space. It's not something that requires a plant to be of a particular size. In fact, it's an excellent way to help grow to the size you want to be.

Consider these examples:
An electronics company had four or five people picking orders from shelving on about 2,000 square feet of floor space. Installing two simple horizontal carousels allowed one or two people to handle the same volume while needing only 700 square feet.

In another application, eight to ten people worked two shifts picking airline parts from an area of about 15,000 square feet. With the installation of an automated storage system and its software, the floor space requirement was reduced to about 8,000 square feet-and the payroll to three people.

While the companies in these examples aren't huge multinationals, they still could use the savings. Eliminating perhaps 1,300 square feet of sorting space might mean putting off a move to larger facilities. Eliminating five or six related salaries might make the difference between loss and profitability.

In both examples, the basic automation tool is the carousel-an automated storage and retrieval system that rotates to deliver the proper part to a particular workstation. Instead of sending people wandering around vast shelving storage areas, carousels send the shelves to the worker, who stands in one place ready to do the next step: load the delivered part to the machine, work on the delivered assembly or pack the part for shipping.

At its simplest, the concept works like this. A vertical carousel in a machine shop is loaded with commonly used tools and small parts. This arrangement uses considerably less floor space than a standard shelving system. When a particular part or tool is required, the operator punches a keypad, the carousel rotates, and the needed item is brought within easy reach. Yes, it takes a little while for the operator to learn which buttons to push. But the first time the operator doesn't have to waste time looking for a part that has been mislabeled or placed on the wrong shelf makes up for the learning time.

On a more sophisticated level, carousels can use software to control the flow of inventory from the delivery point to storage and, when an order is received, from storage to the fulfillment and shipping areas.

Storing Discontinued Parts

For example, a company regularly discontinues old parts and gives its distributors a specified time to return unsold merchandise. As the returned parts arrive, an operator keys the part number (or scans a bar code) into the system. The carousel sends the proper bin to the workstation for the operator to store the parts. Then the software updates inventory figures.

When the grace period for returning this particular part ends, the system informs an operator, who empties the bin and sends the parts to inactive storage. The available bin now can be assigned another purpose-probably another discontinued part. Because software controls the system, similar parts don't need to be stored next to each other. Any available space can be used for anything that will fit, which eliminates the need for reorganizing the entire storage system periodically.


A plant with three or more workers, each making more than 1,000 picks a day from inventory, might benefit from the productivity gains that horizontal carousels offer. The horizontal carousel can serve several stationary pickers simultaneously. Workers no longer have to walk from bin to bin in search of parts.

While vertical carousels also offer productivity gains, it's usually not as a result of increasing volume. Vertical units usually serve individual workers who become more productive when they don't have to spend time picking when they should be doing something else.

If acreage is at a premium, carousels can help. Horizontal systems may reduce space requirements to some extent just because of more efficient storage and a reduction in the number of workers needed to do the work, but the real savings come with vertical carousels. They use the top half of a facility that most plants underutilize-without requiring extra space for forklifts or ladders to reach something stored on upper shelves. In this case, the carousel brings the parts down to the stationary picker standing on the floor.


Software-driven carousels encourage accuracy. Even with simple keypad-controlled systems, workers are far less likely to make mistakes. In addition, items are less likely to be stored incorrectly, eliminating time wasted looking for lost items. In most material handling applications, accuracy is important not only because it contributes to productivity: it also can have an impact on customer satisfaction, return rates or subsequent stages in the manufacturing process.

Inventory Control

When a plant installs a carousel system, it must revise storage procedures. This usually requires a thorough physical inventory and a rationalization of the process to produce a clean baseline for a fresh start with accurate information and better procedures. The carousel's accuracy makes it much easier to maintain the pristine condition.

With software-controlled systems, the situation is even better. The computer specifies which picks to make and moves the proper bin to where it's a simple matter for an operator to make the picks accurately. Then it removes the picked items from the inventory record.


Vertical carousels deliver the correct part or tool to a worker quickly and accurately. Horizontal carousels, like vertical types, allow for enormous productivity gains.

Horizontal systems are usually installed in pods, with perhaps two carousels serving each operator. The now-stationary operator follows the instructions on the computer monitor and light trees on the carousel. Because the operator does nothing but pick, the number-of-picks rate rises dramatically.

