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MODEX 2014

By Ian Hobkirk | 04/12/2014 | 7:40 AM

I had a chance to attend the MODEX conference in Atlanta two weeks ago and was impressed with the breadth of new concepts and products being touted by the vendors. The bi-annual conference saw record numbers of attendees, perhaps due to its fortuitous alignment with St. Patrick’s Day this year, and the opportunity to enjoy that holiday in the company of large numbers of old colleagues. Whatever the reason, the show was exceptionally well attended and visitors did not leave disappointed. Here are some highlights of the four-day show:

I had several interesting discussions at Intelligrated’s booth. The Ohio-based company has been on an acquisition spree recently, acquiring material handling system provider FKI Logistex in 2009, and gobbling up WMS-vendor Knighted in 2012 and voice provider Datria systems in 2013. With the Knighted acquisition, Intelligrated also acquired the rights to Goalpost, a labor management technology. This portfolio of technology gives Intelligrated one of the broadest offerings of any material handling systems integrator. A notable gap in the company’s offerings has been in the area of automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), but at the show this year, Intelligrated unveiled a new product called the “OLS shuttle”, a one-level shuttle system which is Intelligrated’s answer to products like the Dematic multi-shuttle that have gained ground in recent years. The OLS shuttle is Intelligrated’s first AS/RS product in recent history (FKI Logistex did have some AS/RS equipment in its offerings over ten years ago with its Cleco Systems offering). This shuttle system promises the ability to mix both plastic totes and corrugated cartons in the same shuttle system, and to be able to have a single extractor traverse multiple storage levels in the system.

I was interested to hear about the company’s plans for the Knighted Warehouse Management System (WMS). I was told by Jerry Koch, Director of Corporate Marketing that the WMS product is now a part of Intelligrated’s “Fulfillment Execution System”, a fusion of the company’s Warehouse Control System (WCS) and WMS technology. These two products are now offered in the same technology stack, with different features enabled depending on the application. The fusion of conveyor, sortation, order picking technologies, robotics, palletizers, WMS, WCS, Voice, Labor Management (LMS), and now shuttle systems under one corporate umbrella give Intelligrated an unprecedented level of breadth in their offerings. Time will tell if the company is able to make good on supporting these three very different approaches to the market required to sell these products successfully.

Dematic’s booth featured a host of interesting products as well. The Rapid Pick workstation, which first debuted in 2012, has the ability to rapidly cycle both pick and put totes in and out of the operator work area, allowing efficient picking of small parts. This system can be “plugged into” a variety of AS/RS equipment on the back-end, such as a multi-shuttle or traditional mini-load. The technology helps to remove even more walking from a goods-to-person operation, driving up pick rates and reducing batch changeover time.

Dematic also showcased a new product which is still in beta-testing, a line of robotic AGV’s evocative (perhaps in appearance only) of Kiva Systems' robotic goods-to-man system. This is an interesting twist on robotic warehousing. The concept involves using the robots to house a bank of “put” containers. As it was explained to me, the robots would travel to the appropriate pick face at a floor level location. Operators man different pick zones and look for a robot, walk over to it, and perform the picks and puts which are required. The robots then travel to the next pick-face in sequence. Multiple robots can be staged in a given zone at the same time. The concept (not field deployed yet) is interesting on a number of levels. It does address a major weakness of cluster picking, which is transporting large groups of orders through a pick system. However, it seems like an idea that requires significant validation and battle-testing. I’ll be interested to see the first few installations of this system and evaluate the results against conveyor-based cluster picking rates.

SSI Schaefer received an innovation award nomination for their new 3D-Matrix Solution®, an inventive twist on a traditional shuttle-based AS/RS. The concept involves having the take-away conveyor installed below the storage bank in the system, which allows multiple drop points and faster ability to exhaust completed totes from a zone in the system. The system promises higher overall pick efficiency as a result. This 3D-Matrix concept can be applied to pallets and cases as well.

I stopped by the Daifuku booth toward the end of my third day at the show. Daifuku recently acquired Wynright, parent company of Automotion conveyors. The merger, on paper at least, makes a lot of sense, marrying Daifuku’s strong AS/RS products and capabilities with the ability to integrate this equipment into larger systems tied together with conveyors and related equipment. Despite a large installed base, neither company has had strong brand association in the U.S.; perhaps this will change post-merger. I am told that Wynright will continue to be a solutions provider of integrated solutions and will offer the entire range of Daifuku products and technologies as part of their broader offering.

Wynright has also been making much of a new product offering from their robotics division – a robotic AS/RS buffer. This system features a multi-axis robot (almost like a mini-load crane) which puts and retrieves totes in a conventional shelving system. It looks like a very innovative system for staging and buffering product where there is limited floor space. It remains to be seen if the company can seamlessly blend Daifuku and Wynright’s product lines – if so, it will be win for customers seeking complex automated systems.

A popular topic at the show was Amazon’s large booth showcasing the Kiva robots. Amazon acquired Kiva in 2012, and since then, there has been no end to speculation as to what the future holds for this innovative robotic warehousing solution. Is it turned out, the large booth was primarily used to promote Amazon’s 3PL services and as a recruiting tool. Amazon stopped selling new Kiva projects to the general public shortly after the acquisition, and does not appear to be ready to change this strategy in the near future.

I also spent a lot of time in discussions with WMS providers. Manhattan Associates, JDA (formerly RedPrairie), and Highjump all were well represented. I was interested to see that LogFire made a big splash this year with a large booth and numerous staff in attendance. LogFire is the leading evangelist these days of cloud-based WMS (software-as-a-service, or SaaS), and seems to be having some real success with this, with companies like American Sportswear, that includes Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, as well as other top tier companies such as American Eagle among their customer base. I’ve had some very substantive discussions with them on functionality, and they seem – on paper at least – to have a surprisingly rich feature set. Additional Reading on SaaS WMS: SaaS WMS – A Look Under the Hood.

Overall, the three days I spent at MODEX were a great way to get caught up on a number of new technologies in a short period of time – the proverbial drink from the fire hose. I left with many new concepts to think about, and feeling generally encouraged about the state of the American economy. Everybody I talked to – vendors and attendees – had had a good year in 2013 and felt that 2014 was off to a good start. This bodes well for continued economic growth in the foreseeable future.




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About Ian Hobkirk

Ian Hobkirk

Ian Hobkirk is the founder and Managing Director of Commonwealth Supply Chain Advisors. Over his 20-year career, he has helped hundreds of companies reduce their distribution labor costs, improve space utilization, and meet their customer service objectives. He has formed supply chain consulting organizations for two different systems integration firms, and managed the supply chain execution practice at The AberdeenGroup, a leading technology analyst firm.


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