ProMat 2017- A Balance of Practical and Technical Innovations

Last week’s ProMat trade show in Chicago exhibited many more interesting warehouse technologies than I could possibly view in one day. Thankfully, I was able to touch upon most, but not all, of my “must see technologies.” My high-level take away is that the show exhibited everything from the next high-profile, technical innovations to those that deliver less of a “gee wiz” emotional response, but also are likely to deliver a quicker payback to those companies that purchase and implement them. Essentially, the trade show offered a nice balance of both highly technical and extremely practical innovations. Here are some of the interesting and diverse technologies I viewed at ProMat.

RightHand Robotics (RHR) demonstrated its new robotic piece-picking solution, RightPick, at its booth. In addition, three of the company’s partners, including Intelligrated, also displayed the solution integrated into more extensive warehouse workflows. I met with both RHR founders at the company’s booth and watched a demo of its robot picking a number of heterogeneous items from a bin. The items included a plastic bottle of liquid home cleaner, packaged kids’ snacks, and a bottle of aspirin. They also had a spectator place his shoe in the bin to demonstrate how the robot applies machine learning to picking tasks. It was interesting to see the robot attempt the pick from various angles and with different steps to achieve the pick. One of the founders also turned off the suction device that accompanies the robotic hand to demonstrate how the robot knows to attempt the pick of the same item in a different manner when using a single resource (gripper) instead of the gripper supported by the suction device. The machine learning capabilities embedded in the solution and the dexterity of the robotic hand are the two characteristics that I believe differentiate this solution from the competition. In addition, the fact that three partners chose to demonstrate RightPick at their booths leads me to believe that RightPick was clearly one of the premier exhibits at ProMat.

Locus Robotics demonstrated a fleet of its collaborative autonomous robots at ProMat. Over the last year, Locus has significantly expanded the navigation and process optimization capabilities of its solution. The robots can navigate the warehouse floor, proceed to desired pick locations, and avoid stationary and moving objects such as workers and other robots. The intelligence behind the system incorporates task scheduling, facility layout, spatial analysis, and fleet management capabilities to achieve productivity enhancements beyond what can be achieved by assigning robots to zones in a siloed manner. Product adoption has also come a long way from Locus’ initial pilot. The company now has eight initial implementations supporting a range of product categories, and recently announced DHL Supply Chain as a customer that will apply the bots within its life science group supporting medical devices fulfillment operations.

Manhattan Associates demonstrated its Performance at Work employee engagement solution. ARC recently surveyed a broad base of logistics professionals and found that warehouse labor management was the most prevalent choice for practitioners’ top warehouse investment priority over the next three years (LV post regarding research findings).  The Performance at Work solution is a set of developments that Manhattan undertook to enhance the value delivered by its labor management solution. The solution includes implementation enhancements and mobile solution capabilities. Manhattan enhanced its product delivery to allow users to more easily derive the synergies from implementing labor management in conjunction with WMS. The company also developed employee engagement capabilities that track and report on throughput and other performance metrics along with mobile capabilities that deliver individual and facility performance metrics to workers. I believe the use of throughput metrics is an engaging entry point for labor management, as it doesn’t include the pressure or assumptions that can accompany engineered standards.

PINC Solutions demonstrated its automated cycle counting solution that utilizes flying drones to video capture inventory status. The drones’ video capabilities identify data labels and the systems extracts the data from the video feed, analyzes rack content, and provides a color-coded inventory/location status display for quick, intuitive analysis. The solution is ideal for counting of valuable inventory located in high-bay or difficult to access warehouse location. It’s value drivers include increased frequency of inventory checks that can deliver loss reductions from inventory shrinkage and better overall inventory visibility in support of reorder and other inventory planning processes.

Zebra Technologies demonstrated its SmartPack Trailer solution. This load monitoring and analysis solution includes dock door load monitoring units that utilize 3D sensor and RGB camera technology and a software analytics application that is utilized by dock management. The solution is currently used at cross-dock facilities to provide visibility into parcel loading metrics such as load density, volumes, quality, and scan rates. It provides both real-time visibility for status of current operations and historical data for analysis of operations and improvement initiatives. This solution appealed to me as a cost-effective entry into the use of technology to improve current and future trailer loading performance.