Supply chain superhero Jack Ryan hits the TV screen

By Ben Ames | August 29, 2018 | 8:48 AM

The first time readers met Jack Ryan was as a character in the pages of Tom Clancy’s 1984 spy thriller “The Hunt for Red October.” 

Clancy soon brought the fictional C.I.A. analyst back in books like “Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger,” “The Sum of All Fears,” and a dozen more. Alec Baldwin played Ryan in the 1990 film version of Red October before Harrison Ford took over the drama and suspense franchise.

Well, now Jack Ryan is back again, and he has a new cover identity—a supply chain logistician for the U.S. Department of State who stumbles onto a terrorist communication pattern that unveils a looming global threat.

Amazon.com Inc. is launching the original TV series on Friday on its Prime Video network, and judging by the trailer, the supply chain superhero will have no problem dispatching terrorists as he trades in his sport coat and cocktail party chatter for body armor, live grenades, and automatic handguns. Jack ryan 91cUoTx7ogL._UR534 400_FMJPG_

“Don't judge an analyst by his cover” is the tagline for the series, which features a new actor in the title role—John Krasinski, who was previously best known for his work in the comedy TV series “The Office.” Krasinski starts off the new series reprising that role, as he plays a modest pencil-pusher with a desk job who has trouble impressing his dinner date with tales of shuffling manifests and receipts… until his job suddenly catapults him into danger.

Listen in at the 25-second mark of this trailer to hear Krasinski field questions about his job from the actor Abbie Cornish, who plays his dinner date.

“So, what exactly does a state department supply chain logistician do?” Cornish asks. “I work behind a desk; I write reports,” Krasinski replies, waving off his career as being “boring”… until a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter suddenly lands on the lawn of a fancy reception to whisk him off to a Pentagon briefing and then to chase terrorists in Yemen.

You know, just another typical day as a supply chain logistician.

Blockchain zoo spawns CryptoKitties and Fishcoins

By Ben Ames | March 23, 2018 | 3:15 PM

A basic definition of blockchain isn’t that tough to grasp—it’s like a shared spreadsheet (a “distributed ledger”) that can’t be changed by any individual member without the approval of their trading partners. That distributed design model generates a high level of data security, which means the technology could be a helpful tool for supply chain tasks like tracking goods or making payments.

For example, FedEx has launched a pilot project that uses blockchain to improve supply chain visibility by supporting digital data exchange among shippers, carriers, and retailers, company executive Sean Healy, senior vice president of transportation, international, planning, and strategy, said in a published report.

That high security also lets some groups make their own web-based money, using blockchain as the technological foundation for virtual currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. But blockchain quickly gets weird when you look at some of the more creative ways it gets applied. Try to follow me here:

But wait, what does all of this have to do with material handling or international shipping? That remains to be seen, but blockchain is enabling new ways of handling the basic activities that fuel logistics business transactions. In the words of CryptoKitties, “The future is meow.”

Tool tracks evil bunnies on Facebook

By Ben Ames | March 14, 2018 | 2:27 PM

The typical e-commerce consumer of 2018 lives online, skipping between smartphone apps and social media feeds with ease. In a world of short attention spans, young shoppers view opening a new web page or dialing a phone number as a boring and onerous distraction.

So where is an eager shopper supposed to turn when the item they purchased an entire day or two earlier has still not appeared on their doorstep? HighJump Software Inc. says it has solved that puzzle with an app that embeds a “Where’s my stuff?” function directly within the instant messaging feature of your Facebook profile.

HighJump unveiled the “Social Connector” tool at its user conference in Dallas on Monday, making the pitch that embedding customer service in social media would deliver personalized supply chain visibility data directly to individual shoppers, instead of making them stutter through phone trees or fill out online forms.

Execs showed off the chatbot in a live demo on the convention stage, using the Facebook page of HighJump’s fictitious microbrewery, Evil Bunny Brewing Co., a straw company created by HighJump to demonstrate its software capabilities.

Posing as an impatient customer, HighJump’s vice president for product management, Jackson Bilbrey, opened a Facebook chat window and typed “order status 1234.” That entry triggered the tool to use its automated chatbot capabilities—developed by HighJump using Facebook’s application programming interface (API) framework—to query the virtual retailer’s supply chain database. The chatbot instantly asked Bilbrey to double-check his invoice number, correct a typo in the digits, and then provided data on the estimated delivery date for his Evil Bunny products.

The “Social Connector” tool can currently provide data about parcel shipping, allowing retailers to communicate more effectively with consumers, HighJump Chief Technology Officer Sean Elliott said in an interview. Future versions of the chatbot could also support instant-message queries of track and trace or warehouse management system (WMS) data, Elliott said. And while the chatbot currently lives in Facebook, it could just as easily take up residence on other social media platforms, he said.

