What does bulk material handling mean to the “average” person?

I decided to find out.  I asked my friends and family these two questions:

  • “What does bulk material handling mean?”
  • “How does it affect your life?”

I soon realized that there needed to be two categories of average person: engineer and non-engineer.

It seems that to a non-engineer who has not had a lot box-warehouse-handlingof exposure to my stories, bulk material handling means moving items in bulk (like a hundred-cajilian pieces), logistics, transportation, inventory management, and buying/selling/storing/distributing.  They might imagine a warehouse full of shelves and bins.  One friend said Costco was the best example.  Another friend included the moving of people.

This group answered the question of how it affects their lives with responses that tended to focus around getting better prices for the things they buy.  One friend, who told me first that she had to be at the dentist in 9 minutes answered:  “It helps me get stuff quickly, efficiently, and safely, at good prices”.  We agreed that “efficiently” actually covers “quickly” and “good prices”, so really just safely and efficiently were the necessary adverbs.

To those non-engineers who have been subjected to me for longer, like my family, the understanding that bulk material handling means handling particulate solids in quantity, is more inherent.  When I asked them, they responded with examples.  My step-son said it means bulk-barn candy!  Other answers included food items like cake mix, soup mix, sugar.  My mom added manure to the list, and my daughter added bolts.  My husband added the example of making sure the right number of each color of skittles get into each package.  I think they are on the right track.

coffee-bean-dispensingWhen trying to identify effects in their lives, this group leans towards examples of where they were exposed to bulk material handling and/or the lack of it.  My husband recalled how difficult it is to get the “da!@*#!” coffee beans out of the dispenser and into the brown paper bag at the super market, and how much time we spent pounding at different force and frequency combinations to get the best discharge rate!

The engineers I know all gave answers that indicated an understanding that bulk material handling is the engineering that deals with handling particulate solids in large quantity, but in their minds it is linked to some form of industrial process.  The small stuff doesn’t really count.

Two of the engineers I spoke with referred to cut and fill type applications.  The first spoke from the government and environmental perspective, the second from the developer’s perspective.  They are required often to evaluate or develop a plan to dig out contaminated and/or questionable soil from an area, determine what size area is required and for how long to store it, how to sample it to determine if treatment is required, and if treatment is required, how to move it to and through the treatment process and back.  Another of my engineer friends mentioned his work with a quarry.  My Dad, who is a mineral processing engineer and sees material handling in the biggest type of bulk there is, thinks of huge great stockpiles of ore, gravel, coal, iron ore, and concentrate, and connects this with loading and unloading of ships and truck and trains.

Dual stockpiles - gravity reclaim

Dual stockpiles – gravity reclaim

When I asked this group how it affects their life, they had a “big-picture” bent to their thinking.  One replied: “All aspects of life are affected”.  Another said: “In big and non-tangible ways.  Everything.  Really.  Everything.  I’m sitting here in my basement on my couch, looking at my kid’s toys all over the place.  Take the cotton in the upholstery; it was farmed, harvested, treated.  It needed fertilizer that was mined, treated, transported, distributed, spread on the land.  The springs in the couch were originally ore in the ground.”  A similar discussion ensued for the Lego, the toy bins, the carpet, the lightbulb, the concrete walls and I think, could have gone on for a lot longer, had it not been for the fact that his son needed to be told to stop playing video games and get ready for bed.

I remember very clearly a moment of realization that I had early on in my career, when I was watching an AD on TV aired by the company BASF.  Their slogan, at the time was, “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy.  We make a lot of the products you buy better.”  I remember thinking: “Me too!”

After working as a bulk material handling expert for the last 20 years, I have to say I agree that through the proper application of our technology, we can not only improve product quality, but also the efficiency and safety in the process.  I guess that means that “We make making a lot of the products you buy better!”

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