Frank Sterner is a Solutions Specialist at SJF Material Handling Inc. He can be reached at and (320)-485-4960.

Sourcing Options Include Reconditioned Carousels

Buying best-of-breed carousel elements from different manufacturers is not the problem that some people believe it to be. A qualified dealer with systems experience can integrate the right carousel - regardless of maker - into a unified material handling system.

The right fit is crucial. Carousels come in all shaped and sizes, with different speeds, capacities and features. Before purchasing a system, know exactly what you want to do with it - for the present and for the life of the system. The right system for the application is out there, but you may have to search for it.

Buying "as-is" used equipment is not a good option. Carousels are subject to wear and tear, and the motors and controllers probably should be replaced. The good news is that maintenance is relatively simple and infrequent. Most carousel systems have an uptime greater than 99 percent.

Incidentally, this warning against "as is" equipment doesn't mean that new equipment is always the best answer. Many dealers are beginning to offer "renewed" equipment, a step above the old "refurbished" category. Renewed equipment has been thoroughly inspected and tested. Worn parts have been replaced. Most important, the dealer guarantees that the installed system will operate in accordance with original specifications for a fixed period of time. This option may well be worth exploring.

Parcel Shipping & Distribution

Shorter Supply Chains, Higher Expectations

By Frank Sterner - Senior Executive, Genesys Systems -
A Division of SJF Material Handling Inc.

The past few years have seen some dramatic changes in parcel shipping methods. Most of those changes have been driven by impatience, manifested in what the industry calls "the shortening of the supply chain." It is an interesting phrase, summing up a wide variety of customer attitudes and business strategies.

To the consumer, shortening the supply chain means an unwillingness to accept the term "out of stock" or delays in order processing, and a reluctance to endure lengthy delivery times.

To the seller, who must somehow meet these higher customer expectations, a shorter supply chain means reducing inventory turns, "crossdocking" as much product as possible and having complete inventory on hand at all times. Since the inception of the "dot-com" era, merchants have promised 24-hour product delivery, in-stock inventories, and on-line order tracking. This level of service is not only the norm, it is now the minimum acceptable offering.

Keeping both the consumer and the seller happy is the responsibility of the parcel shippers, who now must perform at unprecedented service levels and at constantly reduced costs. Luckily, distribution technology is not in place to support these lofty goals.

Designing a parcel distribution center to satisfy current industry demands requires a thorough review of new processes and technologies. Fortunately, the goals, at least, are clear: to route product through the distribution center as rapidly as possible, with the greatest level of accuracy and at the lowest possible cost.

Old methods and systems are simply not capable of handling the current myriad of products and order sizes in an efficient or cost-effective manner. The new generation of efficient distribution centers, on the other hand, handle more product faster and cheaper than ever before, with greater levels of accountability and increased order visibility to the client. Of course, you can't just throw out all the old systems and purchase some "everything for everybody" off-the-shelf system to solve all your problems. It would be nice if it was that easy, but it's not.

Available New Technologies

Most truly efficient distribution centers are designed from the bottom up. A clean slate is the best starting point, but if you are not this fortunate and must adapt a dated operation to current standards, a modular implementation of current technologies and practices will work almost as well.

One important caution must be voiced: current software systems rely on technologically advanced material handling equipment and sophisticated hardware to reach industry standard performance levels, and all of the components truly go "hand in hand." In other words, you can't just plug new software into an outdated system. Transforming a basic manual operation into a highly automated and extremely productive automated operation may require multiple systems upgrades at the same time.


Current WMS (Warehouse Management) systems are more comprehensive than ever, supporting a myriad of automated processes with "best practice" methodology. A host of "second tier" WMS suppliers such as Radio Beacon and Softeon have developed extremely cost effective solutions that are technologically advanced, offer modular implementation based on client needs, and support the most complex distribution scenarios. Choosing the correct software systems provider is a critical-path decision when enabling current distribution processes.

