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Press & Articles about SJF Material Handling (page 3)

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 1

Material Handling Management

Bringing New Life to Old Equipment

In a 24/7 world, retrofitting offers material handling managers a way to deal with the challenges of aging equipment and new productivity demands.

By Leslie Langnau, Senior Technical Editor

Age hits all material handling equipment. Wear and tear cut into productivity. Newer technologies outperform older features. And vendors stop stocking replacement parts, pushing equipment into retirement.

But age is not the only reason to upgrade equipment. As businesses embrace business model after business model, retrofitting can be a great way to upgrade equipment functions at low cost. Often, for a fraction ol the cost of new, you can add flexibility and improve the performance of your systems, lengthen operating life, as well as reduce maintenance needs.

Despite the benefits of retrofitting, though, it's not always a simple process. "Contractors are performing 'open-heart surgery' on someone's functioning, productive, mission-critical system," said Mike Kotecki, senior vice president, material handling integration at HK Systems, "while they're trying to get their job done. There's no tolerance for failure."

To keep the disruption to a minimum and gain the most benefits, there are several steps managers and engineers can take.

Out with the old?

Whether you've decided to retrofit or even buy new, it's important to consider your objectives. For example, how long is the system expected to last? Is the retrofit to help control specific costs. like maintenance?

"You also need to determine whether you will be handling the same types of items in five years," said Bill Craig, systems engineering manager for material handling solutions, Lockheed Martin. "Also, look at how well the current system meets the needs it was meant to satisfy. What's changed in the functions now required? For example, if you expect the need for throughput to increase by 20 percent, you can probably accommodate this with a retrofit. If throughput needs are higher, then you may want to buy new or add a parallel system."

 "Software should almost always be bought new," says Stafford Sterner, president of SJF Material Handling Equipment.

"There's always upgrade potential with software." agreed Dan Labell, president of Westfalia. "The WMS algorithms can be improved, for example, grouping certain retrieval missions for better throughput. Plus, there's a lot of smarts that you can add to software that older systems may not have. Some of this newer technology runs in the background and really isn't noticeable. But, what you will see is greater flexibility in programming, such as using wireless communications to program PLCs. That's functionality that didn't exist before."

"In today's world," added Sterner, "everything has a maximum life cycle of five years, including your business. The focus on how you run and do your business is in continual change. In five years, your present system isn't going to be what you want; your business model will change; the product and how you handle it will change; the way you bar code it, track it and inventory it, are all going to change. Don't get locked into trying to find a long-term, cure-all solution, because material handling is becoming an evolving process.

"And if you see things changing significantly," continued Sterner, "retrofit may not be the solution."

Another key factor is order profiles. "Profiles dictate the type of warehouse you should have and, thus, what can be retrofitted," said Paul O'Connell, president and CEO of Operations Concept. "Analyze your order profiles.

"It's crucial to keep up with SKU profile maintenance," O'Connell continued. "For a warehouse management system to work well, it has to know cube information: weight, dimension, height, and so on. This is especially important when 60 percent to 70 percent of goods come in from overseas and U.S. companies let foreign vendors put product into just about any box they can find. Thus, the vendor may have changed the pack quantity. The biggest mistake made today is to accept these boxes without inspection. Maintenance is the most important function with WMS software and people don't do it. In addition to SKU maintenance, you need to do location, equipment profile and people profile maintenance too.",

Once you've determined system objectives, it can be quite a project to choose among all the available component options. It's tempting to use new components just because they are new. "But those components may not be best for the application," said Kotecki.

Several companies can help you analyze whether you really need the latest components through a "modernization audit." They will compare the existing system with your objectives and either develop a design for retrofit and/or new, depending on available funds. The factors these audits can consider include internal rate of return or net present value, power consumption, laBOR issues, maintenance, insurance costs, OSHA issues, even tax consequences of accelerated depreciation. They can even give you an expected return on investment.

Some audits involve a simulation of the upgraded system, letting everyone see exactly what to expect from a retrofit. Others may be based on a program like Excel, which will provide speeds, through-puts, costs and other hard data.

Bit by bit

Whether you're refurbishing AS/RS systems, carousels or conveyors, there are common components that can give you the most bang for your buck.

"For example, upgrades in motors, positioning systems and controls can boost throughput of automated storage and retrieval systems by 20 percent to 25 percent," said Craig. "Carousel upgrades usually consist of replacing some controls and mechanical elements, but the throughput won't be as high as with other material handling equipment. That's because people manage the picks in these systems. Control upgrades, how- ever, will often make the system easier to maintain and will improve reliability."