But wait, what if you’re an online shopper who’d rather ask “Where’s my stuff?” by shouting questions across the room than by typing into a keyboard? Fear not, UPS Inc. has you covered. The logistics and shipping giant on Wednesday launched a spoken-word chatbot that allows customers to call out questions to their smart speakers, Android or Apple phones, or other devices.

The product is an expansion of UPS’ existing chatbot function onto the Google Assistant platform, which powers the voice recognition capability used in “Google Home” speakers and other applications. The chatbot now uses its artificial intelligence (AI) to interpret spoken questions like “OK Google, ask UPS about my packages,” and respond with spoken answers.


“Ace Ventura” is a highlight reel of parcel delivery errors

By Ben Ames | February 08, 2018 | 10:49 AM

Watching “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” with your 12-year-old son is a great way to share some guilty belly laughs and prurient giggles. But the 1994 comedy film starring Jim Carrey also offers a secret benefit to anyone following the fields of parcel delivery and last-mile logistics—it could serve as a reverse training video for customer service.

The movie opens with a scene of Carrey impersonating a delivery driver for a well-known, Atlanta-based transportation and logistics firm whose name is a three-letter acronym. Dressed in the familiar brown uniform and ball cap of UPS Inc.—sorry, Carrey’s version is called “HDS”—the actor carries a cardboard box as a ruse for his secret mission to rescue a kidnapped shih tzu dog.

In real life, UPS is renowned for providing meticulous training for every parcel carrier and truck driver about the most efficient way to carry the company’s packages. Seasoned delivery drivers know the rules for every task from stepping off the bed of a truck to wheeling a dolly stacked with boxes.

However, the “Ace Ventura” character submits his faux-package to a series of abuses and tortures that would make any delivery professional flinch. By the time he walks a full city block, Carrey has tossed a box marked “Glass, Handle with Care” down a flight of stairs, drop-kicked it over a railing, and used it as a pommel-horse for a cartwheel routine. All that takes place before he deliberately gets it stuck in a set of elevator doors. And the goofs continue when “Ace” requests a customer signature as proof of delivery, before whisking the receipt away from the enraged recipient before he can file for damages.

In a market where parcel delivery is increasingly crowd-sourced to amateur drivers and where carriers hire thousands of part-time laborers every holiday peak season, perhaps the silly film could serve as a training video that highlights the worst infractions a courier could commit. Hey, we all need some humor to break up our stressful days.

And in case you’re worried about the missing shih tzu, have no fear, “Ace” carries that particular package with exemplary care.

Truck traffic towards Minneapolis spikes in prep for Super Bowl 52

By Ben Ames | January 30, 2018 | 6:47 AM

Football players for the Eagles and Patriots have been hard at work this week, preparing their pads, plays, and tactics for Sunday’s Super Bowl LII.

But the big game has also triggered a flood of logistical preparation, as thousands of trucks roll toward Minneapolis, carrying souvenirs to sell to fans, food to serve a hungry audience, equipment to stock the NFL’s traveling interactive theme park--The NFL Experience--and even the television production equipment needed to host a live broadcast.That job demanded an estimated 300 trucks a day for seven days straight to supply Super Bowl host city San Jose, Calif., in 2016, and even more to keep Houston stocked in 2017, according to telematics and fleet management technology vendor Omnitracs LLC.

In 2018, about 2,500 trucks will roll into Minneapolis between the first week of January and the kickoff on Feb. 4, constituting the biggest congregation of 18-wheelers for a special event anywhere in the nation this year, the firm said.

Zooming out from a focus on Minnesota, the game’s impact on transportation flow throughout the country is even bigger, Omnitracs said. Super Bowl Sunday is the second biggest day in American food consumption—following Thanksgiving—and that means truckloads of snacks are already being delivered to grocery stores coast to coast.

Some whopping statistics tell the story. On Super Bowl Sunday, Americans are forecast to: 

  • Drink 325 million gallons of beer—5 percent of the country’s total yearly consumption
  • Spend $227 million on potato chips
  • Buy $330 million worth of pizza
  • Eat 8 million pounds of guacamole
  • Consume 4 million pounds of pretzels
  • Devour 1.3 billion chicken wings.

Retail gets personal with tracking tech at NRF

By Ben Ames | January 19, 2018 | 12:49 PM

Attend a large trade show like the National Retail Federation (NRF)'s annual expo in New York City this past week, and it can be easy to feel lost among the tens of thousands of conventioneers. However, technology suppliers at the show are working hard to make sure that no one in a retail environment stays anonymous for long.