Inside the Distribution Center, systems technology manages material movement through the facility. One recent example is Voice Recognition transaction software. The May Company, A major retailer in the United States, began incorporation of this technology in their distribution centers in the 1990's. At the time, this was cutting edge and truly experimental. Now, Voice Recognition systems regularly manage processes such as receiving, putaway and picking with tremendous improvements in accuracy and efficiency.

Product Identification

The latest production identification technology, RF ID, lets users program a chip the size of a pencil tip or smaller with data capability that surpasses barcode scanning for receiving, inventory management and shipping carton identification, and will be a WAL-MART requisite by 2005 for major vendors. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had developed a test lab specifically for the application of RF ID technology in commerce.

Unit Sortation

For those operations that perform true "fulfillment" (fulfilling orders through the picking of individual units) the material handling world had now engineered systems for all demand levels. "Pick to light" and "Put to light" systems are the software driven equivalents of manual picking, and systems are commonly available. Better yet, low cost and moderate rate unit sortation systems exist from numerous suppliers. Unit sortation is now cost justifiable even by the most aggressive corporate ROI formulas.

Order/Carton size

The elevation in customer service levels has created a trend toward more frequent, but smaller orders. This phenomenon has generated a larger quantity of small, lightweight cartons which must be handled somehow. The conveyable minimum size and weight of cartons had changed, and equipment suppliers have responded to meet the demand.

Older mechanical conveying systems had minimum carton weight parameters which are now unrealistic. A handful of suppliers have developed electronically controlled accumulation conveyors which essentially have no minimum weight requirement. The most sophisticated conveyors of this type feature low voltage, independently powered rollers for ease of maintenance and low cost operation. This technology was pioneered by the Versa conveyor company for the USPS over a decade ago, and remains the standard for carton handling.

Carton Sortation

Increased facility throughput has affected outbound carton sortation technology as well. Most system designers realize that the ability to sort cartons at high rates begins with the ability to merge product rapidly and feed the sorter at high rates. Systems suppliers such as Intelligrated have developed ultra high rate product handling solutions utilizing high-speed carton sortation systems that operate in synergy with extremely efficient merge technology. The result is a "plug and play" back end distribution system that will deliver high rates with anticipated product handling accuracies.

Pre-owned Equipment Opportunities

In this time of reduced corporate capital expenditures, there is one encouraging piece of news. There are places where a bargain can be found, where relatively new technology can be purchased for less than you might think.

Near the beginning of this article, I mentioned the pressures on sellers and distribution centers alike to meet escalating customer expectations. Well, not everyone was careful about the promises they made, or successful in meeting those expectations. The result is that there are a number of defunct dot-com enterprises that have abandoned millions of dollars in distribution systems, and their losses may be your gains. Find the right partner for this second-market mechanization and you could save hundreds of thousands (even millions) of dollars. It is a "right time, right place" opportunity.


In conclusion, accommodating a shortened supply chain requires engineering a comprehensive and cost effective distribution strategy, including the adoption of moderately complex information systems and relatively sophisticated material handling technologies. This is a market requirement. You have no real choice if you expect to remain competitive. The good news is that there is little real risk, since the process involves proven technology with compelling and guaranteed returns.

Genesys Systems ( is the systems integration division of SJF Material Handling Equipment (, a Winsted, Minnesota-based full service provider of new, used and "renewed" material handling equipment.

Material Handling Wholesaler

Like New, Only Better

By Stafford Sterner - President, SJF Material Handling Inc.

Material handling systems (conveyors, sorting systems, shelving, etc.) represent a major purchasing decision, no matter how you slice it. The wrong decision can be costly, and making the right decision can be difficult, largely because of the number and nature of the options available.

Of course, you could just pay top dollar for new equipment. You know exactly what you are getting, assuming the equipment performs up to specs. Your only concern is the possibility that you have paid more for it than you really had to.

You could save money (or at least spend less, which is not always the same thing) by purchasing used equipment. Now all you have to worry about is dependability-or, at worst, the cost of replacing the equipment if it doesn't do the job it was intended to do.

Finally, there is reconditioned equipment. This saves some money, but not as much as buying used. On the other hand, it should perform better than used, if not as well as new. That's the theory, but you can never really be sure what was done to the equipment other than a quick paint job. Ideally, reconditioned equipment should be the perfect compromise between the quality of new and the cost savings of used equipment. However, unless you know exactly what to look for, you will have a hard time predicting performance and measuring it against the cost of the equipment.