"The software enhancements that have happened just in the past two years," said O'Connell, "have dramatically improved the efficiency of both mini-load and standard AS/RS systems. With these enhancements you'll get flexible picking, the ability to wave orders in many orientations, selective picking to order, bulk ordering, regional and state picking, and so on. Newer warehouse management programs work along with the equipment to give you the optimal or desired pick pattern."

Increasingly, continuously moving equipment is being replaced by systems that run only when needed. For example, upgrading belt or shaft driven conveyors with roller conveyor systems that use photoelectric sensors to turn on roller sections only as needed. Not only does this change reduce noise levels, it's also a good way to save on power, given the recent energy availability problems. (For more on noise reduction and conveyor maintenance, read the article, Keep 'Em Running, page 45 in the February issue of MHM.)

Large automated storage and retrieval systems can be very expensive to retrofit. But there are some economical upgrades you can make. "For example, you can change the algorithms, location dimensions, and zoning or location matrix criteria," added O'Connell.


When retrofitting, attention must be paid to interfacing new or refurbished components with the old. Most problems in linking industrial components have been solved. The problems that occur now involve linking industrial systems with corporate business systems, such as the host financial systems. No one expected the need to tap into financial systems and take data from them. "However," said Kotecki, "the good thing about this link is that you rarely have to communicate in real time."

Special programs, usually known as software drivers, can be written by staff programmers or by system integrators, to facilitate the connection.

In other interface cases, solutions involve the use of a cell controller. its function is to manage and isolate existing interfaces at the WMS or even AS/RS control level, reducing the disruption to these systems.

"Be aware, though," said Sterner, "that vendors tend to recommend their own line partly to avoid potential integration issues."

The latest development in retrofitting is to turn to "renewed" equipment. These pieces fit applications where you need devices for a new function but you don't want to buy brand new. Not quite new, yet a step beyond reconditioned, this equipment has undergone disassembly, evaluation and comparison to original specifications, and finally re-engineering to fit the needs of new applications. In some cases, these devices can cost about 50 percent less than a new device.

Changes to material handling processes are increasing as new business models arrive. Upgrading equipment, in one format or another, is a good way to meet the demands brought about by these changes.

Northern LightNorthern Light PR Newswire

SJF Introduces "Renewed" Product Line

Press Release

Winsted, MN - (February 26, 2001) At the recent ProMat show in Chicago, SJF Material Handling introduced the materials handling industry to a new category of equipment. Not quite new, but a step beyond reconditioned, the company calls this new concept "renewed" equipment.

"The industry already understands the difference between used and reconditioned," said Stafford Sterner, SJF's Vice President of Marketing. "The problem is that "reconditioned" can be a very vague term, covering anything from a quick paint job to a complete rebuild. Our renewed equipment, on the other hand, has gone through a very specific program of disassembly, evaluation and comparison to the original specs, reengineering to the new application, assembly and cosmetic treatment. This kind of work is our specialty - something we have been doing for years. The difference is that the "renewed" label tells the customer exactly how much value has been added, and just how close to "like new" the system will perform."

Before the ProMat show, SJF promised attendees something "radical, innovative and revolutionary." At the show, and particularly at the company's Open House, SJF people talked to hundreds of end users about their proposed "renewed" equipment program. "We wanted to make sure that this was something people wanted," said Sterner. "We were pleased, but not really surprised, to see how excited some of these users got at the idea that they could take some of the guesswork out of purchasing previously owned equipment. Based on this response, we expect to see rapid growth in the sale of systems carrying our "renewed equipment" label."

In business for over 20 years, SJF Material Handling Equipment is a Winsted, Minnesota-based full service provider of new, used and "renewed" material handling equipment. SJF also provides complete design, layout, engineering, profiling, set up, installation and testing for entire facilities.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Reaching for Success by Offering Opportunity

Unemployment was yesterday's problem. Today, we hear about full employment, meaning that most people who want a job can get one, even if it's not the one they think they deserve.

Problem solved, right? Not if you are an employer struggling to fill positions.

In McLeod County, where my company, SJF Material Handling, is located, unemployment has run about 3 percent -a rate that continues even as the economy has softened in the fourth quarter. (Unemployment in McLeod County was 2.9 percent in November, the latest figure available. That compares with a rate of 3.1 percent statewide and 4 percent nationally.)

Yet even in this environment, our company, which provides new, used and reconditioned material handling and warehouse storage equipment, has managed to grow from 10 people to nearly 100 employees. To accomplish this, we realized early the necessity of looking at alternative methods of hiring.

