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April 11, 2019 - Supply Chain Flagship Newsletter

This Week in SCDigest

bullet ProMat 2019: The New Era of Mobile Robots in Distribution bullet SC Digest On-Target e-Magazine
bullet Supply Chain Graphic & by the Numbers for the Week bullet Distribution Digest/Green Supply Chain
bullet New Cartoon Caption Contest Begins bullet Trivia      bullet Feedback
bullet Expert Columns bullet On Demand Videocasts


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Supply Chain Graphic of the Week
What Countries have the Highest Robot Density?


Amazon Taking another Step in Direct Parcel Shipping

Walmart Adding Robots in Stores and DCs
Retail Apocalypse to Get Much Worse
IMF Downgrades Global Economy


April 10, 2019 Contest

See The Full Cartoon and Send in Your Entry Today!



Feature Story: Leading Analysts are Bullish on Use of Mobile Robots in Distribution Part 2


pic GSC Feature Story: Just How much should Water Cost?

Weekly On-Target Newsletter:
April 10, 2019 Edition

New Cartoon, Amazon Tests Shipping, Clean Oil Fuel Deadline, Water Cost?, More

How Supply Chain Companies Can Achieve Decision-Centric Optimization
The Most Important Outcome of Implementing an Algorithm-Based Supply Chain Optimization Solution

Featuring Dan Gilmore, Editor along with along with Dr. Z. Caner Taskin - ICRON's Chief Technology Officer and a Professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering at Bogaziçi University.

From "Rules of Thumb" to Non-Linear Algorithmic Optimization

by Henry Canitz
Product Marketing & Business Development Director

The Chainmail Effect: How Globalization Impacts the Supply Chain

by Daniel Smith
Product Marketing Specialist
Amber Road



What are logistics costs in China as a percent of GDP?

Answer Found at the
Bottom of the Page

ProMat 2019: The New Era of Mobile Robots in Distribution

I am just back from spending several days at the ProMat 2019 tradeshow in Chicago. ProMat, as most know, is the large materials handling-oriented show put on by MHI (the former Materials Handling Industry of America).


ProMat is held biannually, in odd number years, at Chicago's giant McCormick Place exhibit center. For a number of years now, MHI also produces a similar event now called MODEX that is held in the even years at Atlanta's World Congress Center.


Amazon itself in a real sense confirmed my view by announcing a couple of days later that it was acquiring mobile robot manufacturing Canvas Technology.


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The Promat show is somewhat eclectic, with highly automated systems that can move cartons out the door with little or no human involvement mixed in with lift truck battery charging systems and caster wheel providers and everything in between.


And it looks to be fat times for MHI right now. Combine a generally strong economy, new handling demands from ecommerce fulfillment, worker shortages in distribution, and rapid, software driven advances in automation generally and robotics specifically, and the exhibit hall - halls actually - were sold out and packed with vendors. MHI must be pretty flush.


In fact, for the last few ProMats MHI has partnered with another, robotics-oriented show called Automate that is in an adjacent exhibit space, with co-event registration. But with the strong demand for exhibit space at ProMat, which sold out a long while back, much of the Automate floor space was actually occupied by ProMat spill over vendors that couldn't get on the main show floor, including a smaller hall even further back from the Automate exhibit space that I am not sure how anyone made it back too.


The advances being made in robotics of all sort for distribution are incredible. Those advances are at present more a function of rapid, improvements in software, artificial intelligence, and machine learning than they are advances in what I would call mechanical improvements, though there are plenty of those too, especially in combination with vision systems.


I have said this before but will say it with more conviction after a few days in Chicago: With the (somewhat) exception of piece picking out of static shelving, there are really no technical barriers to automating the order picking process any more. Maybe the ROI isn't there, perhaps you are worried about flexibility, there could be cultural issues relative to that level of automation at many companies, etc. - but no longer is it the case that the technology just isn’t there yet.


But I am going to take this a step farther. We have now entered, starting here at ProMat 2019, into the mobile robot era in distribution.


The machines go by a couple of different names, but most commonly are called autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs. The term should be somewhat self-explanatory: these robots, of many different styles, can traverse the DC floor not only automatically but much more flexibility and safely that their ancestors of sorts, automated guided vehicles (AGVs).


The famous Kiva Systems mobile robots - technology Amazon acquired in 2012, and which it has deployed by the tens of thousands of machines since then - ushered in the "goods to person" paradigm that has had a profound shift in how many think about distribution and picking process automation.


Not long after that, the concept of "task to picker" also emerged. With Kiva (and now similar solutions), robots bring SKUs to stationary pickers, who are working some number of orders - maybe a dozen or so. The robot arrives at the station, and the stationary worker picks from the SKUs on the robot cart and places those items into any orders on his/her cart that needs the SKU.


When the picks are complete, the robot moves on to the next station with orders needing that SKU, or parks itself, while another robot arrives shortly at the first station.


With "task to picker," robots meet humans at pick locations, say a specific pick zone. The human picks products for one or more orders (cartons/totes) that the mobile robot is carrying. When complete, the robot moves on to another zone with SKUs are needed for those orders, or off to packing when complete, as another robot arrives to meet the picker in the zone, or await a picker coming into the zone. You a need some 5-6 robots per human to have minimal weight times.