From the moment you check in and don the required name badge at NRF2018, an RFID chip on the back begins to network with the chips attached to the badges of strangers in the crowd around you, one exhibitor reported. Working together, the chips form a network of hive-like links that eventually pass your data to receiving beacons on the ceilings of the vast convention hall. Companies that rented booth space used the information to track the path, location, and lingering time of each individual, he said.

Walk the aisles of the retail show, and you may come across Pepper, a humanoid robot created by SoftBank Robotics America (SBRA) as a virtual sales associate. The wide-eyed, four foot tall android disarms visitors with its childlike features, but inside, Pepper is running powerful computer algorithms that enable it to track individual shoppers, respond to simple questions, and even read their moods to adjust its responses by detecting anger or satisfaction.

Continue to the Intel Corp. booth at NRF, and the giant chipmaker is inviting visitors to explore its vision for the store of the future. Intel demonstrated digital makeup mirrors that use augmented reality to allow shoppers to virtually try on new shades of lipstick or mascara without ever touching their face… then record the virtual makeover and send snapshots to the customer’s phone. Called the MemoMi Memory Makeover, it is now being deployed by department store chain Neiman Marcus.

Even the humble stock shelf got an upgrade with shelf edge displays that use video patterns and digital price tags to offer sales and update prices instantly, according to Joe Jensen, VP and GM of Intel’s Retail Solutions Division. The smart shelves could even get personal, deploying cameras on the underside of shelves to can scan inventory and avoid running out of popular items… or to scan passersby to determine the age and gender of shoppers that pause in front of certain retail displays.

Intel also showcased a crowd-sourced technology that enlists thousands of part-time workers to comb through surveillance videos and catch shoplifters in the act. This SpotCrowd system distributes security camera footage to 13,000 remote viewers who scan each video for suspicious behavior, flagging potential thieves and alerting store managers. If you want to “Fight injustice, catch shoplifters in real-time, and get a paid reward!” just visit the company’s site and sign up.

But retail technology got the most personal of all in an Intel demo of a system called Mobica, which uses facial recognition technology to recognize individual shoppers as they walk into a store, funneling their full names and shopping histories to waiting store associates. To get scanned and profiled while you shop for snacks, just step inside your local Lolli and Pops, a candy store chain which plans to pilot the system by mid-2018.

Facial recognition in retail stores may trigger concerns about invasion of privacy, Jensen admitted. But Lolli and Pops plans to deploy the system only on repeat shoppers who have opted in for its loyalty program. And public acceptance of facial recognition is growing quickly thanks to consumer technologies like Apple’s iPhone X, which uses facial scans instead of passwords for security, Jensen said.

Amazon offers BOPIS at Whole Foods

By Ben Ames | November 29, 2017 | 12:59 PM

Log on to your favorite online retailer to do a little holiday shopping this week, and you will be wooed at every click with offers of free shipping for your purchase. However, nothing in life is truly free. One of my favorite high school teachers used to write “TANSTAAFL” on the blackboard each morning as an acronym for the phrase “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

So e-commerce companies are getting creative in finding ways to convince consumers to pay for “free” delivery. Now Amazon.com Inc., the 800-pound gorilla of online retailers, is trying a new version of the strategy known as buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS). The Seattle-based mega-store is offering free shipping to customers who are willing to pick up their packages at the nearest Whole Foods Market.

The approach is a twist on Amazon’s “Order online, pick up today” service, where the company delivers parcels to a centralized bank of lockers instead of covering last-mile routes all the way to consumers’ front doors. Here in Boston, for example, there’s an Amazon locker facility on busy Commonwealth Avenue, located a few doors down from a CVS drugstore and across the street from Boston University.

Both approaches cut the retailer’s cost of providing “free shipping” by turning the shopper into his own last-mile delivery driver. But installing those lockers in a grocery store might encourage some shoppers to pick up a bag of organic avocados and some cage-free eggs while they’re claiming their cardboard package of e-commerce books and electronics. After all, Amazon paid $13.7 billion to buy the upscale grocery chain in June, and its new strategy shows one way that the retailer is trying to the get full value of its purchase.

This reporter will give the new system a try this holiday season. On Cyber Monday, I joined millions of Americans in doing some online Christmas shopping, and opted for Amazon’s free locker delivery at my neighborhood Whole Foods. Time will tell if my parcel of books smells like manchego cheese and artisanal crackers.

MIT prez issues “call to action” on balancing robotic automation with human work skills

By Ben Ames | November 10, 2017 | 12:42 PM

The president of MIT says a wave of industrial automation is about to sweep over society, and it is up to the developers and deployers of that technology to find a way to balance the rise of robots with the preservation of human jobs.

“Automation will transform our work, our lives, our society,” L. Rafael Reif, president of Cambridge, Mass.-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wrote in an editorial today in The Boston Globe. “Whether the outcome is inclusive or exclusive, fair or laissez-faire, is up to us.”