Like many Minnesota employers, we worked hard to fill positions with good people, but we succeeded in spite of the fact that there just weren't many people looking; those who were looking often didn't have the skills we needed, and many young people are unwilling to start at the bottom, learn new skills and earn their advancement. Fortunately, SJF developed a strategy - or maybe stumbled onto one - that helped us to find, hire and retain a number of excellent employees - and much of that strategy involved minority recruiting.

A few years ago, we happened to hire several excellent Latino employees. With their help, we went looking for more of the same. Like many of today's growing companies, we offered recruitment bonuses to people who brought in new employees. More importantly, however, we offered a level playing field where every employee has the opportunity to earn promotion. Workers help new hires to become a part of the company and the community. All in all, the program has been an outstanding success.

Of course, a few adjustments have been necessary. For one thing, instead of a company softball team, our Latino workers formed a soccer team. Language can be a minor problem, but most of our Latino employees work hard to improve their English on their own time. Our Anglo workers, myself included, are picking up a little Spanish. With patience and a little gesturing, we communicate.

On a more serious note, the acceptance of these workers has not always been as complete in the community as it has been within our company. A couple years ago, two of our workers applied to the same bank for a loan. Both had held basically the same type of job and had about the same length of service. One received the loan and the other didn't. It was the minority worker who was refused, in spite of a personal recommendation from one of the owners of the company- me.

Bypassing Stereotypes

These problems aside, SJF's minority recruiting has been extremely beneficial for the company, and all because we were able to get past some outmoded stereotypes, such as:

Latino workers have no sense of permanence. In many parts of this country, and perhaps especially in rural, areas such as McLeod County, Latino workers still have the image of the migrant worker. True, many people who come to this country from Latin America are forced to follow the work from one harvest to another. However, nobody chooses the life of the migrant worker because of a love of traveling. Perhaps even more than our other workers, our Latino employees value permanence, possibly because they know how hard life can be without it. They are looking for stability and a nice place to raise a faimily.

Latino workers are unreliable. I have no idea where this one came from. In our part of Minnesota, we are used to the small-town work ethic. We have high standards for punctuality, productivity and a general willingness to pitchin and get the work done. All of our employees are expected to live up to these standards; and they do - none more so than our Latino employees.

Latino workers have no ambition. The definition of ambition seems to have changed in recent years. For some people, ambition means that you graduate from school, get an easy but high-paid job and retire while you are still young enough to go skateboarding. If SJF wanted to hire a new vice president, there are any number of inexperienced people out there who would be willing to give it a shot, but very few people are willing to take an entry-levelposition and try to make something out of it.

Recruiting in the Latino community, however, we have found the best kind of ambitious people. They are willing to take a part-time position so that they can prove themselves. They are willing to start at the bottom, as long as they know that the road to the top is open. They are eager to pick up the skills (in our company, these might include painting, welding or computer skills) that will prepare them for a higher position in the company.

From an employer's perspective, the ideal employee is one who does the job that he or she was hired for, while preparing himself or herself for a position of greater responsibility. This type of employee has become harder to find, but SJF has succeeded by casting our recruitment net a little wider and proactively seeking minority employees.

Because our policy developed organically, building on a base of a few exceptional Latino employees, our experience is primarily with this minority community. Other companies, I am sure, have similar success stories regarding their black, Asian or other minorty work force.

There are still some companies, however, that fail to recruit actively in minority communities. Some, I am sorry to say, actually avoid hiring minorities. These companies are shooting themselves in the foot, and yet they are probably the first to complain about how hard it is to find good people.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Sales boom for family business selling new and used equipment.

Dick Youngblood - Sunday Business News Feature
Star Tribune Sunday, May 21, 2000 WINSTED, MINN.

Owners of SJF Material Handling - From Left, brothers Frank Sterner, Jim Sterner, Stafford Sterner and Father Gerry Sterner

Gerald Sterner started SJF Material Handling to help pay for his sons college education. They've returned the gesture by building the company into one of the country's largest suppliers of warehouse and distribution equipment.

-- When the Sterner brothers began taking control of SJF Material Handling Inc. in the late 1980s, the Winsted company was generating about $850,000 in annual revenue peddling used office shelving and warehouse pallet racks out of a 10,000-square-foot warehouse.

There was a logical explanation for the comparatively small size after 10 years in business: Founder Gerald Sterner, a compulsive entrepreneur who had built two manufacturing companies in Winsted, started SJF in 1979 as a sideline aimed mainly at generating a few bucks for his sons' education.