Fortunately, there is a fourth option which attempts to eliminate this uncertainty by specifying - and guaranteeing exactly what has been done to used equipment before it is once again offered for sale. "Renewed" equipment permits informed purchasing. You can calculate, as with new equipment, the value of the purchase based on anticipated performance versus cost.

Who Do You Trust?

Of course, anybody can slap a "renewed" label on some old piece of reconditioned equipment, so you have to ask yourself who you are dealing with. How do they "renew" equipment? How do you know what is done to the equipment? If the equipment doesn't perform as promised, what is the supplier going to do about it?

If possible, work with a material handling equipment supplier you know. Barring this, it is important to identify a supplier with experience in refurbishing the kinds of equipment you are considering, and who has an established reputation in the industry for standing behind the products they sell. Talk to other customers. To be on the safe side, try to talk to customers that aren't on a list given you by the supplier.

Visit the supplier's facility, if at all possible. Do they have the engineers and qualified shop personnel to inspect, test, rebuild and retrofit the equipment? Do they make the product cosmetically attractive, but neglect the additional work needed to revitalize the equipment's performance. Do they have a process that includes extensive inspection and testing? Do they offer a guarantee that the equipment will perform as advertised?

The Renewal Process

A true equipment renewal program adds value to the equipment at every stage, from disassembly at its previous location until it is installed and functioning in your facility.


Material handling equipment undergoes wear and tear throughout its working life. Regular maintenance and intelligent operation of the equipment can keep this to a minimum, but all this good work can be wasted by careless disassembly. Before accepting the equipment as potentially renewable, the supplier must examine the equipment on site, along with any maintenance records. Even more critically, an experienced, reliable crew must be employed to tear the system down, categorize, palletize and transport it to the renewal facility.


As mentioned earlier, a certain amount of wear and tear is inevitable. Some is acceptable, and is one reason that renewed equipment costs less than new. Excessive wear, however, is not acceptable. Some elements of a system may be rejected, or sold as used at a lower price. Frequently, the wear and tear is concentrated in easily replaced parts such as seals, rollers, bearings, etc. A good renewal program will replace critical parts in this category even if they still look good.


Renewed equipment should operate up to the specifications of the equipment when it was new. (It may not hold to those specs as long as new equipment would, but that's why you're spending less.) A good renewal program will test each component, so that you know exactly what performance to expect from the reassembled system.


You probably won't be using this equipment exactly the way the previous owner did. A good design and engineering team can help you integrate the equipment into your existing system.

Cosmetic Work

You'll get a repaint job with any reconditioned equipment, but the paint on renewed equipment is not there to cover up flaws. It's simply there to enhance appearance.


Renewed equipment may not assemble as easily as new, although it is easier to work with than used equipment. A certain amount of additional adjustment will probably be required, along with the re-drilling of holes and other minor modifications, to retrofit the system so it integrates properly. A trained crew can be a real asset here.

Living with Renewed Equipment

Renewed equipment will continue to perform within spec for a certain amount of time (less than new, more than used). However, this is not a simple "you get what you pay for" compromise. The fact is that most material handling systems have a limited shelf life. Growing volume changes in business processes or materials handled, the availability of new material handling technologies-all of these can and will make your new system obsolete at some time in the future. Why pay for more time than you need?

Of course, taking advantage of this factor requires careful planning. Sometimes it's a fairly simple matter. For example: your present system is completely inadequate for your needs and absolutely must be replaced. On the other hand, you are planning on consolidating material handling operations at a single facility in four years. Paying extra for a new system that will last ten years simply makes no sense. Renewed is the obvious choice.

On the other hand, it's not always an either/or question. Frequently, some combination of new, renewed and even used equipment makes the most economic sense. For example, you may wish to take advantage of recent developments in control systems. You may want the newest, quietest and fastest-rated conveyors for your high traffic, populated areas. Buy new in these cases. Renewed, on the other hand, may be the best answer for the bulk of your conveyor component. Used or conventional reconditioned equipment may be adequate for all or part of your shelving requirements.

