People that attend an industry leading event like ProMatDX are after ideas that will help them with their toughest problems. The overarching issue coming out of ProMatDX may be that of flexing distribution center (DC) operations and systems to meet ecommerce demand. That’s been a tough challenge for years now, but the pandemic made it way harder.
The 2021 MHI Annual Industry Report’s findings on industry challenges this year saw an increase in forecasting as a top challenge, with forecasting jumping ahead of customer demands on price/speed as the second most challenging industry concern. That put getting a grasp on demand right below the labor scarcity issue, which remains the No. 1 challenge.
To a large degree, the need to flex fulfillment capacity to be able to react to unstable, ecommerce demand is influencing other issues like “micro-fulfillment” strategies and automation, and is a core driver of warehouse robotics.
In my discussions with show sponsors, this need for solutions that help DC operators flex their systems and output to demand came up frequently. Many types of solutions are involved, including autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), as well as the ability of vendors of more traditional fixed automation to support flexibility, not only through modular hardware elements, but also via software that allows for things like easier change-up of SKU positions, and thus, quicker access to faster movers, within automated storage and picking solutions.
Fortunately, new types of robotics are opening up additional workflows for efficiency gains. For example, Boston Dynamics unveiled Stretch, a mobile manipulation robot that can scoot up a ramp into a truck and unload boxes using the robotic arm and sensors atop the mobile robot. Brian Nachtigall, director of business development, warehouse robotics, for Boston Dynamics, says the new robot can potentially do other tasks like building up mixed pallets or depalletizing, but the company decided to first apply it to truck unloading because that is seen as a pressing need by end-user organizations.
“We have definitely heard from companies that unloading trucks is one of least liked and hard to staff jobs in a warehouse,” says Nachtigall. “So it really fits that sweet spot for robotics as a crucial task that is very prevalent and important to material flow, and that warehouse operators have a tough time addressing manually because of the ergonomics and health issues involved. That makes it a workflow that warehouse operators are happy to find an automated solution for.”
Another ProMatDX sponsor I met with, Waypoint Robotics, also unveiled a mobile manipulation robot, which uses a 7-axis collaborative robot arm from its partner Productive Robotics, along with Waypoint Robotics’ Vector AMR. The solution, explained Jason Walker, Waypoint CEO, is aimed at being an easy-to-deploy robot that can automate various tasks involved with workflows like machine tending, quality assurance sampling, material replenishment, packaging, and others.
According to the MHI Industry Report, robotics is fairly widely deployed, and will be adopted even more heavily the next couple of years. This year’s study found that robotics and automation are used by 38% today, and within one to two years, another 23% plan to deploy robotics and automation.
The bigger picture around being able to flex to demand also involves micro-fulfillment, which can be thought of as the need to position inventory close to customer concentrations for rapid ecommerce fulfillment.
While many think of the micro-fulfillment trend as primarily happening in the grocery industry, focusing on high density “MFC” automation systems, micro-fulfillment also is a strategy with DC network design implications, says Darren Jorgenson, practice leader of the strategy team at Fortna, whose offerings and expertise span supply chain strategy, warehouse automation solutions, and warehouse execution system (WES) software.
“The first part of addressing micro-fulfillment would be to establish a clear understanding, from the network perspective, of the locations and types of locations you need to service your customers,” says Jorgenson. “The second piece is more the automation technology that enables rapid, efficient fulfillment at the individual nodes in the network. But it is best to start with the strategy and all that involves in terms of analyzing transportation routes, and the network design, which will then influence what is needed in terms of automation. And with respect to the automaton, we’re seeing the grocery industry as the primary adopter so far, but interest is coming from more general retail segments as well. It is all driven by consumer desire for speed and convenience.”
Perhaps some of the ecommerce surge experienced during the pandemic will subside, but much of it is expected to stay. Add in the chase for the consumer dollar against some huge competitors, and it’s a likely that come Modex 2022, being able to flex DC capacity and automation systems to meet demand is again going to be a core concern with solutions.
About the Author
Roberto Michel, senior editor for Modern, has covered manufacturing and supply chain management trends since 1996, mainly as a former staff editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Business Technology. He has been a contributor to Modern since 2004. He has worked on numerous show dailies, including at ProMat, the North American Material Handling Logistics show, and National Manufacturing Week. You can reach him at: