MODEX 2018 – Warehouse Technology Adoption and Acceleration

Last week’s MODEX show in Atlanta contained many more exhibits than I could possibly have viewed in the short time that I attended. But I did view many of the exhibits and experienced the overall vibe of the show. “Technology adoption and acceleration” is the closest I can come to a common thread that captures the overall messaging and vibe of the show. There was a substantial number of autonomous mobile robotics solutions on display this year including Locus Robotics, Vecna Robotics, inVia Robotics, and Fetch Robotics. But most notably, the warehouse robotics companies that were early-stage start-ups just two years ago are now presenting referenceable customers that are scaling up their deployment of these solutions. At the same time, this same set of companies is moving into partnerships with other warehouse robotics, automation, and software providers to deliver more comprehensive solutions to meet the broader needs of warehouse operations. In all, the warehouse technology market is clearly expanding and maturing to better meet the needs of today’s fulfillment operations. Here are some details from the technology exhibits that attracted my attention at MODEX:

modex locus roboticsLocus Robotics once again demonstrated a fleet of its collaborative autonomous robots. Last year at Promat my discussions with Locus executives focused on enhancements to the navigation and process optimization capabilities of its solution, along with a mention of DHL Supply Chain as a customer. This year at MODEX, Locus executives presented the productivity improvements realized by DHL and other customers. DHL Supply Chain’s medical implant fulfillment operation has obtained over 2x productivity improvements per employee from its adoption of Locus Bots. DHL publicly stated that these workers went from 78 picking units per hour to 150 units per hour. Geodis is also obtaining over 2x productivity improvements from its use of Locus Bots in support of a women’s clothing retail client at a facility in Indiana. A home goods retailer has also deployed the Locus Bots, showing the range of items that Locus Bots can support.

KNAPP AG is a warehouse automation provider with a strong history in delivering shuttle systems. I wrote about Knapp’s YLOG shuttle system after the 2016 MODEX show. I was impressed by the shuttle’s ability to run on single level similar to single level shuttles while also pivoting 90 degrees and running on the perpendicular axis. This year Knapp exhibited its newest shuttle system, the OSR Evo (for evolution). Evo is also able to run lengthwise and crosswise, but at a faster pace than YLOG. It is also designed in a way that makes it easier to add shuttles to the system. Knapp has sold about 4,000 Evo units in the last 12 months. Knapp also exhibited its redPilot labor management system. The redPilot application utilizes labor cost data (actual costs for specific workers, such as hourly wage) in addition to standard warehouse environment information as inputs to provide a planning and simulation environment that offers proposals about how to change the assignment of work among the workforce to achieve efficiencies. MODEX was the North America launch of redPilot, which is technically a separate company from Knapp, but wholly owned by the Knapp Group.

Righthand RoboticsRightHand Robotics (RHR) was once again demonstrating its robotic piece-picking solution at its own booth, as well as at a number of partner booths. RHR is now partnering across a number of workflows. The Vecna partnership was of most interest to me, as a robotic piece picking solution on a collaborative autonomous robot is a potential game changing technology proposition for the warehouse. The RHR system has improved considerably over the last year, as well. Leif Jentoff, the company’s co-founder informed me that the software intelligence of its system is enabling the robots to pick 50 percent faster than they did last year.  I knew that the software system uses machine learning to improve upon its processes. However, the source of these productivity improvements was unclear to me so I asked for clarification. It turns out that one source of improvement is the fact that the robots have a higher pick completion ratio, essentially a higher percentage of successful picks (less failed attempts), requiring less reattempts. The second source of productivity improvement is that the pick attempt time is shorter. Prior to pick attempts, the vision system engages in an analysis process and this process is now shorter due to a greater level of confidence from the labelled data.  (the system is able to more easily exclude the extraneous data.) In my opinion, it is this software intelligence that differentiates the RightHand Robotics solution from other picking solutions.

Zebra TechnologiesZebra Technologies is well-known for its ruggedized mobile computers and scanners. But the company’s technology offering expands well outside of this bailiwick. Last Year I wrote about its SmartPack Trailer solution that monitors dock door loading with 3D sensor and RGB camera technology and includes a software analytics application that is utilized by dock management. Last year it was utilized by FedEx at approximately 5000 dock doors. FedEx has since expanded the solution’s use to 1,000 dock doors. SmartPack has also been adopted by additional customers and it functionality has been extended to accommodate standard 52-foot trailers. Also, as an interesting use-case outside of the logistics realm, Zebra has partnered with the NFL and Wilson Sporting Goods to deploy RFID tags in NFL footballs and player uniforms to collect and analyze real-time location and movement data. The player movement data is useful for insights not just into the behavior of individual players, but it becomes especially powerful when combined with data from other players and other statistics. The addition of RFID tags to the footballs required deeper analysis, as the size, weight, and placement of the tags had to be designed to maintain the balance and function of the football. As any New England Patriots fan will tell you, the NFL takes the weight and pressure of its game day footballs very seriously!