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  First Thoughts

    Dan Gilmore


    Supply Chain Digest

April 13, 2018

Supply Chain News: Trip Report on MODEX 2018

Sold Out Show Indicative of Robust Material Handling Systems Market, Driven by Several Factors

SCDigest Materials Handling Editor Cliff Holste and I are fresh back from the MODEX 2018 trade show at the Atlanta convention center.

Thousands of you have already seen our day 1 and day 2 review and comment videos, but if you missed those, here they are again: MODEX 2018 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.

Gilmore Says....

The point we made on the video is simply this: the technical barriers to robotic picking of individual items and cases is just about completely gone.

What do you say?

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The original idea was to make MODEX more of a "supply chain" show than the materials handling focused ProMat. I am not sure that has really been accomplished, in large part because the market for materials systems in distribution centers remains robust.

That is due to a healthy economy, the solid growth over many years in new distribution center space, the growth ecommerce fulfillment and the unique needs of those processes (i.e., primarily "piece picking"), and to me the unprecedented interest in automating DC tasks where possible. This interest is driven in part by the efforts to reduce costs, but it appears about equally with issues around DC labor.

I spoke with a number of attendees who told me they were at the show primarily because they believed they had real opportunities to automate different processes in their DC operations – not giant full DC automation systems, but more focused projects in individual areas.

Those companies should certainly have come back with lots of ideas. The main exhibit hall was sold out of space, populated primarily with companies selling physical materials handling systems but with plenty of software companies, consulting firms and others as well.

In fact, MHI opened an overflow hall to house exhibitors that didn't get a spot in the main tent.

I don't think the official number of attendees over the four days is out yet, but MHI estimates that figure will be close to 30,000, which would it not far behind ProMat numbers – and it felt that way.

Cliff and I always try to come away with some theme from each show, and didn't really do that this year - it was too diverse. But now a couple of days removed I have a thought in the form of a question. With the growing opportunities to automate some or all of distribution center processes, with robots of all sort increasingly part of the potential mix, what software is going to control these handling systems?

Will there simply be a federation of different control systems from the provider of each technology? Or will there be an overarching platform that ties it all together? This would obviously be something like a Warehouse Control System (WCS), but to my mind something more. And that platform could come from large automation vendors, specialized WCS providers and WMS companies reaching down, with the so-called "Warehouse Execution System" (WES) providers also in the mix.

The point is just this: there will be lots of choices and potential approaches here – choose wisely.

The other point I would make is that the automation on display was dominated again this year by piece picking applications. That of course is a result of the focus on efulfillment.

But there are still lots of companies picking lots of cases manually, and the display of systems for what Cliff and I several years backed called Automated Case Picking (ACP) was limited. There's only so much floor space, and vendors display what is most likely to sell, but I hope what looked like great promise for ACP is also being realized.

One final side note: the last few MHI events have featured a decent block of vendors from China, largely all together usually in simple 10 x 10 booths that generally did not communicate what they did very well, in what Cliff and I jokingly referred to as "Chinatown."

But joking aside, it was important, because as yet Chinese firms have not really made a run at materials handling equipment as they have in so many other industries. But for now, Chinatown was gone, whether because those firms lost interest or because MHI didn't pursue them I am not sure.

Cliff and I literally walk the aisles looking for new and/or cool solutions. I will note – as I am sure many attendees would agree – how difficult it often is to quickly ascertain what a company is offering and/or what they are introducing at the show from a quick look at the booth. Many exhibitors could do much better in this regard.

We covered about 15 solutions across the Day 1 and Day 2 reports, usually with video from the show floor. But here in written form are some of our favorites.

A company called Sick makes variety of sensors and other equipment, including traditional "dimensioners" that capture the cube of products/cases as they move past on a conveyor.
Not on display at the Sick booth but discussed with Cliff and I was a coming portable 3D dimensioner that could be used for non-conveyable items. The example cited to us was a canoe that might be sold on-line. Hold this new dimensioner up like you're taking a cell phone photo and voila you have captured the full 3D data points.

That sounds cool and solves a need for sure. There is just one hitch: the product is being co-developed with Amazon and FedEx, and it's not clear if or when it will be made available outside those two companies. We'll keep you posted.

The piece picking robot from RightHand Robotics is really something, using a unique grabber mechanism that combines a suction-type devices with three very dexterous robotic fingers, married with an advanced vision system.

But the real secret sauce is use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The robot was simply picking a wide variety of totally random items out of a tote, some very difficult, such as a contoured jar of peanuts, with no initial training of the machine required.

The robot occasionally dropped an item. It might try again, but often it would move on to another item while it was "thinking" in the background about how to better approach the dropped item. Sure enough, it would circle back to that item and invariably have success the next time around.

The point we made on the video is simply this: the technical barriers to robotic picking of individual items and cases is just about completely gone. There may be other reasons to not go in this direction, but it won't be because it can't be done, as was the case just a few years ago.

The sorter business for distribution is a very mature space, with a handful of providers dominating the market. So it seems an unusual area for what is in essence a start up to make a run, but that's what 18-month old Aegis Sortation has done.

There isn't any one thing that makes the new Aegis "shoe" sorter different, but rather a number of small innovations that add up to something very interesting. Those include: an all die cast aluminum frame; RFID chips inside the shoes that push products from the sorter to divert lanes such that if one is knocked loose it is instantly identified, addressing a problem that is more common than I realized; a nifty way of handling power, Ethernet and other cabling that it says will make installation cheaper and faster; and most importantly a new approach using the RFID to trigger the shoes to move in a shorter time window, so that smaller shoes can be used, meaning you can fit more products on the sorter for a given amount of linear feet.

As Cliff noted, Aegis had the chance to design everything from scratch, while the traditional players are to an extent constrained by their legacy engineering.

A company called Ancra featured a cool new automated trailer loading system that can move pallets on to a trailer - in a first without any modifications to the trailer bed. It does this by having pallets first placed on a series of "skateboard" like devices that then roll in unison on to the trailer, and then retract, gliding each pallet down on to the floor.

Very cool. Loading once it starts takes just 3 minutes, with total time (the system for example assesses the trailer before loading starts) from start to finish of 8-9 minutes.

There was so much more. Again look at the Day 1 and Day 2 videos for additional details.

Any reaction to this review of MODEX? Did you attend? What caught your eye? Let us know your thought at the Feedback section below.

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