The future of supply chains - highlights from the ProMat show
- The ProMat show is an amazing exhibition and the 2023 show last week in Chicago was no exception. Here are my highlights.
If you’re a manufacturer, distributor, retailer, wholesaler or any other kind of firm that handles, transports, packs, picks, etc. goods, you can’t visit ProMat without finding something cool that will goose your firm’s productivity and efficiency. In fact, if you can’t find something to improve your processes, you must still be at your hotel.
I’ve attended this show many times over the years but the pandemic and another commitment kept me away in recent years. Here is what has changed and what is definitely noteworthy.
Compare and contrast
I reviewed the pictures I took at the ProMat show in March 2015. Nine years ago, there was a lot of focus on items such as:
- And related technologies
But the more radical technology on display then focused on high-speed 3-D printing, boxes on demand, drones, tools to minimize packaging and, of course, robots. I thought a number of those were novel or had novel business process implications. Drone applications looked cool (e.g., using drones to do aerial flyovers of fleet parking lots) and the box on demand devices seemed very savvy, if not more environmentally friendly.
But that show couldn’t showcase how advanced technologies like machine learning, 5G and Lidar would change things in a few short years.
Some 2015 solutions were hard to find at this year’s show. For example, in prior years there were solutions to handle clothing that was stored on hangars. That technology appears to have become obsolete as many clothiers have shifted to folded clothes that are now stored in bins/containers.
There were also commodity items (e.g., wheels, casters, bearings, signage, motors, etc.) on display but I noticed fewer of these than in prior shows. I suspect a number of vendors are selling more of these items via online marketplaces than at an in-person show. The exception to that were the firms who clearly added new value to these commodity items. They offered more energy efficient devices, longer-lasting products, better designs, or some other feature that differentiated their solutions.
Swag was actually minimal at this show. I like vendors who have products that do the talking and do not have to rely on freebies like t-shirts and stress balls. I did see one vendor with one of those schlocky golf-putting games in their booth. Regardless, this show was virtually all-business, all the time.
Today’s ProMat show, like prior events, had a mix of new and old technologies. And, as before, the new technologies were definitely interesting. For example, you could see:
New generations of robots
The current generation of robots are designed to become productive very quickly. Some of these devices are programmed via low/no-code languages. Some have rapid configuration tools where most anyone can quickly ‘acquaint’ the robots to the dimensions, obstacles, etc. within a warehouse. As a company’s business grows and new robots are needed, the current robots can transfer a copy of their programming in minutes to the new devices. This generation of robots is designed to help companies scale quickly, with little to no outside help, and, inexpensively.
Many of the new robots rely on newer technologies to help them navigate their surroundings. They may have cameras and Lidar to help them find their way around. It was interesting to watch these devices navigate aisles that were full of show attendees (who didn’t realize they were in the path of a robot). These robots could wind their way around crowded aisles or turn around and seek an alternate path to a put-away or picking location.
The newer robots also come in wide array of sizes. Some are exceptionally small and navigate very narrow, low clearance areas. Some are quite strong and are designed to lift and transport loaded pallets of goods. I really liked the mobile robots that can drive themselves into a cargo container and bring with them a conveyor system. Those devices have a very smart robotic arm that load or unload a container. In my youth in Texas, I had to go into tractor trailers and unload merchandise. That work is sweltering, hard and not for most folks. Having a robot to unload and transport the material to the outside of the trailer would have been a great labor saving and humane piece of technology to have had. (I have seen this type of technology in use at one of my clients already.)
The robotics presence in this space is interesting as some of the firms offering solutions today got their inspiration from one of the pioneers in the space: Kiva. One of those, unicorn-valued Locus, had an amazing space at ProMat. (Click this link to read great origin piece on Locus or this one on Kiva.)
I ran into colleague Tom Ryan at ProMat. He turned me on to the Robots-as-a-Service concept that some robotic firms are providing. In this world, the robots are connected to a secure network and/or cloud. Their performance is monitored continuously and aberrant activity or performance is immediately noted. Technicians can be dispatched to make needed repairs or maintenance.
