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January 16, 2009 - Supply Chain Digest Newsletter

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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."

What do you say?

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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-tolight, 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?

Let us know your thoughts.

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Mastering Lumpy Demand

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This Week's Supply Chain News Bites Only from SCDigest

Supply Chain Graphic of the Week: Factors Impacting Demand Variability

This Week's Supply Chain by the Numbers - China GDP, Saudi Oil Production, Consumer Product Company SKUs, ProMat Attendance


Disappointing economic news on all fronts brought more troubles to Wall Street last week.  Our Supply Chain and Logistics stock index delivered widely mixed results.  In the software group, Ariba fell 6.8%, while i2 climbed 4.8%.  In the hardware group, Zebra and Intermec were both down for the week (7.6% and 2.2%, respectively).  In the transportation and logistics group, Yellow Roadway continued its rebound (up 48.5%) following the ratification of a new labor agreement with the Teamsters union that included a 10% wage reduction.  Within the same group, UPS fell 9.2%, followed by J.B. Hunt
(-8.7%) and Expeditors International

See full stock report.

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We received literally dozens of letters thanking us for our daily CSCMP annual conference video reviews, featuring Dan Gilmore and SCDigest contributing editor Gene Tyndall. We publish a selection of those below, including our Feedback of the Week from friend of SCDigest Larry Lapide of MIT, who wonders whether Dan and Gene required much make-up.

Feedback of the Week – On CSCMP Review:

Since I was not able to go to CSCMP this year, I appreciated Gene and your feedback on what happened on Day 1, and look forward to other updates. You guys even looked good. Without makeup I assume?

Larry Lapide, Ph.D.
Director, Demand Management
MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics

More On CSCMP Daily Reviews:

I thoroughly enjoyed your recap to the first day. Since I had other obligations that kept me from attending this year, I’m counting on your's and Gene’s updates to kind of keep me in the loop. I think that interesting statistic from John Langley is troubling for my industry - 61% approval rating for the 3PLs is very telling and I think you nailed it with the fact that collaboration is not what it should be. Even in our small company, where we have constant dialog with our clients, we work through issues together and the relationship is tight. In those relationships, we will go above and beyond to satisfy the customer and their customers. That positive attitude permeates through the workforce; exactly what we want.

The clients who are tough to reach, tell us it is our job to solve the issue, and dun us for every mistake, are those sitting in the 41% empty glass. And that attitude also permeates through the workforce as well (and sometimes the very same people). One account in particular that fits in this category seems afraid of letting go of any information that will help us do our job better. As much as we want to collaborate, they resist and their operational challenges become our potential service failures.

I guess this is the long version of saying you are right. When we are allowed to become an extension of our customers operation through honest and open collaboration, the results are amazing. When we don’t, the results are usually just an average relationship at best.

Paul Delp
Landsdale Warehouse Company

Nice job on the daily reports out of the CSCMP conference. I liked your daily wrap-ups.

I concur with your thoughts on improving CSCMP. I would also add that “studies/ trends” were a major topic this year. As for “3PL-ization," certainly so, but they are becoming the supply chain and need to tell their success stories. All CSCMP members need to remember that the success of the organization is a fine balance of volunteerism and salesmanship in all of the presentations. My thanks to all who take the time to prepare and present.

As you stated, James Ulrich was the best speaker. I would suggest that CSCMP always close out WED with a “futurist” to give us all something to think about as we leave. I enjoyed hearing from a female futurist (name?) at a previous CSCMP and also enjoyed Dan Pink back in San Diego.

Gene Nusekabel
Sterling Commerce

Thanks very much. I watched all 3 days and appreciated the insight. See you next year.

Meredith B. Foster
Valent BioSciences, Corp.
Manager Logistics

The information was very informative. I was able to learn about additional programs that are connected to Supply Chain Management.

Ronald Beeny
Logistics Manager
TMS Logistics

Excellent day 2 recap. Very well done!

Keith Maurer
Director-Supply Chain, Product Supply
SC Johnson

Good review. Since I am unable to attend this year, I appreciate the info.

Charlie Bruno

Too many tracks from which to choose, and the catalogue was difficult to use. Descriptions did not always well represent the content. I found myself choosing between multiple topics I wanted to attend in one time-segment and nothing of interest in the next.

However, the content of those attended was beneficial. As usual, the greatest takeaway was the networking with others who were searching for answers to the same problems.

Gough Grubbs
SVP Distribution/Logistics
Stage Stores


Q. What did the "AMR" in today's "AMR Research," a leading supply chain research and analysis firm, originally stand for?

A. Advanced Manufacturing Research, which reflected the focus of the company in its early days.

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