Robots are everywhere!
Robots were certainly pervasive at ProMat last year, but Modex 2020, which alternates with ProMat as the major material handling trade shows of each year, featured even more. More kinds of robots performing more types of tasks from ever more companies. There were robot floor sweepers and shelf stockers, pickers and scanners, even truck unloaders. And there were some very sophisticated technologies to run the systems safely and efficiently.
MHI, which presents both Modex and ProMat, issues an annual survey of material handling companies and experts, and this year’s version, titled “Embracing the Digital Mindset,” found that the leading disruptive forces in technology are, first and foremost, robotics and automation. About two-thirds of respondents said this technology is having the biggest impact on their business, nearly 10 percent more than cited the next two disruptors — sensors and automatic identification and predictive analytics.
Two other very popular trends at trade shows over the past few years, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, followed in the survey. Inventory and network optimization, autonomous vehicle technology, wearable and mobile technology, cloud computing and blockchain were further back on the list. It should be noted that technologies like inventory optimization, mobile technology and cloud computing may no longer be considered disruptive by many experts and practitioners, who reported high adoption levels of these services.
At the session where the MHI study was released, Thomas Boykin, supply chain specialist leader at Deloitte Consulting, said that investments in digital technologies are increasing “fairly heavily” but that issues like the talent shortage and ever-increasing customer requirements are top hurdles that can hinder improved performance. “Expectations of faster, better, cheaper is also keeping these executives up at night,” he said.
A panel that discussed on the survey that included experts from Microsoft, The University of Tennessee and Locus Robotics was enthusiastic about the potential for technologies like predictive analytics, as well as robotics and automation, to advance supply chain efficiencies and free up scarce human talent to be redirected to higher-value processes. The panel also discussed how collaborative mobile robots can make human coworkers more efficient by drastically reducing the miles of empty walking involved in picking orders in warehouses and stores.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What are the biggest product handling technology disruptors currently in use in the retail supply chain? Which ones do you expect to follow next?