Faced with a culture where many Americans are worried that widespread technology in the workplace may trigger economic inequality or unemployment, business leaders must strike a balance between its costs and benefits, he said.

“Those of us leading and benefitting from the technology revolution must lead the way. This is not someone else’s problem; it is a call to action,” said Reif. “It is up to those of us advancing new technologies to help make certain that they do wind up damaging the society we intend them to serve."

One way to provide new skills for people whose jobs were replaced by technology is to provide “continuous uptraining,” a process that allows employees to acquire fresh skills every week, month, or year, Reif said. An example of that approach is the online “MicroMasters” course that MIT itself provides in supply chain management, as well as other topics, he said.

Some of Reif’s additional strategies for “reinventing the future of work” include:

  • ensuring every graduate is computationally literate,
  • encouraging students to design technology solutions that improve other human values than just efficiency,
  • creating machines that make humans more effective instead of obsolete, and
  • reinvesting some of the profits achieved through automation in job development.

Material handling gets automated; film at 11

By Ben Ames | September 18, 2017 | 7:14 AM

Our readers know better than anyone about the rapid flow of pallets and parcels through the nation’s supply chain nodes. But nothing can demonstrate the speed of material handling quite like a movie.

Several major logistics players have released film clips in recent weeks that show the amazing potential of automated material handling to accelerate the flow of goods through worksites from ports to warehouses.

California’s Port of Los Angeles recently completed a $103 million renovation of its TraPac terminal, helping the busy port increase its imports of twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) boxes from 4.1 million in 2015 to 4.5 million in 2016, recent figures show.

In a 1 minute, 58 second-film clip, port officials show how containers are offloaded from cargo vessels by manually operated ship-to-shore cranes, and then turned over to the automated system. First they are handled by wheeled autostraddle carriers, which hand the containers off to automatic stacking cranes, which in turn sort and organize the containers before dropping them gently onto waiting trucks.

A second video gives viewers a 2 minute, 8 second tour of an automated Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Florence, N.J. Published by The New York Times, the film shows the facility’s progression from the use of manual palletizing to robotic palletizers. Warehouse employees now work as team members with the robots just as they do with their human colleagues, a worker explains.

This clip also offers a cool, 360-degree feature, allowing any viewer to click and drag on the screen to pan the camera around to see every corner of the cavernous, bustling DC in motion.

Finally, a 51-second clip shows an automated shopping basket called the Regi-Robo, now being tested in Japanese grocery stores. The system is designed to eliminate long checkout lines by using sensors in the basket to scan RFID tags on every item selected, and ringing up the total as a shopper walks the aisles.

Automation is advancing fast throughout the supply chain, and now these new robots are ready to take their publicity shots.


Star Wars droids inspired Amazon robot fleet

By Ben Ames | July 17, 2017 | 7:32 PM

Retailing behemoth Amazon.com Inc. is notoriously secretive with reporters about revealing details of its activities. The press is always caught by surprise, whether the Seattle-based company has filed papers as a “transportation service provider,” registered a patent for floating warehouse blimps, or acquired Whole Foods Market.

A chink appeared in that armor, however, at a small technology conference held today at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The momentous event occurred during a panel session called “Robots at Amazon” at the TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics conference.

Tye Brady, the chief technologist at Amazon Robotics (the former Kiva Systems), was fielding softball questions from the moderator when the singular exchange occurred. Asked whether he’d had a robotic inspiration as a kid, he pierced his company’s veil of secrecy and answered straight up: “R2-D2.”

“Do you remember the scene in Star Wars 4—the original—when Luke first meets R2-D2 and C-3PO?” Brady asked the audience. “Luke Skywalker was a farmer, living with his foster parents, and he was looking for a robot that would help him farm better and help him care for his family.”

The audience of technology fans applauded the reference to the iconic sci-fi flick now known as “Star Wars Epidsode IV—A New Hope,” and laughed when Brady quipped about an ancillary benefit of developing an interest in robotics at a young age: “He had to do a deal to find them, but he chose R2-D2 and C-3PO. And the next thing you know, he’s a Jedi!”

The flow of free information did not last long, however. When an audience member subsequently asked when Amazon robotics would start selling consumer products, Brady laughed out loud and reverted to the familiar corporate boilerplate: “We have a long-standing practice that we don’t reveal any of our future roadmap. But we will always innovate in any way that the customer sees fit.”

Even a Jedi knight wouldn’t be able to parse any revealing details from that response.

The opinions expressed herein are those solely of the participants, and do not necessarily represent the views of Agile Business Media, LLC., its properties or its employees.

Thoughts from our editors.

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