Technology's Less of a Gamble When Supply-Chain-Validated

Sept. 27, 2011
Upon entering the Las Vegas Convention Center to cover Pack Expo this week, it didn't take long for me to hear about games of chance. Most of these games involve the chances chief technology officers play when putting their money on technology, hoping it ...

Upon entering the Las Vegas Convention Center to cover Pack Expo this week, it didn't take long for me to hear about games of chance. Most of these games involve the chances chief technology officers play when putting their money on technology, hoping it wins their companies big paydays.

Certainly it's easy to see how they can be impressed by all the latest material handling and packaging automation on the show floor. The chance comes when betting on whether the technology will translate from the show floor to their plant floor.

Several of the technology vendors and packaging specialists I spoke with at this event explained that technology is a safer bet if considered in a supply chain context. That means not just upstream and downstream, but within one's own enterprise, as well.


One display I saw on the show floor was as mesmerizing as the glitziest animated one-armed bandit at any of the casinos. It was an IRB 4600 6-axis articulated robot from ABB. It was Joe Campbell's job to snap visitors out of their stupor (whether technology induced or simply the after-effects of a night on the strip) and give them a glimpse of this technology's role in the real world. Campbell is VP of ABB's Robot Products Group and he told me how picking applications for robots first developed in the food industry, where labor availability problems combined with contamination concerns to make robots a more viable solution. Even where labor is available, people don't often stay long in these jobs, and that makes the cost of technology seem more competitive with the cost of hiring and training replacements—not to mention the lost-time costs of repetitive motion injuries.

While watching ABB's palletizing robots, Campbell explained that his company's new focus is taking costs out of commissioning this equipment—in other words, pre-engineering it to take engineering hours out of a project. These projects are evolving from robots working with standardized grocery pallets to assembling grocery store displays using smaller customized pallets. This is now a job for that six-axis industrial robot I told you about, and Campbell says it can make better use of the vertical space and therefore the cubic feet available in today's DCs.

So, robots are becoming pre-engineered, packaged solutions and they're moving from arc welding centers to packaging stations where engineering manpower is limited.

Mobile Computing

Does that mean robots and other technologies shown at Pack Expo are ready to be picked off the show floor and plugged in, ready for action in any environment? That's a losing bet. Winners are the ones who consider all the angles, and in the supply chain game, that means up and down the supply chain. Just as robots assembling pallet loads in a DC must be engineered to accommodate the grocery store environment, mobile computing devices must be configured to make best use of a company's human labor up and down the chain.

Bruce Stubbs, director of industry marketing for Intermec, told me his company relies on the wisdom of a customer advisory council made up of visionaries in Intermec's target market segments. These experts are brought together periodically for couple-day meetings, both to offer a sanity check on Intermec's R&D direction for data capture and to offer their own advice. Keep in mind, these are VPs of logistics, CTOs and CIOs who have five- to seven-year strategies of their own with marching orders to drive costs out of their operations.

“They want more multi-purpose devices, so that's why we have a new 70 series of mobile computers which can do near/far scanning with one scanning engine, as well as image capture,” Stubbs told me. “When their workforce is on the floor they can be more mobile and agile—pairing a mobile computer with a mobile printer. One of the CIOs in our customer advisory council tasked us to continue looking for more intuitive user interfaces and to get away from human/machine interfaces requiring key punching.”

That's especially important as retail customers enter their peak holiday season, and they can use mobile printers and computers to set up mobile packing stations without worrying about a wired infrastructure. Even some of Intermec's vaunted advisory council members have yet to get up to speed on these capabilities, said Alex Babic, Intermec's manager of industrial printer products.

“One of the people in our advisory council said he'd like to configure our smart printers with his smart phone,” Babic explained. “We told him he can do that now. Every printer we ship has a web page on it and you can browse to the printer and see the basic settings. Within enterprise accounts where companies are investing more in enterprise systems, connectivity and device management is becoming more important.”

Funny thing is, if that advisory council member had talked to one of the workers on his own shop floor, they might have schooled him on what can be done with intelligent mobile devices. It's a trend with real supply chain value. Another CIO Babic told me about is a bit more up to speed on making this technology play. He was from a German company that knew everything about handhelds, network systems and how to program every printer. He knew all this because he constantly interacted with his company's vendors, customers and internal users.

Returnable Packaging and Containers

In a glitzy environment like the Pack Expo display floor, it's easy to let device connectivity overshadow the importance of people connectivity. Luckily for the technology gamblers walking that floor there were off-the-floor forums to help them put what they saw in the proper context.

During a couple sessions on returnable and reusable packaging, that supply chain message came through loud and clear. Bob Klimko, director of marketing for Orbis and education and technology Chair for the Reusable Packaging Association, said reusable packaging can be used to change a company's supply chain culture.

“There are all sorts of people impacted along the way, inside and outside your organization, including suppliers and customers,” he said. “With reusables your transportation spend may go up because there's a reverse flow you have to account for. You need a holistic view of all stakeholders and their metrics and their systems. Consider objectives not only for your business but for each partner you're aligning with. If you don't consider benefits for suppliers and customers there will be problems. Alignment of objectives within the extended supply chain is very important.”

Gerry Vetter, director of supply chain and procurement for Coca Cola Consolitaded, BYB Brands, Inc., put this in the context of those plastic beverage shells used to carry bottles of soda from the DC through the store receiving dock and out into the store for front-of-aisle displays.

“There is a cost for bringing those shells back and you have to know that and understand it from the very beginning,” he said. “There needs to be alignment in shell strategies; that means more commonality and going all the way back in the supply chain to the bottle design and understanding the cargo footprint. Sustainability is important to many of our largest customers like Walmart and we have to account to them where we've reduced waste in our systems.”

I'll end this report with a fun little encounter I had with one of the audience members after the reusable packaging presentations. His named is Vince Allora, who patented an idea for a plastic beverage bottle that can double as an elegant long-stemmed beverage glass when it is inverted. You see, the base of the bottle unscrews to become the base of the glass when the neck of the inverted bottle is inserted into it. The open base of the bottle now becomes the rim of the glass from which you sip the beverage. You can see this at

Vince wanted to get Coke's attention and he thought Mr. Vetter might open a doorway for him.

After Vince made his pitch and left his card with Vetter, I had to corner Gerry and find out what he thought about this innovation—especially in light of the supply chain sensitivities I kept hearing about all day. Here's what he said:

“What you have to determine with this kind of thing is whether it's a seasonal premium or special event type of thing or an ongoing sustainable package. If you look at it as an ongoing sustainable package, the way we're set up today it would require a whole new set of shells. We'd have to determine how it would fit into how we operate our systems. We'd have to go out to the supply chain and determine where and how we'd merchandise it—would it require new merchandising racks and how would it fit on the racks of a major grocery store?”

These are questions Vince Allora will have to answer if his inventive brainstorm is to be supply-chain validated. For his sake, I hope what happened for him in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas.

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