GRAND RAPIDS — There’s logistics and then there’s this job that Rapistan is handling — well, the Rapistan Material Handing Automation Division of Siemens Dematic.
The firm is manufacturing the baggage handling conveyor system for the reconstruction of American Airline’s international terminal (Terminal 8) at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.
It’s a $90 million project that is to replace the existing system in a two-concourse 24-gate terminal.
The specifications call for transporting and sorting 80 pieces of luggage per minute in 50,000 feet of conveyors. The conveyors will feed into other sorting systems in the sprawling airport so that in-bound passengers from overseas will be mated with their luggage when they disembark from secondary flights in, say, Detroit or Chicago.
The terminal in question handles American Airlines flights to and from Poland, Spain and Finland, plus two areas where terrorism has a long, bloody history: Ireland and Asia.
The contract was awarded last month and workers at the Siemens Dematic Rapistan Division plant on Plymouth Street have begun assembling the first sections of the band-driven conveyor. The project is phased to run through the year 2006.
According to Michael Krampe, a local spokesman for the firm, the project overall involves more than 2,200 workers in West Michigan and 3,200 elsewhere in the country.
He told the Business Journal that the division had pretty much exited the baggage-handling business a decade ago, but then in 1996 it was called to the rescue at Denver International Airport.
Krampe didn’t say this, but there’s an Internet engineering site that spotlights the original $234 million baggage-handling system at Denver as a textbook example of a failed complex engineering system.
In fact, the site literally rates the failure of the Denver system with the sinking of the Titanic and the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge, plus some lesser-known engineering disasters.
The Denver system was supposed to be state-of-the-art, moving baggage in so-called telecarts on tracks and sorting the luggage by bar code scanning.
In practice, it functioned something more like Ethel and Lucy in the chocolate factory.
First of all, the system had no way of sensing when a cart was full so that, when a cart was delayed in moving, the system kept trying to fill it and often ended up burying it in Samsonite and nylon backpacks.
Such glitches also were self-compounding because the system’s designers reportedly didn’t give their creation enough feedback sensors to assess how it was performing and to stop itself in emergencies.
And, as in the sort of emergency where carts were buried in baggage, the rest of the system just kept running, pushing up subterranean mountains of certainly delayed and often seriously damaged packages, bags, skis and the like.
The airport quickly gained national notoriety for delaying, losing and damaging baggage. Its reputation became international, thanks, in part, to a side-splitting story in the Wall Street Journal.
But the issue really wasn’t funny. The system’s flaws grossly delayed the onset of full-scale operations at the airport, and the consequent loss of revenue (plus damage claims and the expense of delivering recovered luggage to resorts over the Colorado Rockies) wound up costing the City of Denver up to $1 million a day.
Today — thanks in large part to the Rapistan division’s work — Denver’s baggage handling is a model of smooth efficiency.
In a way, it’s easy to see why such a system would be difficult to design, since baggage comes in every conceivable form, from hard and boxy to soft and shapeless.
“It’s certainly not like moving identical packages in a manufacturing plant,” Krampe chuckled.
The Terminal 8 system at JFK will be similar to the division’s remediation for the Denver airport in that it will be a self-driving conveyor where scanners will send packages and baggage to five additional baggage processing areas linked by subterranean transport tunnels. The system also will be able to identify late baggage and direct it along the shortest patch to the correct processing site.
It also will feature a new, smaller type of diverter that Siemens Dematic says will facilitate a smoother transfer of baggage and parcels from one sorting line to the next. The company says the design will eliminate the need for service access catwalks.
But unlike the division’s 1996 job in Denver, the system going into Terminal 8 will be mated with security devices that will scan each of the hundreds of thousands of packages and bags being moved on the conveyors daily.
“We understand they’re something like CAT scanners,” Krampe said. “But they’re manufactured by another firm.”
The system also allows for manual screening of bags which the scanners identify as suspect.
Siemens Dematic calls itself a systems integrator and claims to be the world’s leading supplier of logistics and factory automation equipment.
The company has nearly 12,000 workers worldwide and is a subsidiary of Siemens AG (NYSE: SI), headquartered in Munich.