The brothers-- Stafford, now 45; Jim, 42, and Frank, 40 -- not only got themselves educated, they seem to have inherited their father's entrepreneurial disposition.

Since 1988, when they signed on with their father to win a $250,000 expansion loan, the brothers have added renovation, design and installation services and expanded their used-equipment inventory to include balers, conveyors, carousels, forklifts and loading-dock equipment. They also have become dealers for 60 different lines of new equipment ranging from carts and conveyors to ladders and lift tables to scales and shelving.

All of which makes them a one-stop shopping center for clients opening new warehouses and distribution centers. Not only can they supply the desired mix of new and used equipment, they also can design the layout and install the equipment

Rapid sales growth

The results have been eye-catching. I'm not just talking about sales that have multiplied by 22% annually or the $17 million in sales the Sterners are projecting for the current fiscal year.

No, there's also a corporate headquarters that sprawls across 15 acres on the south edge of Winsted, where long columns of racks filled with used equipment climb 20 to 30 feet into the air. That's one reason the business has not been moved closer to the Twin Cities area.

"If we had this inventory in Minneapolis, we'd be paying so much in taxes they'd have to name a couple of schools after us," cracked Stafford Sterner, who lives in Bloomington and commutes to Winsted.

By all accounts, the Sterners carry the largest collection of used equipment in the industry. "There's no doubt about it," said client Richard Iverson, a plant engineer for Minter-Weisman Co., a Plymouth wholesaler of candy, tobacco and groceries to convenience stores. "They've got to be No. 1 in the country in terms of inventory."

That's not the only reason for the growth, which has averaged 22 percent during the past five years. "When we need something for a customer, they'll bend over backwards to find it for us," said Larry Olawasky, a materials handling equipment distributor in Sioux Falls, S.D. Consequently, "we do more business with them than [with] anyone else in the industry."

The education that SJF financed for the Sterner brothers also seems to be paying off.

Web a marketing tool

Take Stafford, for example: He graduated in business management from the University of St. Thomas, which won him a job running a grain elevator in Silver Lake, Minn. More important, he fell in love with computers, acquiring one of the early Apples to track grain prices, analyze soil samples and formulate fertilizers.

The upshot: Since he launched SJF's Web site ( in 1995, he's built its Web-based marketing and e-commerce to the point where 70 percent of the sales leads come off the Internet.

"How else would American Honda in New Jersey or down in Georgia know we existed out here in little Winsted?" Stafford said, referring to a pair of recent equipment sales and installation projects SJF has done for the automaker. Ditto for the prominent likes of Northwest Airlines, Steelcase, IBM and American Tourister, all of which have found the company via the Web.

Jim Sterner, with years of experience in industrial design and engineering, makes his contributions on the production side: He supervises the reprogramming and redesign of electronic controls for conveyors and other material handling equipment.

This capability "put us into the big systems, where the big dollars are," he said, adding that about 55 percent of SJF's business involves these systems.

Frank Sterner, who holds a St. Thomas degree in marketing, supervises the company's administrative functions while also managing major projects.

Father still 'invaluable'

Ah, and then there's Dad -- Gerry Sterner -- who started Sterner Lighting in 1960, took it public a year later and built the manufacturer of decorative outdoor lighting to $35 million in sales by 1985, when he sold his shares to concentrate on another of his ventures.

That was Sterner Industries Inc., a manufacturer of dairy processing equipment that he started in 1955 and grew to $6 million in sales before he was forced to sell it in 1988 to avert a shutdown. The problem: A key customer canceled an order for which Sterner Industries had invested heavily in preparation.

Unable to continue, Sterner personally guaranteed the company's bank debt and depleted most of his resources meeting the payroll for several months before the business was sold.

"If it hadn't been for Gerry, that [Sterner Industries situation] could have been a real disaster," said James Morton, president of Edina's Fidelity Bank, who approved the $250,000 expansion loan to SJF 1n 1988. "That's a big part of why they got the loan."

Gerry Sterner got into the used-equipment business in 1979 almost by accident. A businessman who owed him $2,000 offered to repay with a truckload of used pallet racks, which Sterner sold two days later for $4,000.

Despite his 69 years, he still gets a kick out of such wheeling and dealing, which is why he continues to flit around the country as an SJF consultant in charge of acquiring used equipment. It is not a figurehead position.

"He knows every player in the industry, from the reputable guys to the sharks and con artists," Stafford said. "He's invaluable."

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