The point is that you should examine all of your options, realizing that complex systems may benefit from a combination of those options, and then make the best choices to suit your requirements, your budget and your future plans.

Stafford G. Sterner is President of SJF Material Handling Inc. Sterner has more than twenty years experience in the material handling industry and sales and marketing management. In business for over 30 years, SJF Material Handling Inc. is a Winsted, Minnesota-based full service provider of new, used and renewed material handling equipment. SJF provides complete design, layout, engineering, profiling, set up, installation and testing for entire facilities. Visit SJF's website at

Plant Services

Keeping Conveyor Solutions Simple

Founded in 1975, Freightmasters has grown to a $60 million company by offering a variety of freight handling services. Its Regional Trucking Service (RTS) division, however, recently found an innovative, yet inexpensive solution to a basic problem of pool division.

When a clothing manufacturer, for example, loads a truck with this year's fashions, the cartons are labeled for delivery to their ultimate destinations, but the truck is loaded for efficient use of space. When the semi reaches the distribution center, it must be unloaded so boxes can be sorted and placed on pallets, each representing a separate retail outlet. The pallets are then reloaded on trucks, this time arranged for efficient delivery within the same mall or town.

That was the heart of the problem. A truck pulls up to the Freightmasters loading dock. Employees move pallets as close to the truck as possible. Then, they unload the semi using a short, non-powered conveyor system. Next, they hand-carry the boxes to the proper pallet. The process was backbreaking and time consuming. Employee turnover was high. Obviously, some sort of automated solution was needed.

Freightmasters contacted a number of suppliers, including manufacturers of the latest state-of-the-art sorting systems, but the choice quickly narrowed to SJF Material Handling of Winsted, MN. "They were the only ones who came to the table willing to be creative to keep costs down," said Ronald Have, president of Freightmasters.

A cost-saving measure adopted early was the use of renewed equipment. "The way we see it," said Have, "The only thing we gave up was a little bit of long-term life. That wasn't a problem, because we knew this system wasn't going to meet our needs forever. Our business changes too quickly for that."

Freightmasters uses bar codes to track 45,000 cartons a day, but automating the sorting process provided new challenges. Each Freightmasters customer has its own ideas about bar codes and label placement. This made the flexibility of the bar code scanning guns essential. Software Engineering Corporation (SENCOR), which had provided the original bar code software, developed new software that lets the operator set the system to accept only bar codes matching those used by a particular customer. This worked as long as customers' cartons could be kept separate. Fortunately, that part of the problem had already been solved.

The system Ron Have and Frank Sterner, head of SJF's Special Projects Division, designed features a separate sort line for each truck being unloaded. To make this possible within limited floor space, the lines are stacked three high. Three loading docks are equipped with powered conveyors. Each carton placed on the conveyor is delivered to a PC-equipped scanning station, where it comes to a stop. A successful scan reactivates the rollers and the carton goes on its way. The destination information gathered during the scan directs the carton to a sorting station, where the pallets for an outgoing truck are positioned. The employee never carries the carton more than 30 feet - a considerable improvement over the old system.

The Manufacturer

Perceived Quality

SJF is changing the way manufacturers think about less-than-new warehousing equipment.

By Robert Pols

What do you do when faced with a major problem of perception? For SJF Material Handling, the answer has been to rewrite the dictionary.

SJF is a one-stop shop for material handling equipment. You name it, and they can provide it. Stock of over six miles of conveyor and 30,000 pallet rack beams forms just the tip of the iceberg comprising everything from forklifts and jib cranes to wire baskets and two-way radios. Whether for storage, wrapping, packaging, or conveying, SJF can provide new or refurbished, all the major equipment.

It's with the previously used items that misunderstandings can arise. "People often have the idea that used equipment is junk," said Stafford Sterner, president. "They ask why you'd acquire something that somebody else has thrown away. But used pieces of equipment are like used cars: some are certainly junk, but some are jewels. If, for example, a small company is limited to buying brand new, it may be unable to buy a high-speed conveyor system. But if we can provide a used system at half the price, that company has the chance of increasing the speed and productivity of its operation."

