Every other year MHI hosts ProMat, the material handling show, in Chicago. This is a Supply Chain Disneyland where hundreds of exhibitors show off their latest technology and equipment. In fact you may even spot some breakthrough, potentially disruptive technology that will bring changes to the industry. Innovation usually evolves from someone breaking the rules. A couple of years ago, robotics made a big splash, especially the autonomous ones, like Kiva.
See Also: Warehousing & Distribution Management
Remember Kiva? Their innovative bots and technology had all the promise of revolutionizing goods-to-people picking and lights-out warehousing. That was, of course, until Amazon gobbled them up. In our opinion, they probably acquired Kiva more for the optimization software that controlled the bots' movement than for the bots themselves. Kiva had initial success in high piece-pick industries like apparel, retail and 3PL as they could be implemented in non-traditional space with considerably reduced labor requirements. They broke the rules for warehouse robots and developed a game changing technology.
Playing Warehouse "What If"
This year, we think the technology that may be even more disruptive in the warehousing and transportation industries will be the advances in optical and video technology and their potential convergence with wireless, internet, telematics, robotics, simulation, cloud computing, GPS and other emerging technologies.
What if we open our minds to the next level of innovating by breaking the rules?
At this year's ProMat our imagination started clicking in with a video presented by SeeGrid on their driverless, robotic industrial trucks. What makes SeeGrid's approach a game changer for pallet handling environments is that it's "vision guided." Optical technology makes it possible for SeeGrid to develop a three dimensional (3D) grid of the facility using optical markers to guide the vehicles to the right place through the warehouse. No forklift operators are needed.
What if this technology converged with video gaming technology? That's right, video games. There are many environments that are not exclusively focused on pallet movement and are not easily programmed for driverless environments. In current practice, as Amazon has discovered, you need a human operator to execute the process. At the same time, labor costs in some regions for some goods render that location alternative uncompetitive. However, as we know, the tradeoffs in offshoring for lead time and transportation cost can render that location uncompetitive. What a dilemma! If only I had the low cost labor available in the most economic region/location to serve my customers.
What if I could source the labor from a low labor cost region to staff my most economical facility in another region? Vision guided vehicles could provide the answer. Do you think there are a lot of potential laborers who are proficient in video games? Do you think it would be rather easy to train people to play video games? Do you think we could find a low cost labor region with plenty of talent available to play video games?
What if instead of playing "Call of Duty," my labor force in the low cost region played "Called to the Warehouse?" What if instead of navigating through buildings and hallways in the game, they navigated remotely through the warehouse and aisles? Instead of picking up new weapons and ammo, they picked up pallets and boxes. Instead of firing bullets, they entered data. And, what if all of their movements were communicated to robots and industrial trucks in far-away warehouses at the most economical locations to serve my markets? Remote driven, vision guided vehicles and robots may be in your future… warehouse gamers may be your future labor force. That's innovation by rule-breaking.
Remote Drivers on the Road
Let's take the vision guided driverless vehicle technology to an even higher conceptual level. What's the number one issue in the transportation industry? That's right, driver shortages. What's the number two issue? Well, if a driver shortage is the number one issue, driver quality has to be number two. With new hours of service and safety compliance regulations in force, the driver shortage and quality issues are driving capacity constraints and rate increases across the board. It's reaching a point where some companies in India are considering training drivers there and sending them on labor visas to the U.S. and Europe.
If you didn't know the next likely step, ProMat keynoter, Edie Wiener, revealed it. California, Nevada and now Florida are allowing the testing of driverless vehicles. When the passenger is the load that has to arrive at the destination and the driver is not capable of driving, the driverless capability is important. What makes the driverless vehicle breakthrough feasible is the telematics control technology converging with GPS and location based services. But now let your vision go beyond passenger vehicles into the commercial world: you can see a future solution to our current driver shortages and quality issues… carrier drones!
Unless you're Rip Van Winkle, you've seen the advances made in pilotless air drones, remotely flown aircraft that can be guided remotely to precise targets throughout the world. Why not apply the same technology and concepts to develop remotely driven vision guided commercial vehicles? Think of the implications. Like our warehouse gamers, we can source remote drivers from anywhere in the world, eliminating shortages and increasing quality. Unlike a passenger vehicle, we don't care if the driver arrives at the destination, we only care that the load arrives at the destination. If the vehicle is remotely driven, driver changes en-route are accomplished by throwing a switch or a keystroke. So much for hours of service constraints and en-route living expenses, don't you think?
Think of the changes in driver requirements and skills. How many driving and racing video games are available? How well do the sophisticated ones mimic real life? Training can be shortened and many physical barriers can be removed. Physically limited individuals can become remote drivers. With the advances in video and vehicle telematics controls, sensors and technology, vision guided remote drive vehicles can improve safety and quality by overriding driver error. Look to the future. Innovation by rule-breaking.
Product Self Identification
Why code an item when it can identify itself?
We also learned at ProMat about the application of optical imaging, storage and search. By now you should be familiar with Google and Bing images. You can enter an image, such as a picture or graphic, and search to find like images on the Internet. We can use optical imaging in retail stores to identify and track shoppers as they move through the store, providing valuable shopping behavior. Optical imaging technology is becoming more integrated into and common to security applications. In his opening day keynote, Henrik Christensen alluded to optical imaging in material handling applications.
Barcoding and RFID technologies were developed to facilitate the automatic identification (AutoID) of materials as they flow through the supply chain. AutoID technologies have been traditionally slow in moving from introduction (hype) to mass adoption and deployment largely due to the capital investment in infrastructure to support them. The barcodes and RFID tags represent a small part of the initial cost to implement the data collection devices and RF infrastructure to use them. This further compounds the difficulty in using them across industries.
Nearly every industry and office can benefit from AutoID to identify materials and tie them to all of the information required for inventory and transaction processing, tracking and tracing—but the cost of specialized equipment can be prohibitive.
Mobility, wireless and the internet are changing the economics of AutoID implementation and optical identification may disrupt the industry even further. Your mobile phone (if it is smart and equipped with a camera as most of them now are) is an inexpensive AutoID and data collection device. We are hearing more and more about the "Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)" issues across businesses as people want to combine business and personal usage into a single device. Implementing AutoID apps in a mobile wireless environment using off the shelf devices is far less expensive than most current AutoID environments. We're not saying that it will replace high volume, industrial strength apps and devices; but, there are hundreds of thousands of facilities currently not automated that could be at the smart phone price point. Millions of consumers are already using their smart phones as data collection devices to scan items and QR codes and do lookups on the Internet.
In line video, optical identification, can be significantly lower in cost and easier to implement than many bar coding and radio frequency identification (RFID) implementations. There would be no coding involved, the item itself is the identifier; and, serial and/or numbers can be captured without coding. Each frame's time and location can be stamped for track and trace capability.
But, the clear advantage that optical image identification has is that there are fewer physical constraints on optical image identification. Don't get us wrong, optical image identification isn't going to eliminate other AutoID technologies; but, it will have implications for and be as pervasive as barcoding and RFID.
Open your mind. Think of all of the new possibilities technology is opening up for the supply chain and material handling in particular. Create a vision of how the technology can change your market, your strategies and your operations. Then, engineer the processes and transform your operation to achieve new levels of productivity and value. Innovate by breaking the rules.
Richard Sherman and Robert Sabath are supply chain discipline experts at Trissential, a management consultancy focused on business improvement. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].