Ok, back from the IX Center in Cleveland this week and the bi-annual North American Material Handling Show, which trades off each year with the larger ProMat show in Chicago, both put on by the Material Handling Institute of America (MHIA).
The trade show business has been tough for most everyone in the past few years, for a variety of reasons, and that had an impact here as well. Crowds were very light Monday, but recovered pretty well on Tuesday, though from my view down from previous years, as with most events these days. I left before the last day on Wednesday, which is usually a slow one.
Exhibitors were buoyed by the pop in visitors Tuesday morning, and several told me they talked to more people with real projects than at ProMat in 2009, which was held in very dark economic times.
It is hugely expensive for materials handling vendors to put up large displays of working equipment, and decisions for the NA 2010 show had to be made in the depressing days of 2009, so its not surprising many limited their committments. Some of the largest materials handling vendors, such as Dematic, HK Systems, and Intelligrated, had little or no equipments in their modest booth areas. It will be much different next year at ProMat, you can be sure.
We covered a number of new or interesting products in our Day 1 and Day 2 video reviews, and received many nice letters thanking us for putting these together. You are welcome. You can see those videos here if you missed them: NA 2010 Day 1, NA 2010 Day 2.
"I was frankly taken aback by the number of new or relatively new WMS providers at the show - you are going to have more choices in this area than you might have imagined."
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Clearly, the "robotization" of the materials handling process in distribution continues to move forward. As we have noted many times, the world of distribution for many is going to look much different in 2020 versus 2010, with much greater use of very new tyoes of automation by many companies.
Axium, for example, a vendor out of Montreal, introduced a new mixed-case palletizer that combines a robot (shown using an ABB robot but it could be anyone's) into an interesting system in which the Axium control system tells the WMS/WCS how the cases should be sequenced to build the perfect pallet. The cases are split into separate in-feeds (left and right), and the robot then builds pallets on each side at a rate of some 2000 cases per hour.
As we've noted in our Automated Case Picking 2009 report, the line between automated case picking (ACP) and automated palletization is sometimes a bit blurry, and/or ACP often naturally lends itself to auto palletization.
Thought it apparently has been around for a few years, I had never seen a very narrow aisle automated guided vehicle (AGV), but HK Systems featured one on video, a technology that is being used by retailer Canadian Tire. So, the AGV picks up a dropped pallet at the end of a very narrow aisle, moves to the storage bay, and lifts the pallet to its proper storage location, as well as the reverse for pallet selection. This eliminates the need for an operator in the aisle running a traditional VNA turret truck. Probably need a two or three shift operation to justify the cost of this, however.
We were similarly intrigured by the new Auto Store system from Swisslog, which is almost like a type of mini-load AS/RS, except it stores totes vertically, then retrieves them by a set of shuttle-like devices and brings them work cells for piece picking. If the needed tote is fourth down in the stack, it sets to the side, if you will, the first three totes, grabs and delivers the fourth one, than puts the other three back in place. The system was actually developed by a European electronics company for its own use a decade ago, and Swisslog later acquired the rights to it. Some 10 systems have been deployed in Europe, but it is just now being introduced in North America.
Konstant displayed a pallet putaway shuttle system that can increase productivity and storage density in the right circumstances. The shuttles, which are store by the racking, are brought by drivers to deep pallet storage locations to putaway or retrieve pallets automatically. This can enable locations that hold as many as 20 pallets, versus maybe a maximum of 4-5 if the driver has to push back the pallets with the truck. As such, it improves both driver productivity and storage density, as much aisle space can be converted to prouctive storage. Won't be for everyone, but companies with SKUs that have large demand at the pallet level may want to take a look. Its almost like something in between traditional pallet flow rack and an AS/RS.
Mercifully, there were relatively few "battery management," vendors, which seemed to be everywhere at ProMat 2010. What there were a lot of, however, were fork truck asset management suppliers - this appears to be a fairly major waves, as more and more companies get serious about managing their DC vehicle fleets in a formal, technology-driven way.
We featured the solution from I.D. Systems, which uses a small on-board computer which ties directly in to systems and sensors on each vehicle, and spits out a whole bunch of data about asset use and driver productivity. We liked the fact that you could go back and pick any day from the past and see how the fleet actually performed that day (say, peak days versus average days). There is a visualization component that allows users to actually view how a given truck moved through the DC for a given set of tasks. Many say you will significantly reduced total fleet sized, and improve driver productivity from the analysis. I can also see the oportunity to use this insight to improve DC layout and even WMS task management configuration.
Knighted Computer Systems and several of the truck manufacturers themselves, such as Raymond, offer related solutions to one of the last "un-managed" areas of the DC. The intersting "Visible Edge" solution from Rush Tracking, which is more focused on inventory management, could also be used for vehicle management as well.
After not a lot of excitement in the Warehouse Management System (WMS) market for some time, as most of the leading vendors primarily focused on building out more comprehensive logistics suites, suddenly there is a surge of new market offerings. This is very interesting.
There used to be some 200 WMS providers, but the field narrowed substantially in the 2000s through mergers and bankruptcies. But there is a new wave of entrants, most touting an on-demand solution and/or flexible SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) technology. I was frankly taken aback by the number of new or relatively new WMS providers at the show - you are going to have more choices in this area than you might have imagined.
Synergy is one example, which has clearly one of the most impressive look and feel of any on-demand type software I have seen, WMS or not. It claims tier 1 WMS level functionality, and offers an intriguing "rules engine" technology that provides operational flexibility.
There were a number of other such vendors. Established WMS player HighJump Software also announced a new "cloud computing" version of its WMS.
TECSYS has been around for a long while, but introduced a very cool "visual" WMS that uses a flexible series of images and icons - rather than the traditional text-orientation - for delivering tasks via mobile wireless devices. It's a very different approach for sure, though not a surprising development at one level. We can expect to see more of this in the market, I believe. We show some actual screens in the Day 2 video, but here is another example: if you need to scan lot numbers on incoming receipts, and different vendors use different labels with the bar code in different locations, the RF screen could show an image of the label for each vendor and highlight where the right bar code is for each. Or, the device might show a pick cart image and highlight specifically in which box a given pick should go in.
Companies have been deploying Windows CE-based terminals for years now, but still sticking with text-based UIs. Maybe it is time for a change.
I was also surprised a bit at the creative approaches going on right now with Voice technology in Distribution - many of them using so-called multi-modal approaches combining voice with bar code and even RFID.
Systems Application Engineering (SAE) was there with a very cool system that provided pickers with a lot of visuals on a handheld or wearable terminal (such as upcoming picks) and then delivered the task via voice but then used bar code scans for rapid pick confirms. Others are doing this as well, but the SAE solution seemed especially well-designed.
The botton line is that there are a growing plethora of different and interesting voice-based solutions out there - take a look around. More on this soon from SCDigest.
Also noteworthy on the software side: A new 'logistics hub" technology from Softeon being used a by division of Sony, and RedPrairie's new solution for optimized TMS planning for multi-compartmental trailer/containers, and then the ability to pass those assignments to truck loaders in the DC to enable direct loading.
Most of these solutions were highlighted and in many cases shown in the videos. Take a look.
Do you enjoy these show reports? What technologies if any did you see at the show that we haven't highlighted? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.
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