The goal in both cases just described of course is to reduce - perhaps dramatically - human picker travel times, with travel time being by far the largest component of traditional order picking costs. There's still a lot of travel - but it's by robots that once acquired in a sense travel for almost free.


There are many other applications for AMRs, including basic transport from point A to point B, working cooperatively with say a case picker on what amounts to an automated pallet jack, managing replenishment to forward pick zones and more.


One interesting application, for example, is the notion of a "helper" task. Exceptions are the bane of distribution, and one common one is for a replenishment that was not performed on a timely basis, so that orders may have short picks - they arrive at packing stations missing ordered items.


How to solve this exception? Today it's not easy, sending humans out to retrieve the SKUs, maybe from reserve storage, maybe from now replenished forward pick locations. It is a real operational pain, and generally takes a long time to resolve.


But add a mobile robot to the mix, and things can become a lot simpler. The AMR can be dispatched to meet a human at a reserve or forward pick location, be "handed" the shorted items, and deliver them to the packing area to complete the orders.


Now that's pretty slick.


I am calling this the start of the mobile robot era because I think we have hit an inflection point. The combination of improved technology, changes to order profiles as a result of ecommerce and other factors, and the continued major challenges in finding and keeping DC labor, and I think AMRs have simply become accepted as a solution to these challenges the way Voice or pick-to-light have been for many years.


I spoke to several companies at the show who said they viewed mobile robots as a nice "middle ground" between sophisticated (and expensive) automation and traditional approaches to piece and case picking. I agree.


This notion of entering a new era of mobile robots in distribution came to me early, on Monday, the first day of the show.


And nicely, Amazon itself in a real sense confirmed my view by announcing a couple of days later that it was acquiring mobile robot manufacturing Canvas Technology.


Why would Amazon want to acquire a mobile robot developer? I don't know for sure, but I heavily suspect it is similar to why Amazon acquired Kiva - it anticipates its demands for mobile robots are going to be so massive that it wants to lock up all of Canvas' production capacity.


The start of the mobile robot era indeed.


Think for this week I will leave it at that for this week. I will be back next week with my review of the top new products I saw at the show. A quick preview of my top three: a new automated trailer unloader from Intelligrated for floor stacked cartons; a new sortation system for long, normally non-conveyable goods from Intralogistics, and a nifty new take on a shuttle system from Bastian.


Do you think we have started a new era of widespread adoption of mobile robots in distribution? Why or why not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.


New On Demand Videocast:

A Blueprint for WMS Implementation Success

If You Want a Successful WMS Project, You will Find the Blueprint in this Excellent Broadcast

This videocast lays out the keys to ensuring your WMS implementation goes smoothly, involves minimal pain, and accelerates time to value.

Featuring Dan Gilmore, Editor along with Todd Kovi of Radix Consulting and Dinesh Dongre of Softeon.

Now Available On Demand

New On Demand Videocast:

How Supply Chain Companies Can Achieve Decision-Centric Optimization

The Most Important Outcome of Implementing an Algorithm-Based Supply Chain Optimization Solution

Featuring Dan Gilmore, Editor along with along with Dr. Z. Caner Taskin - ICRON's Chief Technology Officer and a Professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering at Bogaziçi University.

Now Available On Demand

On Demand Videocast:

Digital Transformation's Value to the Supply Chain

The Future of Order Management

This videocast breaks down what digital transformation is and how automated order management solutions equate to supply chain benefits.

Featuring Dan Gilmore, Editor along with Esker's Dan Reeve.

Now Available On Demand


Received a decent number of emails on our recent piece on the "The 3 V's of Supply Chain 20 Years Later," including one from 3'v inventor Art Mesher himself. A few below - more next soon.

Feedback on The 3 V's of Supply Chain 20 Years Later:


Thanks for your kind words and thoughtfulness in your article. Your support is of great value.

Art Mesher





As always, a well written and thoughtful article.

Indeed, I had forgotten about the 3V's but they fully resonate today, 20 years later. Also, after decades of "Enterprise systems and their associated processes," data management and "frictionless transactions" are turbocharging velocity and visibility. The impact on the supply chain profession will be profound.

Art Mesher is an impressive supply chain thought leader. Thanks for sharing his latest thoughts.

Jerry Saltzman






Great idea to see if old ideas have taken root and evolved with the times. This article along with the 2004 HBR article "Triple A Supply Chain" by Hau Lee ( Adapt, Align, Agility ) spawned my V3 or V Cubed Supply chain of Visibility, Velocity and Value Add.


The key today is Data - and with the IOT there is Data, Data Everywhere - "Too Much To Drink!" One must ensure the visibility runs the gambit from Supplier's Supplier to Customer's Customer and that the KPI's within, depending on industry, are enabled to the mobile workforce, anytime, anywhere.


But that is an internal supply pulse pacing the external customer pulse. Old school! Today it is the Customer's pulse that must be not only seized but shaped allowing the planned supply chain agile strategies to fulfill the wants that we ( Big WE ) have created. And all at the speed of business!!

Thomas L Dadmun
Vero Beach, FL
Retired VP, Supply Chain



Q: What are logistics costs in China as a percent of GDP?

A: 14.8%, versus 7.7% in the US.

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