The technology that powers business: Where's the innovation?

The technology that powers business is key to driving productivity improvements and economies. The recent Promat and Automate 2015 shows featured many technologies that can do both. But, were the innovations breakthroughs or incremental? And, where were the ERP vendors?

Tuesday, I attended the Promat 2015 and Automate 2015 events at Chicago's McCormick Center. The former is a gathering of equipment providers and suppliers involved in the handling and movement of goods. The latter is an engineering showcase full of robotic and other mechanized business automation technology. If you're like the characters on The Big Bang Theory - this is your nirvana.

With me was Thomas Ryan. Tom is a former Gartner analyst and an expert on warehouse, transportation and logistics technologies. Perusing the exhibition floor with Tom was interesting in that he not only knew many of the vendors but also some of the people working the booths. We walked the miles of aisles in the two exhibition halls. Tom provided the real world shop floor commentary while I mused on how these technologies need to connect to ERP and back office software.

Afterwards, we compared notes.

Here are our observations:

Hits

Both of us have attended this show in prior years. As someone who was an economics teaching assistant in college, it makes me feel good to see so many attendees at this event. Why? These individuals are shopping for capital equipment that will significantly improve the productivity of their firm. Productivity increases when a business can get more revenue with less labor cost. Productivity gains occur when businesses are able to automate manual processes, streamline processes, reduce defects, etc.

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What the attendees are looking for at this show is technology that will fill orders more rapidly and accurately. They seek technology that will package and ship goods more cost-effectively. If it could be picked, sorted, moved, stocked, manipulated, welded, packed, inspected, etc. there was an exhibitor who could help a business improve its productivity.

In the last year, I have seen how some US manufacturers have taken back manufacturing from low-cost countries and returned it to the United States. The way they have achieved this is through better utilization of manufacturing technologies, better integration between machine tools and improved worker productivity.

Removing non-value-added or low-value-added activities from manufacturing and distribution processes is key to reducing total product cost, improving customer satisfaction and improving bottom-line business results. A huge opportunity I've seen is the elimination of needless handling and re-handling of goods. That's what makes a show like Promat interesting.

Many of the technologies on display at Promat (e.g., fork trucks, material handling systems, warehouse and transportation systems, etc.) have been around for some time. However, there are number of incremental innovations that have occurred in many of these mature products (e.g., battery technology). There were even some significant innovations on display as well (e.g., drone usage for monitoring inventory in outdoor settings and in monitoring trailer locations in large distribution center truck yards).

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Drone technology to monitor storage yards

Personally, I was pleased to see the following technologies on display:

  • 3-D printers - Several exhibitors had demonstrations running with these devices. Some were coupled to robotic arms to create a more complex product. I did not see any 3-D printers utilizing powdered metals, though. What was interesting was that robotic arms were adapted to contain the print head for a 3-D print device.

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Robot equipped for 3-D printing

  • Custom corrugated box machining - There were a couple of vendors who have machines that can dynamically generate boxes. What is interesting is that these machines can create custom cardboard boxes for the odd-sized goods that a company sells or distributes. What was even more interesting to me was that the boxes could be made just-in-time with such tight clearances that the shipper did not need to add additional packing material to the container. That saves both on the shipping cost and is more environmentally friendly. With the growing e-commerce channel, shippers worldwide may find this technology very intriguing.


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Dynamic box manufacturing

  • Small item handling - While technology for handling small items or open case quantities of materials has been around for some time, what I recall from prior generations of handling technology were systems/robots that would bring bins to humans for picking. Now, these computer-controlled systems not only stack, sort and present small bins for picking and putting away, they also are equipped with robotic arms that can scan the contents of the bin, identify how the contents are individually oriented, tip or move the contents when needed, and, remove/insert an individual item.

    Tom adds: These systems are incremental improvements of techniques that have been used before. This interesting point is that they are principally focused on helping deal with the unique issues associated with maintaining availability of low volume/low sales items which can still be sold/provided to consumers profitably. The manual methods with traditional storage and picking approaches can be costly and inefficient. The challenge is whether these high tech solutions are cost effective and technically supportable: is there a valid payback?
  • Robotic inspection - Several vendors showed how their robotic solutions could lift, examine and store individual items while also checking color, fill-level and other aspects of the item. Based on the decision that the system makes, the item is either rejected or placed in finished goods inventory.
  • Tom adds: Emulation and testing of material handling of control systems - I was impressed that there was a vendor that was offering the ability to use a virtual environment to test the effectiveness of the control systems that manage the automated material handling equipment. Testing of these systems in the real world has always been difficult. You need to move pallets, cases, totes, etc. You need to process large volumes of these items. It is virtually impossible to do this effectively in the real world.

    This emulation testing environment allows you to process hundreds of virtual cases, pallets, and totes; discover and fix errors; and re-run the same test to prove that you actually did fix the problem. This emulation technology allows you to do months of real world testing in days or hours at significantly lower costs. This enables these very expensive material handling systems to be brought on line and proven rapidly thus accelerating the return on investment and significantly lowering the project risk associated with these systems.

Misses

  • ERP absence - The absence of many major application software vendors at the show always perplexes me. Infor was there, though. ERP products, particularly those targeting heavy industries, need to be integrated with the kinds of technologies on display at this event. While Tom and I did see some niche vendors (e.g., ATLATL) that worked in the cloud, other cloud ERP suites were not present (e.g., Plex, Rootstock and Kenandy). Even on-premises players like SAP were not to be found.


  • Battery technology - While battery technology is changing on a daily basis for consumer electronics and automobiles, most of the battery technology at the show was still based on lead acid batteries. Granted, a number of vendors have made the switching out, charging, refilling and maintenance of these batteries easier and faster thus extending their life and improving their efficiency, a new generation of batteries is going to change this space soon.
  • Machine Learning - Machine learning technology, like we are seeing in robotic process automation in the back office, was not immediately evident at this show. While the machines and robotic devices at this event clearly are more sensor enabled than ever, most of the exhibits showed how devices mimic actions and behaviors taught to them by a human operator. What was interesting to see were robotic devices equipped with additional 3-D imaging systems wherein the device made judgment calls as to whether an item was correctly oriented, was filled, contained the correct material, etc. While this represents an advance in the use of robotics, the machines themselves are still not recognizing new patterns and learning new ways of resolving new issues on their own. Maybe we'll see more of that in a future show.
  • Handhelds - Handheld device technology (e.g., to permit barcode scanning on the production floor) seemed little changed. These highly ruggedized devices almost seemed frozen in time as their form factor and functionality harkens back to the same kind of devices available 20 years ago. At Plex's analyst event last week, I saw their prototype technology for these functions using Google Glass and ring mounted scanner technology.
  • Tom adds: Supply Chain Execution Systems - When compared to Brian's point about the ERP systems above, there were certainly more supply chain execution system vendors in attendance. Specifically, I saw warehouse management system vendors, pallet planning and truck load planning systems, and a number of others. I saw no transportation systems. When compared to the sheer size of the show (all of McCormick Place South), less that 1/20th of the display space was utilized by the systems vendors. It is these systems that make all the other machines, robots, humans, sensors, etc. work together to deliver real value. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon for ProMat. This year seems to be a step back instead of forward.

Bottom line:

The bottom line for us both is that the show provided encouraging anecdotal evidence that manufacturing and distribution companies are shopping again for technologies to help improve their supply chain and manufacturing execution efficiencies. That is a positive for the economy.

Much of the innovation on display appeared to be linear extensions or improvements of pre-existing technologies. Tom and I were hungry to see more breakthrough innovations but they weren't as evident.

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