Of course, customers need to understand what they are getting. "In the case of used equipment, there's no clear definition of what 'refurbished' encompasses. Some people just clean the item up, throw a coat of paint on it, and say it's refurbished."

That's why SJF has rewritten the terms of reference. "We've coined the term 'renewed,' which is clearly defined. It covers going through the entire piece, disassembling, inspecting, replacing and repairing as necessary, putting back into spec, and reassembling so that it's as close to a new piece of equipment as possible," Sterner said. "Certain companies or market segments are better suited for refurbished products than others, so we supply a mix of new and used equipment. We provide a choice because no one solution encompasses the entire range of needs."

Carrying such an enormous stock entails a huge investment and eliminates one commonly embraced way of reducing costs. So efficiency has to be achieved in other ways.

"Our selection and purchasing of equipment is essential to the success of the operation," said Sterner. "We need to be savvy buyers, alive to the trends in the markets, and aware of just how much (and how little) inventory to stock. That's more of an art than a science, but we've been at it for over 20 years. Over that time, we've developed quite a network of resources: people to sell to and people to buy from. As in any industry, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly, and over the years we've been able to identify the people who are honorable dealers." We've also identified those you'd want to stay away from, he added.

"We can handle everything. If a company is building and equipping a warehouse, we'll profile their business, deal with the layout, provide and install the equipment, work with the electrical and other contractors, start the system, and maintain it. We do turnkey systems in addition to simply supplying equipment," said Sterner.

SJF can also make life much easier for companies needing to sell equipment. "A company shutting down an operation may know its own business, but it knows nothing about liquidating or selling equipment. Most of the people it can turn to will only buy what they can sell - just the forklifts, say, or just the conveyor. SJF can buy the whole lot, so there's only one person to deal with."

Coping with the vast inventory and the complexity of tasks is made easier with IT applications, but to a limited extent. "The equipment covers 15 acres and is stacked 20 feet high, and we have people who, within their own area, know where every piece is, simply from working there on a day-to-day basis. It's not just a matter of having details on computer, the human element comes into play as well," explained Sterner.

Where IT has proved invaluable, Sterner said, is in the growth stimulated by the company's website. "The internet has helped us become a national company. We're situated in Minnesota, but we do as much business in Florida, Texas, and on the East Coast as in our own state. Where people need our equipment, that's where we do business, and we're not held back by state borders."

Nor are borders a restriction when it comes to recruitment. SJF's decision to employ Hispanic workers at a time when good full-time jobs were hard to find in Mexico has more than proved its worth. "It has brought us some employees who are very hard-working, dedicated, and eager to learn and has given them an opportunity they didn't have at home. There are no barriers here," Sterner said.

Where barriers may be encountered, he continued, is in the mindset of potential customers. "In the past, purchasing managers had a key role, but now many are just order-takers, reluctant to buy from other than their traditional vendor."

Such conservatism has presented a challenge to SJF, but the company's website has proven a valuable tool in this area. "Years ago, nobody knew who we were," Sterner said. "But the Internet has enabled us to market what we do and allowed people to see our products and to get a feel for the philosophy of the company. "Those are the things that empower us to make an impact."

Plant Services

"There's Value Overhead"

By Frank Sterner

Overhead conveyor systems can save money, improve productivity and provide a safer and more pleasant working environment. They do this by making use of the half of your facility that is probably going to waste at the moment - the top half.

An overhead conveyor consists of an overhead track and travel carrier units, called trolleys, which are powered either by motor or muscles. Objects are suspended from these carrier units to be transported along the path of the track. An overhead conveyor can snake around a facility at various elevations to comply with most production needs. By keeping product flow off the floor, they reduce floor traffic, and that in turn has numerous benefits.

Floor space

Floor level conveyors use significant space, even when not in use. Their longer rollers require a greater turning radius, which explains why directional changes require substantial floor space. If the flow pattern is complex, you may be better off designing the building around the floor level conveyor.

Overhead systems, on the other hand, can turn on a dime, maneuvering around corners, columns and just about any other challenge your layout imposes. Product can be routed above equipment and people for much of its path. It requires only a path as wide as the product being moved.

