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.

Alexa digital puck joins HighJump staff on demo stage

By Ben Ames | March 14, 2017 | 1:51 PM

Supply chain technology provider HighJump Software Inc. introduced a lineup of high profile speakers during the keynote events at the firm's "Elevate" user conference in Orlando, Fla., this week.

Attendees heard from Olympic gold medalist Dick Fosbury, whose innovative “Fosbury Flop” technique earned him the top height in track & field’s high jump event at the 1968 Mexico City games, and from Lori Jackson, the hard-charging director of operations and fulfillment for Dollar Shave Club, who succeeded in leading the construction of multiple DCs for the fast-expanding online retailer of razors and grooming products.

But the speaker that may have gained the most attention from techies in the audience was a diminutive critter with the dimensions of a hockey puck and a habit of speaking only in response to direct questions.

In a live stage demonstration, executives from Minneapolis-based HighJump controlled their warehouse management system (WMS) software by giving spoken commands to Alexa, the cloud-based artificial intelligence tool that drives the Echo Dot, a personal digital assistant from Amazon.com Inc.

In the demo, HighJump Vice President of Corporate Technology Sean Elliott gave a verbal order to the Echo Dot, asking it to launch a wave of orders for Evil Bunny beer, a fictional product created by HighJump to demonstrate its software and inspired by the 1975 comedy movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

In response, the Echo Dot translated the input from Orlando, uploaded the message to the Amazon Web Services cloud platform where the Alexa AI resides, routed that order to HighJump’s own cloud servers in Denver, got a response, and reversed the entire track to confirm the transaction aloud back in the Florida conference room, HighJump CSO Ross Elliott explained.

The demo may have scored some gee-whiz points by bringing talking bots into the supply chain, but it was designed for a broader purpose, he said. By connecting a common consumer electronics device to business software seldom seen outside the warehouse, HighJump demonstrated the importance of human-friendly design and smart devices, two trends that HighJump says logistics companies must follow to stay competitive in 2017.


Software startups target truck driver shortage

By Ben Ames | March 03, 2017 | 10:11 AM

Ask any transportation professional about challenges facing the trucking industry and you’ll soon hear about the chronic shortage of truck drivers.

That specter has been looming over the industry for years, so perhaps it is no surprise that three software startups have offered solutions in the past two weeks:

  • Enlistics matches people to jobs by screening their social media data for keywords,
  • Stay Metrics has developed a research-based predictive model for driver turnover, and
  • WorkHound reduces driver turnover by collecting worker feedback through a smartphone app.

Each app approaches the problem from a very different angle.

Enlistics: Trucking is a University of Chicago startup that claims to help trucking firms avoid massive employee turnover by pre-screening candidates using an algorithm that scans applicants' social media posts for phrases known to predict future success or failure. The product follows in the model of its sister firm, Enlistics: Dealerships, a similar product that helps car dealerships fill sales positions. Both programs avoid privacy concerns by hiding the actual details of any social media keywords it finds in a “black box,” then supplying prospective employers with a simple "retention probability" score for each applicant, Enlistics Inc. founder Austen Mance said in an email.

Stay Metrics recently released its Predictive 2.0 model of a platform that enables motor carriers to retain more of their best drivers by providing employers with specific insights on why drivers leave their companies. The application collects its data through: orientation and onboarding interviews with new hires, an annual driver satisfaction survey, exit interviews with drivers who quit, custom research, and an online driver rewards program that doubles as a data collection tool.

WorkHound offers a software platform developed to help carriers reduce driver turnover by interacting with truckers through their smartphones. Drivers use an app to share feedback and ideas, which WorkHound aggregates and turns into actionable insights to help each carrier manage and retain its drivers. The company may soon offer similar versions to other industries struggling with retention, such as warehousing, manufacturing, and nursing.

And if those high-tech approaches don’t work, there’s always the old-fashioned way of keeping workers around longer—pay them more. Eagan, Minn.-based truckload carrier Dart Transit Co. said last week that it had raised its starting pay for longhaul company drivers along its main freight lanes by 5 cents per mile. Along with performance bonuses, top-performing drivers with the company can now earn over $60,000 in their first year with the company, Dart said.


