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.

Are you using Big Data Analytics in supply chain? Take our quick survey and enter to win a $100 iTunes gift card

By Toby Gooley | June 02, 2017 | 12:01 PM | Categories: Supply Chain


Technology is enabling supply chain organizations to gather enormous amounts of information from an expanding variety of sources. But few companies are actually deriving sustainable value from the supply chain data they are accumulating. Instead, they are struggling with issues such as how to ensure data quality, how to analyze data, and how to make practical use of what they learn from it.

CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly (DC Velocity's sister publication), Arizona State University, Colorado State University, Competitive Insights LLC, and lharrington group LLC are conducting an annual survey on the current state of supply chain Big Data Analytics. The survey will also allow us to track, in the aggregate, companies’ progress in using Big Data Analytics in supply chain management.

The survey is anonymous. The findings will be presented at the Council of Supply Chain Management (CSCMP) 2017 annual conference in September. Respondents who choose to provide contact information (which will remain confidential) will receive an early readout of the results prior to the conference. And, if you’re among the first 100 respondents, you’ll be entered in a drawing for one of two $100 iTunes gift cards!

Click here to participate in the survey

If you have trouble with the link above, please copy and paste the following URL into your web browser: http://colostate.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_bO98R0OrXZTnxYN

Our ability to provide supply chain professionals with meaningful data on this increasingly important topic depends on your participation. We thank you for your contribution, and we look forward to sharing the results with you later this year.

SAP show shines spotlight on women tech leaders

By Ben Ames | May 17, 2017 | 5:38 AM

Sit through enough keynote panels led by over-caffeinated executives, and you could be excused for being wary of the boasts and promises often proffered at industry trade shows.

So skepticism was warranted when SAP SE CEO Jeff McDermott began to wax eloquent on the German software giant’s achievements in empathy to its customers, reduction of its carbon footprint, hiring of autistic professionals, and gender-neutral promotion practices.

But at least one cynical reporter in the audience was chastened when McDermott then called on a succession of high-wattage, tech-industry women to join him on the keynote stage at SAP’s annual user conference, the Sapphire show in Orlando.

Mala Anand, SAP’s executive vice president and president of SAP Leonardo, Data & Insights, spoke on the evolution of the Leonardo platform from a pure Internet of Things (IoT) tool into a “digital innovation system.”

Diane Bryant, chip-maker Intel Corp.’s group president of the Data Center Group, previewed her company’s plans to launch an improved computing platform based on the latest “Cascade Lake” Xeon processor and 3D XPoint (pronounced “cross-point”) memory.

Diane Greene, senior vice president for Google Cloud and a member of the Alphabet Inc. board of directors, described the products of Google’s partnership with SAP, such as a certification for SAP’s S/4 HANA cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) product to run on the Google cloud.

Finally, McDermott welcomed two recent additions to SAP’s board of directors, “who happen to be women, but are there because they’re best.” Adaire Fox-Martin and Jennifer Morgan both oversee the company’s performance in Global Customer Operations for the SAP SE Executive Board.

Of course, SAP has not hired Bryant or Greene. But by featuring them as speakers on its main stage—and by employing Anand, Fox-Martin, and Morgan—the powerful tech vendor literally shone a spotlight on the impact women can make as leaders of our industry.

Material handling equipment plays starring role in Monsters, Inc.

By Ben Ames | April 21, 2017 | 7:43 AM

Any one of the 45,000 people who attended the ProMat trade show in Chicago this month saw a huge variety of material handling equipment on the vast floors of the McCormick Place convention center. From automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) at SencorpWhite and conveyors at Intralox and from the most basic racks, totes, and pallets to the latest augmented reality smart glasses at Zebra and the autonomous robots at Otto Motors and Locus Robotics.

It was more warehouse hardware in one room than most people see in a year… that is, unless you have kids who are fans of the 2001 animated Disney movie “Monsters, Inc.”

I was recently writing one last ProMat story for our conference coverage and pulled a classic double-take when I glanced up from my laptop to see the very same equipment on our family TV set. It was the climactic chase scene at the end—you know, the one where the loyal monsters Sulley and Mike are defending the cute kid they’ve nicknamed “Boo” from an assault by the scheming monsters Randall and Waternoose, who…

OK, let’s move past the complex plot twists and get back to material handling equipment. The scene unfolds in a massive warehouse packed with thousands of closet doors that are carried by an automated carousel system with diverters and mergers, connected to conveyors and compactors, as robotic arms grasp and release the inventory, and managers sort the goods with a computer keyboard that must have been connected to a warehouse management system (WMS).

As a dedicated consumer of animated children’s films (no really, I have young kids), I can vouch that it was probably the most high profile display of warehouse tech in an animated film since, well, “Storks.” But that’s a different story.


Razor warehouse generates chuckles and profits

By Ben Ames | April 06, 2017 | 10:10 AM

Running a retail business from a distribution center is a great way to cut overhead costs like supporting and staffing a brick and mortar store, but the strategy has an additional benefit—it can be just plain fun.

Hard-working logistics professionals don’t often have a chance to get a chuckle out of warehouse work, but when Dollar Shave Club founders Mark Levine and Michael Dubin launched their company in Venice, Calif., in 2011, they needed a way to recruit new customers to their innovative startup.

The video they produced of Dubin pitching the business as he strolled through their warehouse became an instant classic. It featured the founder triggering mistakes and uttering profanities, quickly netting the young company thousands of new customers and overwhelming its then-immature fulfillment network.

Dollar Shave Club soon recovered, and this week it had another good laugh at its competitors’ expense. Under pressure from online retailers such as Dollar Shave Club and its fellow direct online retailer Harry's Inc., Procter & Gamble Co.’s Gillette division is cutting its prices in order to stay competitive, the Wall Street Journal reported today.

The global grooming giant is feeling the razor-burn as its young rivals leverage the powerful efficiency of warehouse operations to cut the legs out from under the shaggy supply chain of a traditional storefront strategy, with its wholesalers, middlemen, and transportation costs. By exchanging the overhead costs of supporting a brick and mortar storefront for a simple monthly subscription fee, online purveyors can take advantage of economies of scale to buy inventory directly from suppliers.

That smooth operating model is not restricted to shaving products—just ask hardware store owners about a related strategy for ditching the brick and mortar store, deployed by The Home Depot Inc. and Lowes Companies Inc. when they invite shoppers right into their distribution facilities. Or ask home goods sellers about Costco Wholesale Corp.’s similar approach in selling everything from paper towels to television sets directly off of shipping pallets.

There is no word yet if those retailers are also producing humorous warehouse videos to promote their services.

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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