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.

How do we get the logistics infrastructure that we need?

By Susan Lacefield | February 02, 2017 | 8:11 AM

With this week's confirmation of Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation, we get closer to seeing if the Trump Administration can make good on its promise of to invest $550 billion in the nation's infrastructure. But how can supply chain managers in private industry make sure that funding gets where it needs to go to benefit their own companies? 

Part of the answer may lie in developing relationships with government and local economic development agencies, according to an article in the Journal of Business Logistics written by Yemisi A. Bolumole, David J. Closs, and Frederick A. Rodammer of Michigan State University: "The Economic Development Role of Regional Logistics Hubs: A Cross-Country Study of Interorganizational Governance Models." 

The latest issue of our sister publication CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterlyinterviews the lead author, Yemisi Bolumole, who asserts: "In the private sector, we've been taught to focus on B2C (business-to-consumer) and B2B (business-to-business) interactions. This paper is a call to attention of the importance of business-to-government (B2G) interactions. ... Supply chain managers must continue to embrace and incorporate into their decisions an understanding that public sector actions impact what they do. The presence or lack of public policies that inhibit or enhance supply chain efficiency can really have an effect on a firm's total landed cost. "

Check out the full article here: http://www.supplychainquarterly.com/columns/20161214-governance-models-for-regional-logistics-hubs-and-why-they-matter/


How much booze do Californians drink, anyway? Second firm offers same-hour alcohol delivery

By Ben Ames | January 26, 2017 | 9:21 AM

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Last-mile delivery service Postmates Inc. is adding same-hour alcohol delivery to its suite of on-demand restaurant and shopping parcel courier service. The offer is available only in San Francisco and Los Angeles for now, but the company plans to expand the service to other markets soon.

The San Francisco-based urban logistics startup promises 24-hour, on-demand delivery from restaurants and stores in the cities it covers, across a network of cities in 25 states.

Postmates partners with retailers by offering an application programming interface (API) software tool that merchants can add to their websites and instantly start offering home delivery. The company then deploys its corps of couriers to ride, drive, or walk to each nearby urban address and deliver the package.

In fact, Postmates does not restrict itself solely to human parcel carriers. Last week, the company said it was joining the British robotics startup Starship Technologies to test fleets of self-driving parcel-delivery robots that roll from stores to consumers’ homes along sidewalks.

By adding alcohol to the range of products it handles, Postmates is joining an express delivery market already serving thirsty customers in California. The announcement follows a similar service unveiled last month by Saucey, an e-commerce delivery company that specializes in carrying alcohol. In its announcement, Saucey teamed up with retailer BevMo to offer same-hour booze delivery in the California cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento.

Despite the competition, Postmates intends to distinguish its service by delivering a wider range of products than just six-packs and wine bottles, and made a point of saying that the new alcohol service is open to all local retailers, not just a single retail partner.

“This is the first of many new on-demand shopping experiences to come,” Postmates wrote in a company blog. “As we continue to build infrastructure that bridges online and offline local commerce, we are excited to deliver you a new Postmates experience — the best beverages in your city in 25 minutes or less.”


Feds name 10 pilot sites for autonomous vehicle proving grounds

By Ben Ames | January 24, 2017 | 1:44 PM

Research into self-driving vehicles has been advancing at high speed in recent months, with American roads already bustling with robo-cars like Alphabet Inc.’s Google autonomous car, Tesla’s Model S in “autopilot” mode, and Uber Technologies Inc.’s self-steering Ford Fusion.

The technology is impressive when it works, but one question that still stumps government regulators is how to safely test the machines. Leaders are caught between the need to capture a valuable business opportunity by hosting the nascent industry and the duty to protect local drivers from potential collisions with these unmanned, two-ton, rolling science experiments.

For example, while Austin, Texas, and Pittsburgh, Penn., have hosted autonomous cars on their streets, California recently put the brakes on a test program by Uber, and the Cambridge, Mass.-based self-driving car developer nuTonomy Inc. tests its software on cars in distant Singapore. Europe also gained momentum in testing autonomous trucks, when convoys of paired, semi-automated "smart" trucks arrived last year at Rotterdam harbor in the Netherlands from starting points as far away as Sweden and Germany.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Transportation used one of its final acts under the outgoing Obama administration to establish some clarity in this confusing area by designated 10 “proving ground pilot sites” to encourage testing and information sharing around automated vehicle technologies.

The sites are:

* City of Pittsburgh and the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute

* Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership

* U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center, in Maryland

* American Center for Mobility (ACM) at Willow Run, in Michigan

* Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) & GoMentum Station in California

* San Diego Association of Governments in California

* Iowa City Area Development Group

* University of Wisconsin-Madison

* Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners

* North Carolina Turnpike Authority

The proving grounds all have different facilities that can be used to gauge safety, manage various roadways and conditions, and handle various types of vehicles. Final locations were chosen from a competitive group of over 60 applicants, including academic institutions, state Departments of Transportation, cities, and private entities and partnerships.

With private industry investing heavily in the race to build self-driving cars and trucks, these sites could soon become crucial centers of development for the future of autonomous vehicles.


Starbucks offers omnichannel latte

By Ben Ames | October 28, 2016 | 1:21 PM

Stop by your local Starbucks coffee shop and you may see a strange phenomenon; there can be a dozen steaming-hot prepared drinks waiting on the counter, but only a scattered handful of people on foot standing in the café to get them.

What gives? Is the popular coffee chain going out of business? Are the busy employees just training, learning how to make the latest designer latte and generating a stack of free drinks?

