ProMat 2019 and Automate 2019
ProMat 2019 focused on the latest technologies and solutions in the logistics industry. About 85% of the show floor centered around hardware. That includes shelving, scanners, forklifts, pallets, boxes, and more. The remaining ~15% was for solutions providers like software, implementations, and consultation.
Automate 2019 showcased “the full spectrum of automation technologies and solutions.” While there were many hardware solutions, the vast majority of exhibitors related to robotics.
This year the two events were hosted side-by-side at McCormick Place in Chicago. The whole event spanned over 420,000 square feet and was packed with booths. After spending two days collecting an arsenal of branded pens, coasters, and mints, we got to see it all. While not all of the exhibits were revolutionary, there was a lot to learn at every booth. On the hardware side, there were robots, cyborgs, and new picking tools. We saw the shadows of major, looming software disruption. And of course, where would a supply chain summit be without gender imbalance? Here is what you missed!
So. Many. Robots.
It was like stepping into the future. Robots. Robots everywhere. There were robotic pick and manufacturing arms, robotic shelving units, and even packaging robots. The robotic picking solutions fell into a few categories. Some used claws and hands to pick, some used suction, and some combined the two. Every robot signifies countless hours of work and significant resources, but a few stuck out.
Lake Superior State University Robotic Arm
The team at LSSU partnered with other robotics companies to create a smart robotic arm. The arm picked items based on a dice roll and played tic-tac-toe. While there were many impressive robots, no one came close to competing with the LSSU team’s enthusiasm. Not to mention the fact that their tech was solid. Of all the teams, we are most excited to see what the LSSU crew does post-grad.
Xpac Robox Packaging Machine
It’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch a machine complete simple, yet time-consuming tasks with total precision. There was one downside though. The team in charge of breaking down the boxes could hardly keep up.
The Yaskawa Beer Pouring Robot
Most of the robots showcased their potential for manufacturing and warehouses. So, it was interesting to see a robot do something a little more accessible. Pouring a beer is a simple task, but served as a strong reminder. Robots do what they are programmed to do, which means there are (literal) natural limitations. Robotic technology will continue to improve, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be a realistic option for many operations.
There Were Also Cyborgs
While the majority of exhibits had robots doing human tasks, some companies focused on the opposite. That is, they want to make humans more robotic. Perhaps the most interesting product in this sector was the Comau Mate Exoskeleton. It’s difficult to describe, but once you try it on it makes sense. The spring-assisted nodes rest under a picker’s arms. With Mate, warehouse workers can repeatedly lift and lower boxes without fatigue. There is also a back plate to support pickers with chronic pain and injuries.
Emerging Picking Solutions
Voice picking, robot picking, and picking glasses aren’t new to the scene, but they are growing in popularity. Errors can be financially disastrous for a fulfillment center or warehouse. These hardware solutions promise to connect with a WMS to decreases errors and increase efficiency. While the technology itself may not be ready for every warehouse, some are moving in that direction.
Voice picking is quite interesting. Not every voice-picking company operates the same, but Voiteq offered a good illustration. An automated voice tells the picker where to go, what to pick, and where to put the items. The picker verbally confirms after every command.
Picking glasses use augmented reality to assist the picking process. Picavi, a German company, created smart glasses with a small screen at the top. The glasses tell pickers where to go and what to pick. However, it is dangerous to walk around a warehouse with a screen in front of your face. To negate these risks Picavi made sure the screen doesn’t impede a workers view.
The Growing Trend of Business-in-a-Box Software
The supply chain software industry is relatively new and changing fast. Most software providers offer a solution to meet a single need. For example, a company may offer labor, warehouse, or order management, but not all of the above. If you have 4 different providers, all of that software needs to integrate. We call this Franken-Software. It is error-prone and expensive. Alternatively, a custom system will cost $100k-$1M, which is not realistic for most warehouses.
A New Era
The growing trend is the business-in-a-box solution. The entire system is prebuilt with modules and the software is sold and customized as a suite. Buyers pick and choose what modules they want and are charged accordingly. These systems are usually less expensive. Users don’t have to pay 4 different companies and they avoid the cost of a custom solution. Plus, there are fewer errors because the information flows through one system instead of several.
Some single-feature software providers see the trend and are scurrying to add modules. Other companies appear blissfully aloof to the impending threat or insist that the certain trends won’t catch on. We spoke briefly with Scandit, the creators of mind-bogglingly fast scanning software. With solutions like Scandit, the $1K barcode scanner industry’s days are numbered. That didn’t stop exhibitors from long-standing scanning companies from hassling the Scandit team, though.
In a post-Uber world, it’s always interesting to see an established company behave as though it is invincible. We ran into an old friend at the trade show. He wanted to remind the galaxy what can happen when you mix flawed hardware and hubris.
Palatable Gender Imbalance
Gender imbalance in supply chain isn’t going to change overnight. It’s an ongoing battle, but one worth fighting. At Home Delivery World 2018 we estimated about 80% of the attendees were male. We were originally excited to see the huge improvement at Promat and Automate. That is until we walked inside.
Of the females present about 50% filled a very specific role. Companies hired pretty, young women to stand outside the booth. Their job was to draw in attendees, then pass them off to one of the males. The larger the company, the more egregious the display. This is decidedly not equality.
The Good Ol’ Boys
Here is the problem: the industry is still controlled by “The Good Ol’ Boys”. Companies used these young women to draw in the industry leaders. These, generally older, men are averse to change. That’s a real problem for the whole industry because it impedes new players from stepping into the market. The result is that many companies choose inferior hardware and technology, which keeps supply chain in the dark ages.
The Women of Supply Chain
The good news is that more women are taking leadership roles in supply chain. The most impressive companies like Scandit, Mercury Gate, and Configura all had females in the booths. Wicked-smart females alongside wicked-smart males. The good ones weren’t always 50/50, but the companies offering the best, new solutions all had a powerful female presence.
All-in-all, visiting Promat and Automate was a delightful and educational experience. The supply chain industry is transforming at an unimaginable rate and we expect to see major changes over the next year. If you were experiencing FOMO, hopefully, this article gave you insights on what you missed. We will see you next year, Promat.