First Thoughts
  By Dan Gilmore - Editor-in-Chief  
  January 16, 2009  

Is Case Picking Automation Here? Full ProMat 2009 Review


Materials Handling Editor Cliff Holste and I are back from the ProMat 2009 trade show and conference in chilly Chicago. I hope you had a chance to watch our video reviews from days 1 and 2, for which we received a number of kind notes. They are available here: day 1 video review; day 2.

I didn’t see the final numbers, but the show certainly had solid attendance, though I suspect it was down a bit from the last ProMat in 2007. Still, in conversations with vendors there and a few attendees, it was clear that even in the tough economy, automation to take out operating costs was as important now as ever. Monday - the show was a little slow, especially in the back of the hall, but Tuesday, the aisles were bustling.

It took Holste and me until the second day to identify the main show themes but, in the end, we found three:

Gilmore Says:

Prediction: you will see vastly more robots used for materials handling in manufacturing and distribution over the next decade.

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Changing Conveyor Technology: Virtually every major conveyor manufacturer (Dematic, FKI Logistix, Intelligrated, and many more) was displaying “motor-driven roller” (MDR) based systems. In short, these conveyors are powered by motors inside one roller in a short zone, rather than DC motors and belts underneath the conveyor, which has been the dominant technology for years. MDR has many advantages: potential for smaller footprint layouts, much greater energy efficiency, faster, cheaper implementation, accumulation on inclines and declines, and more (albeit at the price of higher costs for the equipment itself).

More on this soon from Holste, but we may be witnessing a major inflection point in conveyor technology.

Automated Case Picking: To me, this is sort of the “holy grail” of distribution center automation, the last area where highly automated solutions have not really been available. Not only were many vendors attacking the problem with what appear to be viable solutions, they are doing so with a variety of solution approaches.

For example, HK Systems announced a new AS/RS-type automated case picking system that well addresses the challenges we’ve seen with this type of approach to this point in time: how to efficiently singulate individual cases for picking by he machine. RMT Robotics out of Canada featured a new gantry-type crane/robot that can select individual cases or tiers, and says a major food company is rolling out its system in 2009. Germany’s Kuka featured a robot that could pick tiers of different SKUs and build rainbow pallets and, from other sources, I know the company has been working with a major soft drink company on the technology. Seegrid is seeing interest in its AGV-like optical robotic system, not only for longer point A to B moves, but to bring pallets to workers for case picking or “put to store” applications.

Again, more on all this soon.

The Robots are still Coming: Our theme from last year’s material handling show in Cleveland was the huge focus on robots of all sorts, and they were back again in force. There clearly is renewed interest in Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) of all sorts – and these vendors were clearly bullish about their prospects, very interesting in a product category that has famously waxed and waned over the past 20 years. As evidence, Toyota Material Handling introduced a new AGV at the show (driven by magnetic tape on the floor, which has advantages and disadvantages); that the company would introduce an AGV at this stage of the game says something about market interest. There were also truck loading robots, case picking robots, the unique Kiva System order picking robots, and more. Prediction: you will see vastly more robots used for materials handling in manufacturing and distribution over the next decade.

In addition to these themes and products, Holste and I walked most of the show floor, and found these products of the most interest:

Literally Remaking your DC: It’s apparently been around for 3-4 years, based on technology that was actually first developed two decades ago, but a Canadian company called RoofLifters uses a patented system to raise the roof of an existing distribution center to about as high as you want to take it. This, therefore, offers the potential to take a limited use or dormant building and turn it into a useful, even high-tech DC. The process takes 4-5 months, with claims the entire project can be done for as little as 25% of new construction costs. Interestingly, the project can be done in phases, keeping operations going, as grocer Jewel Albertson’s recently did, converting a 600,000 sq. ft. building in four 150,000 sq. ft. sections.

More Lights on Pick-to-Light: A company called Reddwerks was displaying a pick-to-light system that had as many as seven lights/colors. This offers many advantages, such as more dynamic pick zone management, allowing multiple workers to pick in the same zone, and the ability to support cluster picking (up to seven cartons/totes in the cluster). We unfortunately forgot to ask how much these units cost in relation to traditional pick-to-light units but, nonetheless, the approach is worth taking a look at.

We should have Thought of this First Department: Somewhat similar to the Reddwerks approach to pick to light, a vendor called Bishamon released a new product that is fairly simple in design, yet apparently no one had thought of until now. The company offers a new electric pallet jack that has outriggers (the stabilizers at the bottom to support the pallet load when raised) that are not fixed, as they are on existing pallet jacks that have stabilizers. Rather, the outriggers deploy from the front when needed by folding out (sort of like windshield wipers), and can be returned to the “in” position when not needed. The outriggers are therefore not spread very wide, enabling the unit to reach many locations that traditional units could not get to. The unit is also well suited to being used as a mobile palletizing/depalletizing station, raising the load to assist the worker in that operation.

Sorter Technology is Diverting: Dematic was displaying a relatively new sorter divert technology that caught our eye. A unique pusher system allows the diverts to be 100% perpendicular to the conveyor flow, rather than at an angle as with most other shoe-type sorters. This ultimately means the diverts can be placed closer together, reducing the length (and hence cost) of the sorter, and/or allowing the same sorting rates at lower conveyor speeds, which has many advantages.

New RF Cradle for Fork Trucks: There is something of a trend towards using mobile, rather than fixed-mount RF terminals on fork trucks, based on flexibility and frankly lower costs per unit. We liked the new, very ruggedized truck cradle released by Motorola that offers the ruggedness needed for fork truck applications, but fast/easy removal of the portable unit if the worker needs to get off the truck.

Managing the Fleet: We didn’t see it in detail, but there were sure lots of people at the Raymond booth checking out its new fleet management software for fork trucks.

Hybrids in the DC?: Toyota Materials Handling is leveraging technology from the auto side of the parent company to develop a new hybrid fork truck. The product is a year or two from actual release, but certainly looks very cool. As best we can surmise, the product will have the best fit for companies that want the power or other benefit of propane-powered trucks, but can gain advantages with a hybrid in terms of fuel utilization (it will run on batteries when it can) and greater flexibility (e.g., change to battery power say when entering a freezer). It's possible it might also entice some electric truck users do to no battery changes/charging required.

There was a lot we didn’t get to see, especially on the software side (WMS, etc.), but we will catch up on that soon. 

Any comments on our ProMat 2009 show review? Any products there catch your eye? Do you think we will see more case picking automation and robots in the DC any time soon?

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