I am fresh back from Chicago and McCormick Place, the site of ProMat 2007, the material handling and logistics show managed by the industry's trade group, the Material Handling Institute (MHIA).
In general, this show has faired much better than many other trade shows in the past few years, which have seen, for a variety of reasons, declining vendor (consolidation) and attendee (it's all on the Internet) participation.
This year's show had the most activity and energy I have seen at the event in awhile. The crowds were big, and it was hard to get down the aisles on Tuesday because so many attendees were talking to the vendors.
There is no question we are seeing a renewed interest in automation. As MHIA has long noted, material handling demand is very cyclical, tied both the economic and its own natural cycles, but both at the show and from other conversations I've had over the past year, the interest in automation is very high right now. This is especially true in distribution, where automation lost some favor for awhile.
I spoke to one logistics exec of a Fortune 100 company at the show, and he told me they are experiencing turnover rates of 50% at their DCs, despite being on the higher side of the wage scale. They are looking to automation to help solve the problem.
More on that in a future column.
I looked at lots of products. Here's what I liked (watch our video review, with action right from the show floor, here - you will enjoy it):
I was impressed with the new sortation controller software from FKI Logistics and its new Unisort MXt shoe sorter. The company says the software can now run at 650 feet per minute with a gap between cartons of only 4 inches, down from the 12 previously required on most sorters. This gap reduction would significantly improve throughput in terms of cases per minute.
I also liked the new Case-a-Matic storage and sequencing solution from HK Systems, designed to automated mixed case order. It’s basically an ASRS for cases and totes. There is simply no question we will see increased focus on automating case picking by both vendors and shippers over the coming 5 years.
We actually wrote last year about a new truck loading AGV from Jervis B Webb. It was back this year, along with a video on the use of the technology by Anheuser Busch. Webb said it had a good pipeline, but companies had to really think through new processes, which takes time. Webb had some competition this year from Egemin, which also had a product on the floor, and I liked the open approach that company was taking to the control system.
The controls in general are the big break through here, both in cost and performance. Laser controllers, for example, have dropped in price by thousands of dollars in recent years, while providing along with other sensors the control necessary to dynamically map a trailer and accurately load pallets.
Corrugate pallets have been around for awhile, but don’t have a great reputation. I was impressed with the design from, no surprise, a company called Corrugated Pallets Inc.
At larger sizes than standard 40 x 48, these pallets offer a nice economic choice, and are often needed to meet international shipping requirements. The unique design from this company adds hardboard in the runners to provide the strength that has been missing from many alternatives users may have experience with.
I was also impressed with LXE new HX2 wearable wireless terminal, which I thought had an outstanding design.
Symbol technologies also featured a new version of its wearable gladiator unit that competes with the HX2
I also liked LXE’s new concept around what it calls ARIA, short for Adaptive Recognition and Information Assurance That’s a mouthful, but the concept is solid. It involves use of many technologies to change how we think about distribution activities, but what was featured at the show was a demo showing case picking combining voice technology with RFID verification through a fork truck pallet reader. I think this makes a lot of sense, and that LXE is really on to something with this concept. The way we’ve picked orders in the warehouse has stayed the same for too long.
We saw lots of announcements by software vendors…HighJump featured a new open voice solution and added new TMS capabilities to it Supply Chain Advantage platform, while RedPrairie was showing significantly enhanced global logistics and trade management capabilities as part of its TMS solution suite. Manhattan Associates also had a strong emphasis on the transportation components of its suite, and announced Ingram Books was saving big dollars using its freight audit and payment capabilities.
In terms of new software products, I also really liked the virtual warehouse product from Softeon. It’s the closest thing I have seen yet to a concept I have called for the last several years “execution planning,” that sits between traditional planning systems and execution focus warehouse and TMS solutions.
I also liked the latest automated lift systems from Gorbel. While this highly ergonomic approach (no buttons - the lift moves smoothly with the operator's arm action) has been available for a few years, a new programmable display and ability to more easily integrate the lift system and related operator activities and cycles with manufacturing or even distribution systems seemed beneficial to me.
Finally, with the increasingly prominent trend towards the green supply chain, we started to see some emphasis this year on that message from some vendors, mostly in the plastics pallet and tote area, and even hydrogen driven lift trucks. Expect more of that in the future.
Again, you can see something about all these products on my video review.
Did you attend this year's ProMat show? What is your review? What new products, if any, caught your eye? What would you like to see coming to market that you didn't?