In some cases, overhead conveyors minimize the space consumed by parts inventory. Several just-in-time systems have parts and subassemblies delivered daily and placed on an overhead conveyor system at the loading dock. Parts move to assembly and finishing, never once taking up a square inch of floor space until they are packaged and ready for shipping.


Even plants that don't use a conveyor system, but rely on pallet jacks, forklifts and muscle power to move product, still face floor space problems and other challenges. Palletized product takes up floor space. Material handling equipment also needs space to maneuver. Depending on the volume being moved, traffic jams occur, leaving workers waiting for each other to finish something before proceeding with their own work.

Those other problems

The machinery for overhead conveyors is mounted near the ceiling, away from workers and equipment. This can reduce noise levels and safety concerns about pinch points and careless workers. The conveyor does the lifting, which reduces worker injuries and claims. The product travels a fixed path, and is less likely to be damaged by accident than if transported on the floor.

Overhead conveyor can be an economical and effective way to move things. The kind of overhead conveyor needed, however, depends on what's moving and where it's going.

Gravity conveyors

The simplest type of overhead conveyor is the gravity conveyor, which operates on muscle power in a manner much like a shower curtain. These conveyors transport relatively light objects and provide two advantages:
They keep objects off the floor. The worker doesn't have to lift and provides muscle power only to move the object horizontally (and stop it at its destination).
They move objects along a predetermined path.

Trolley conveyors

With this option, an endless cable or chain that runs along a single track connects a series of trolleys.

The system (or as much of it as is attached to a particular cable or chain) is either moving or it's not. This is fine for moving a single object, such as a 60-ft. long piece of steel needed at the other end of the plant, or for moving everything on the conveyor at once, such as clothing at a dry cleaner. Sometimes, however, more flexibility is needed.

Power and free conveyors

This conveyor consists of a double-channel track. One has a continuously moving chain while the other holds the carrier units. Pusher dogs engage the moving chain to move the carriers forward. The general idea is similar to stepping on a moving sidewalk at an airport.

Of course, it is not always a matter of selecting a single overhead conveyor option. Frequently, different conveyor types can be used together to achieve maximum efficiency. A good example can he found in the automobile industry.

Overheads in action

Automobile plants often use power and free systems, not necessarily of the overhead variety, for the main conveyor line. The car chassis is moved to the first workstation, where the pusher dogs disengage to stop the frame while it's worked on. This example demonstrates the advantages of a power and free conveyor. Each frame moves at its own pace, while remaining connected to the overhead track.

A trolley moves parts through various operations (paint or finishing stations, for example) and to the subassembly workstations. This might involve moving multiple parts at the same time, such as a number of doors to the paint booth.

When the subassembly is complete, another overhead trolley might convey it to the main line, where it is added to the chassis. By the time a part has reached the end of its journey to become an automobile, it may have traveled more than 1,000 feet through every corner of the factory - without once touching the floor.

High capacity systems

Overhead conveyors can move products at speeds up to 600 ft./min. Loads can vary from 20 to 25,000 lbs. Of course, heavy-duty systems are a little different from those described above.

Massive products, such as concrete and steel bridge beams, are generally moved on an I-beam track and overhead crane. The crane does the lifting arid moves on a monorail trolley system mounted perpendicular to the I-beam. The trolley system runs along tracks on the I-beam down the length of the facility. The crane travels the width of the facility along the monorail trolley to position the product anywhere in the building.

Some overhead conveying systems are controlled with portable remote controls for efficiency, as well as for the operator's safety.

Designing a system

When designing an overhead conveyor system, speed and capacity, workflow and facility layout must be taken into consideration. As with anything else, cost is an issue.

Because an overhead conveyor system can have an impact on the way things are done, it should be approached as part of an overall strategic process and operation redesign. Instead of simply looking at conveyors as a means to move product to where the forklift takes them, consider changing their location and where they go. A facility can be redesigned by breaking up a linear process into more efficient subassembly workstations. In addition, instituting just-in-time methods can eliminate current inventory storage completely.

In short, evaluate the costs and benefits of a different means of operation rigorously, rather than simply comparing forklifts and overhead systems. It's a complex question, but the answer can be extremely rewarding.

Frank Sterner is a solutions specialist at SJF Material Handling Inc. He can be reached at 800-598-5532. More information available at

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