When I asked one of the robotic providers about this service, he indicated that the firm charges a monthly fee/robot. It does not base it fees on items picked or other metrics (although I can foresee how this might creep into the economics of the space). The Locus robots, according to a real-time display in their booth are averaging over 330,000 items picked/hour today.
Ryan also mentioned that as new robots get deployed at a customer site, they get their site awareness and programming downloaded from another, in-use, robot in a matter of minutes with some devices productive within 5 minutes of arrival. One vendor indicated that they can implement their robotic solutions at a net-new customer in about 2-weeks’ time. Why can’t ERP software work that way?
Ryan did mention that some old school issues are highly problematic for robots. Bad flooring was one he mentioned. While robotic devices (and tech-enabled forklifts) can be quite rugged, bad floors put shocks and stress on electronics, cameras and other sensitive components within the equipment. Apparently, these devices operate better/last longer in environments with low dust, smooth floors, minimal electronic interference, etc.
Ryan also highlighted another issue with some older robotic fork trucks: slow speeds. Some of these devices are slower than human operated devices and he’s heard of companies retiring some of these devices. The lesson here may be that just because a technology is new doesn’t mean you skip on the business case.
The industry/economy angle
This was a huge, crowded event. I saw numerous teams of business people scouting new technology for their firms. Many of these were in groups of two or three people and each team was armed with a camera, business cards (yes!), notepad and more. They were looking for everything from more reliable wheel casters and safety signage to radically re-designed fulfillment processes.
The crowds told another story: re-investment in the supply/value chain is hot once more. The days of treading water during the pandemic are giving way to an opening up of demand for new/better ways of doing business. Buyers were looking for:
- Marginal improvements to perpetual problems (e.g., Who has longer-lasting fork truck wheels so that we can reduce machine down-time and damage to our floors?)
- Spot improvements to existing processes (e.g., how can we minimize the amount of walking our DC employees do every day?)
- Safety improvements
- Better run-time for batteries
- Alternate fuels for our equipment
- Better ways to utilize the space we have
And, of course,
- Radically new ways to move materials that will generate strategic and competitive advantage
Interestingly, buyers were checking out solutions that were more sustainable, generated fewer greenhouse gases or were better for one’s workforce. If a buyer is in the market for new/replacement products, why not look at the ones that protect workers and the environment?
One aspect of value chains is the need for a reverse logistics solution. While they could have been at the show, the size of the event and time constraints just didn’t allow me to see any of these. That said, I suspect the show organizers could do an entire expo just on solving reverse logistics issues.
Specifically, companies need to address:
- How persons/businesses can return items quickly and without using lots of additional packaging, mailing containers, inspections, reconditioning, etc.?
- Can more efficient methods be found to reuse materials, avoid manual efforts, etc.?
Reverse logistics may need more brainpower and innovation applied so that very different solutions can be ideated. The current methods appear to stuck in a bit of a time warp.
Going to a show like this is something every executive ought to do on a periodic basis. You can see what the art of the possible is, notice how other firms/vendors/etc. in dissimilar markets are applying new technologies to deliver competitive or strategic advantage, etc. This is the place to see concepts come to life and to stimulate business and business process ideation.
This show was timely in 2023 as:
- Finding labor, especially for warehouse, distribution, packaging, fulfillment, etc. roles, is still difficult. Smart firms find ways to reduce their dependency on scarce resources and people are the scarce commodity these days.
- Labor costs are continuing to rise and utilizing some mechanized tech to obviate the need for some personnel could be good for the bottom line.
- Some jobs in these facilities (e.g., unloading cargo containers) may be dusty, hot and unsafe. Using robots may be a more humane, ethical approach to this work and spare your firm from future litigation.
- Some of the newer technology is brilliant in finding the right item every time. A “no-error” process cuts down on returns processing, missed orders and customer dissatisfaction.
This show provided some directional guidance on a critical set of functions for a large number of firms. Based on customer interest and vendor offerings at ProMat, we should see some interesting changes popping up in supply chains, warehouses, DCs and more.