FedEx looks at self-driving parcel delivery, CIO says

By Ben Ames | February 06, 2017 | 9:27 AM

Add FedEx Corp. to the list of carriers looking into self-driving delivery vehicles.

The Memphis-based transport and logistics giant is investigating ways to incorporate small vehicles that could drive around neighborhoods and make deliveries without human drivers, FedEx CIO Rob Carter recently told the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Technology Review magazine.

The move would follow similar initiatives from Uber Inc., which recently acquired the self-driving truck firm Otto, and from Amazon.com Inc. and UPS Inc., which both recently ran public tests of package delivery using flying drones.

Another entrant in the field is the British robotics startup Starship Technologies, which said last month that it was expanding the U.S. trials of its self-driving parcel-delivery robots. The small robots are now driving around neighborhood sidewalks in Redwood City, Calif., and Washington, D.C., running routes for the courier services DoorDash and Postmates.

Compared to Starship, FedEx could bring much deeper pockets and a wider delivery network to the scheme, if it deploys autonomous delivery vehicles to cover the routes now covered by its orange and purple-branded parcel trucks.

As a first step toward driverless delivery, FedEx is already working with the Mountain View, Calif.-based startup Peloton Technology on developing technology that would allow a lead vehicle to control the gas and brakes of a follower truck manned by a human at the wheel. Using technology set for release later in 2017, the lead driver uses a wireless data link to improve safety and fuel consumption for both vehicles through improved aerodynamics, a Peloton Technology spokesman said. The next step to building autonomous delivery networks over the long term would involve working with automakers such as Daimler and Volvo that have already launched their own programs to develop self-driving trucks, Carter told the magazine.

In the meantime FedEx is also exploring ways to automate its operations by building an app to work with virtual assistant devices like Amazon Echo or Google Home, the article says. Such an app could allow users to prepare shipments and request parcel pickup by spoken dictation instead of filling out the same forms with a computer keyboard or even with that ultimate old-fashioned communications tool, a pen.

Big ideas on campus

By Toby Gooley | February 03, 2017 | 2:45 PM | Categories: Supply Chain

For the past 10 years I have been a volunteer for the admissions office at my alma mater. Alumni volunteers hold informal meetings with applicants in their area, adding a personal touch to a process that can be intimidating to even the most qualified high schooler. Recently I met with six applicants who, as they always do, bowled me over—not just with their prodigious accomplishments, but also with their enthusiasm and commitment to learning, exploring, and achieving something big.

That kind of excitement and sky’s-the-limit enthusiasm isn’t restricted to high school students on the brink of entering college. Attend any university-sponsored event where students in logistics and supply chain programs showcase their research projects, and you’ll figure that out right away. One such event I regularly attend is the annual Student Research Expo hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Transportation & Logistics. The buzz and energy are apparent even before you enter the rooms where graduate students from the U.S., Asia, Europe, and Latin America explain their real-world business projects alongside posters displayed on large electronic screens. These students are older, wiser, and more experienced than the high school boys and girls I met last week, but they are no less enthusiastic, ambitious, or committed to reaching their goals.

The Talent Gap (capital T, capital G) has been one of supply chain organizations’ biggest worries for several years now. But they can take heart that there are more logistics and supply chain academic programs—and job-seeking graduates of those programs—than ever before. Many of those institutions put on events like the one I attend, hold case study competitions, or host career days where recruiters can meet prospective employees. Examples in the U.S. include big, well-known programs like Penn State, Michigan State, Georgia Tech, Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Ohio State, to name just a few. But there are a wealth of opportunities at other institutions you might not think of, including San Diego, Wayne State, Rutgers, Central Michigan, Northeastern, Wisconsin, Georgia College and State University, Rhode Island, and Syracuse—and that’s just a tiny sampling of the possibilities.

If you have not attended a supply chain student showcase, case study competition, or career fair at your local college or university, I urge you to do so. You’ll find it time well spent. Not only will you meet students who could be just the person your organization is looking for, but you’re also likely to come away with some inspiration and a renewed sense of excitement about this fascinating field we’re in.

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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