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  First Thoughts

    Dan Gilmore


    Supply Chain Digest


April 8, 2016

Supply Chain News: Trip Report - MODEX 2016

Key Themes and Coolest New Solutions at the Expanding MODEX Show from MHI

Ok, SCDigest Materials Handling Editor Cliff Holste, Video News Anchor Jim Stephens and myself are fresh back from the MODEX 2016 trade show at the Atlanta convention center.

Thousands of you have already seen are day 1 and day 2 review and comment videos, but if you missed those, here they are again: MODEX 2016 Day 1, Day 2.

As many of you know, MODEX is an event from MHI, formerly the Materials Handling Industry of America, and is the off-year show from the now not much larger ProMat show held in Chicago in odd number years.

The official number of attendees over the four days isn't out yet, but MHI estimates that figure will be about 25,000, which would it just about 5,000 or so short of the ProMat number in recent years. The MODEX floor show space continues to expand, as more exhibitors jump on board.

Gilmore Says....

I have been saying for several years now that we would soon see voice control of WMS and other supply chain applications.

What do you say?

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So with the materials handling sector in general enjoying pretty good times, and both the MODEX and ProMat shows doing very well, this has left MHI in relatively flush financial shape, which under CEO George Prest is aggressively moving to expand its focus from representing companies in the materials handling sector (hardware, software and more) to supply chain practitioners as well. It won't be an easy or inexpensive process, but MHI is in a position to make a run at it.

Cliff and I try to find some key themes from these MHI shows each year, and didn't really manage to do that this year in any significant way, other than to repeat something we noted last year after ProMat: the technical barriers to the holy grails of automating full case and piece picking are simply falling away.

If you decide not to automate such picking processes, it may be due to volume levels, the ROI, your culture, concerns about flexibility, etc., but it is unlikely to be because the technology just won't work for your situation, as was the commonly case just a few years ago.

Case in point of this perspective is a really cool new piece picking system from I am Robotics, which I will overview below.

In another minor theme, there were a significant number of what are called automated guided vehicles (AGVs) on the show floor. What is noteworthy here is that many are now using the same type of autonomous driving capabilities being developed by Google and many others for automobile navigation.

Interestingly, this not only greatly improves flexibility - an important limitation of AGVs in the not too distant past - but can actually also significantly reduce the cost of the vehicles by in a sense digitizing some of the hardware that was needed for AGVs to navigate in the past.

The big question though is whether AGVs will ever really find a place in distribution centers, instead of just the factory floor (and sometimes also then connected plant warehouses). That remains to be seen, although the Kiva-style robots (now being rethought by Locus Robotics, see below) are really a form of AGV.

OK, some other industry scuttlebutt from the show:

One source tells us a major deal is set to go down in the materials handling sector, but it just couldn't get done in time for the show. We couldn't get any more details out of him, so we will just have to wait and see on that one.

One consultant discussed with us the emerging use of telemetry to track pallets in a DC without the need for bar code scanning. What is interesting about this is that what is actually being tracked is not the pallet itself, but rather the vehicle moving it. In great summary, as a pallet comes off the line, it is given a virtual serial number, known by the system in sequence.

When a fork truck or AGV picks up a pallet, the system tracks that vehicle moving the virtually ID'ed pallet to where it is deposited. So when another vehicle later moves to those coordinates, the WMS now knows which pallet is located there, and again tracks the movement of the vehicle (not pallet) to another location, such as staging. No scanning, yet tracking. This is still somewhat experimental. More info when we get it.

Next, I have been saying for several years now that we would soon see voice control of WMS and other supply chain applications. Not voice just used for say order picking, but rather as a key or even primary interface to the system.

Supply chain software vendor Softeon was demonstrating just such capabilities in its booth, where you could say "Show wave completion" into a smart phone or PC, and a chart showing the current status of the pick wave would show up on the phone or screen. An operator might say "Need replenishment" or something similar, using either a set phrase or, as Softeon was showing, using "natural language" capabilities as well. I believe this will be commonplace in a few years.

On just a brief humorous note, as we noted in our day 2 video, if you saw us in operation at these shows you might get a chuckle. We first do a quick assessment if a given vendor has something new and of possible interest, based on a quick visual inspection of the booth. If yes, we discuss what they are showing in more detail. If it passes that cut, we then want a 35-45 second video overview of the solution from a company spokesperson for use in our video recaps each day.

Almost every time, the vendor says something like "When do you want to do this?" And Cliff and I say "Right now!" The vendor is then like "Right now?" And we repeat "Right now." If they balk at first, as many do, we say (truthfully) we are unlikely to make it back to this booth. Somehow we get away with this, for our audience's benefit.

OK, short on space, but the best three new solutions we saw this year at MODEX were:

The aforementioned piece picking robot from I am Robotics. It moves up anddown aisles of static shelving, picking products into a tote/carton using a simply vacuum type grabber. Started by a young CEO coming out of the robotics center at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburg, the secret sauce is vision technology that allows the robot to "see" the items on the shelves, validate they are the right items, and make the right approach with the vacuum arm for each pick. These robots can now do 300 picks per hour, more in the future, and are targeted at ecommerce orders. They can be leased for I believe they said just $2000 per month. Company has one live deployment at some type of drug company DC.

Locus Robotics was formed when 3PL Quiet Logistics was concerned with the Amazon acquisition of Kiva Systems, since Quiet used Kiva extensively. That concern was well placed, as Kiva soon stopped selling outside Amazon. The Locus robots are cousins to the Kiva approach, but importantly different, not pursing "goods to person" picking, but rather "task to person." The picker in effect meets the robot at a pick location, sees the pick on an iPad screen, and after the pick the robot either goes to packing or the next pick for the order. 7-8 robots are needed to support each picker, but CEO Bruce Welty says the productivity and ROI are there. Huge traffic at the booth.

Very cool was a new data collection terminal using smart phones from COGNEX, prior to this primarily a provider of vision systems for scanning on high speed conveyor lines. COGNEX has wittily built a platform into which a smart phone - either selected/acquired by the vendor or the end use company itself - is embedded, thus taking on a traditional brick or gun form factor but also accessing COGNEX's vision-based scanning module versus say a laser. This is a very well-engineered solution, beyond merely a hardened case for a smart phone, and the phones are easily replaced in the platform with newer models over time.

All three of these solutions can be viewed in more detail in the day 2 video. I am out of space, but we saw a lot more at the show. In next week's edition of our On-Target newsletter, we will recap the other 15 or so "best of MODEX 2016" solutions that we saw at the show.

Any reaction to our MODEX 2106 trip report? Are the videos useful? Were you at the show? What caught your eye? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.

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