Remember the old days when materials-handling equipment was a bunch of sheet-metal bins, dusty hoppers, spaghetti tubing, and noisy vacuum blowers?

Remember the old days when materials-handling equipment was a bunch of sheet-metal bins, dusty hoppers, spaghetti tubing, and noisy vacuum blowers? Well, quite a lot has changed. I spent a week nosing around the auxiliary-equipment exhibits at NPE in Chicago, and I found auxiliaries as sophisticated as the primary machinery they serve.

Materials conveying systems are now clean, quiet, high-tech appliances that you program by pecking on a color touchscreen or even a cute handheld PDA. Delve into their dazzling software, and you can call up complete manuals and diagrams, job histories, set-up sheets—even photos of your kids. Many of these systems are “web enabled”—they even send and receive e-mail. Now your spouse can reach you on the shop floor with that list of groceries to pick up on the way home.

Even the hardware has more glitz. Nowadays, the simplest, low-cost hopper loader comes in stainless steel. Conveying tubes now have ceramic bends to resist wear, and the couplings have been cleverly engineered so you don't have to wrestle the two ends together.

There was an awful lot of auxiliary equipment at NPE, and the feature in this issue is part two of three. If you missed it, last month had a roundup on equally impressive news in drying systems. (You can find it HERE.) Next month’s final installment will show how the same kind of high-tech magic has transformed process cooling. (Hint: You control freaks can check mold temperatures via the internet on your way to the refrigerator for a midnight snack.)