Okay, I was a skeptic and boy, was I wrong! I arrived in Atlanta last Sunday with memories of Modex 2020 dancing in my head. As anyone who was there remembers, attendance was sparse on the busiest of days. Having attended one event this past January with light traffic, and reading accounts of other events that have struggled to get people in the door, I didn’t know what to expect.
Well, hands down, it was perhaps the best trade event I’ve attended in the many years I’ve been going to shows. The mood was exuberant, the crowds were there from Monday afternoon through the end of the day on Tuesday, and Wednesday wasn’t half bad. I don’t know the exact number of exhibitors, but the show approached Promat levels for sheer scale. And, there was a lot to see. Hats off to the staff and leadership at MHI for pulling off a tremendous event at a time when there’s still a lot of uncertainty in the air. Nice job.
So, what was my biggest takeaway?
There’s nothing new under the sun: Well, that’s not exactly true – and it’s not meant as a criticism. On the new front, I saw a conveyance system powered by magnets at Beckhoff Automation that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It’s called the XPlaner and it’s easier to watch a video than for me to explain what it does.
That said, a lot of what was on display was what Jim Rice, a professor at MIT, calls sustaining innovation. This is the type of innovation that represents “the combining and application of a mix of inventions, existing processes and technologies in a new way to create improvements in cost, quality, cash and/or service.” A great example of this, and one that was mentioned to me by several end users I ran into, was the new goods-to-person solution from OPEX, which decouples the robots from the high-density storage medium. Goods-to-person isn’t new for the industry, or OPEX, but the new product is a sustaining innovation on what OPEX was already doing.
The industry continues to consolidate: The most notable merger/acquisition that I was aware of at the show was the acquisition of SDI Systems by Element Logic, a Norwegian firm that is the largest integrator of AutoStore. SDI will serve as Element Logic’s base to enter the North American and Latin American markets. I’m sure there are other announcements that I missed. And, while not really a consolidation, I remain impressed by the amount of private equity funds that continue to be invested in our space.
Robotics at a tipping point: Back in 2015, I invited Tom Galluzzo, the co-founder of IAM Robotics, to write an article for Supply Chain Management Review on why roboticists like him were jumping into the materials handling space. The resulting article was titled Robotics At The Tipping Point. The tipping point that Tom was referring to was the entrance of roboticists and robotics into warehousing and logistics operations when up to that point, robotics was primarily limited to manufacturing. And, with a few piece-picking exceptions, materials handling robots were autonomous mobile robots being utilized in point solutions, like robot-to-person fulfillment processes.
That was a huge leap forward, and 7 years later, it’s a leap that most companies haven’t yet made. But, I think we’re at another tipping point that’s being defined in several ways, all of which were on display at Modex.
From homogenous to heterogenous: Last year, I published an article co-authored by Shekar Natarajan, the chief supply chain officer of American Eagle Outfitters. Natarajan and Parimal Kopardekar, the Director of NASA Aeronautics Research Institute (NARI), made a distinction between what it takes to introduce new technologies into homogenous and heterogenous systems. An example they used is adding a new type of aircraft to the airspace – that’s not a big deal if the new aircraft is a jet, because it will fly at the same speed as the other jets. But, what happens if you try to introduce slow-moving drones or blimps into the same airspace as the jets? Now, everyone has to adjust to whatever is the slowest moving aircraft in the airspace. Or, as Natarajan and Kopardekar pointed out, in India, it doesn’t matter of you’re driving a high-powered sports car on a congested street: You can only move as fast as the cows that share the road.
I’ll be honest: At the time, the point they were trying to make was over my head. However, if you walked around Modex, you saw that robotics is moving from point solutions to integrated solutions, sometimes using more than one type robot. I believe the new tipping point is heterogenous robotics solutions in the warehouse. It’s something that Gartner analyst Dwight Klappich has been predicting and following.
Here’s what that means: The current wave of robotics was launched by Kiva, which was segregated from the rest of the warehouse for reasons of safety. It was homogenous. After Amazon bought Kiva, we saw a whole new set of robot-to-goods solutions from companies like Locus, 6 River and Fetch. However, like Kiva, they were homogenous solutions. They did a thing and did it well, but they were point solutions, or, to use an old phrase, islands of automation.
If you walked around Modex, what you saw was either one vendor, like Addverb Technologies, Geek + or Mujin, showing off their portfolio of different types of robots. Or, you saw a vendor like RightHand, Hai Robotics or Tompkins Robotics demonstrating how all of their different robot types could work together. A video at RightHand, for instance, showed their robot picking from a tote to a tote, but also to a tote on someone else’s AMR and onto a Tompkins T-sort. Hai Robotics demonstrated how their robot could be part of a complete solution utilizing other robotic technologies.
In other words, the market is moving to a heterogenous robotics world, as Klappich likes to say.
That is a profound shift that raises several questions:
1. Who within the organization is going to own the robots, especially if you have an environment were multiple robotic technologies are sharing space with people and other forms of automation? Klappich asks whether it’s time for a chief robotics officer.
2. Can a robotics company do it alone? There are robotics companies with broad portfolios, but what I noticed was the number of partnerships between robotics companies either announced at Modex or on display like at the RightHand booth. I think partnerships are going to be key.
3. How important is the integrator? As we move away from point solutions to more end-to-end solutions incorporating robots, someone is going to have to do the integration. I don’t think that’s the robotics company. It’s going to be partnerships, but partnerships between robotics providers and systems integrators.
4. Last, and I can’t over-state the importance of this one, what software system is going to make this happen. Is it a WMS, a WCS, a WES, a robotics operating system or a new, emerging layer of software like what SVT Robotics has brought to the market? Or is it one of the tech giants like Apple, Google or Microsoft? I’m betting on the new, emerging layer of software and I think it’s essential to moving robotics forward in our space.
Stay up-to-date with news and resources you need to do your job. Research industry trends, compare companies and get market intelligence every week with Supply Chain 24/7.
Subscribe to our email newsletter and we’ll keep you up-to-date.