No, it turns out that Starbucks is doing just fine. In fact, the unclaimed drinks are a sign that its latest e-commerce fulfillment effort is a hit with consumers. Just like major omnichannel retailers like Walmart and Best Buy, Starbucks has launched a buy-online-pick-up-in-store plan. Retailers across the shopping spectrum offer similar "BOPUS" plans, with giants like Macy’s, Kohl's, and Nordstrom often offering discounts for consumers to pick up purchases themselves and save money on shipping.

Of course, Starbucks doesn't ship hot coffee, but the massive chain sees significant time savings in allowing customers to order ahead. Starbucks rolled out its “Mobile Order & Pay” plan in 2014 for Portland-, Ore.-area users of its mobile app. The offer spread quickly, and the system is now available at some 7,400 stores. If that sounds like a lot, remember that the coffee giant has 24,000 retail stores in 74 countries worldwide.

Clearly, customers enjoy ordering their drinks online, but the new approach is not so popular with some of the chain’s green-aproned employees. It turns out that online orders have a tendency to arrive in massive numbers, burying baristas under a sudden wave of demand for scones, muffins, and cappuccinos. Since consumers can place orders on their own phones nearly simultaneously, the orders accumulate much faster online than when people wait patiently in line to place those orders one by one.

Just this week, I stepped in to my local Starbucks in the middle of the morning commute, and was startled to find it nearly empty at 8:05am. The barista shrugged and said it had been a hectic morning because they’d had 40 orders come in all at once from Starbucks Mobile. He started to explain that some orders took longer to fulfill than others when his colleague called out in a clear voice: “Mobile order for Madeleine!”

And another virtual sale was made.

White House turns up the heat on airlines with baggage refund rule

By Ben Ames | October 19, 2016 | 1:08 PM

More than 700 million passengers are expected to board nine million domestic airline flights in America this year, and many of those travelers pay extra fees to check their baggage.

Now airlines may have to refund those $25 or $50 handling fees for each bag that is delayed in transit, according to a new rule proposed Tuesday by the Obama Administration. Airlines are already required to reimburse passengers for bag fees if their bags are lost, so the new rule would extend that policy to bags that are delayed.

Airlines face a complex challenge in tracking bags as they whisk through the skies above Rhode Island, North Dakota, or New Mexico, touch down briefly at a hub like Atlanta or Denver, and then take off again for final destinations. If approved, the new rules could make them rethink the way they charge for that service.

Just as online retailers are groaning under the weight of shipping and handling fees to support American consumers’ online shopping habit, airlines are trying to recoup the costs of material handling and the effort to track travelers’ bags along airport conveyors, tarmac freight cars, and airplane cargo bays. But instead of promising free shipping or express delivery like Amazon.com and other e-commerce giants, most airlines have followed a very different strategy—charging travelers extra to check their bags at all.

The problem with that strategy is that when an airline provides delayed delivery, it is not holding up its end of the bargain, the White House says. “Passengers should not be charged for services they do not receive,” the U.S. Department of Transportation said.

The proposed regulations would also require large U.S. airlines to overhaul the methodology they use to report mishandled baggage, so that passengers are better informed of their actual chances of receiving their checked baggage in a timely manner. Another proposed change would require airlines to share fee information for services—such as checked baggage or priority boarding—with ticket agents, so that customers can get an all-in-one price when they shop online.

The industry group Airlines for America has announced it plans to contest the proposed new regulations on the basis that airlines themselves have the best incentive to provide competitive fees and services.


Logistics saves the day in animated “Storks”

By Ben Ames | October 02, 2016 | 6:57 PM

Take your kid to see a PG-rated movie starring animated, talking animals, and the action is sure to take place in natural or residential settings like the Pleistocene epoch (“Ice Age”), a plastic brick city (“The Lego Movie”), the North Pole (“Happy Feet”), a New York apartment (“The Secret Life of Pets”), or a Toronto ice rink (“Inside Out”).

That streak came to an end on Sept. 23 when Warner Bros. Pictures released “Storks,” an 87-minute comedy adventure that is set in a cavernous warehouse run by a third party logistics provider (3PL) run by birds.

As everyone knows, storks have traditionally cornered the last-mile delivery market for human infants. But 18 years ago, an avian 3PL called Cornerstone decided to abandon that business model and devote its feathered, flapping delivery network to higher-margin parcels from a new client, an enormous online retailer called Corner Store Dot Com.

The movie opens with a flock of bustling package carriers whisking e-commerce purchases such as smartphones to customers impatiently awaiting curbside delivery… a scenario that will sound familiar to anyone who has worked in the logistics and fulfillment sectors in the past decade.

This pedestrian plot thickens when an ambitious stork named Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg) and an orphaned human named Tulip (voiced by Katie Crown) accidentally switch on the forgotten manufacturing line that produces living babies and have to make one last urgent, express delivery to get the kid to its loving family. Other voice actors include Kelsey Grammer, Jennifer Anniston, Jordan Peele, and Keegan-Michael Key.

In the chase scenes that follow, the animals flee through one supply chain milieu after another, from complex conveyors to towering gantry cranes, lift trucks, shipping containers, a maritime port, and a massive containership. As they struggle to deliver the baby—pun fully intended—they interact with a range of logistics equipment such as routing optimization computers, innovative cardboard packaging, and mobile e-commerce apps.

Toward the end of the action, our heroes even escape a kidnapping conundrum by turning to the magic of reverse logistics. You see, the greedy stork CEO Hunter had ordered his penguin henchmen to dress Junior as a baby and tie him to a chair, before Tulip arrived at the last minute and saved the day by… well, you’ve got to see it to believe it.

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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