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ProMat 2015: A Tale of Two Technologists and the Future of Material Handling

March 25, 2015
Apple’s Steve Wozniak and Google’s Renee Niemi offer their visions of where technology is leading the material handling and logistics industry.

Attending a material handling trade show like ProMat 2015, attendees will naturally be focused on emerging technologies, so it had to be some comfort to those confounded by the plethora of new stuff that even the experts sometimes find it hard to wrap their minds around it all. Certainly, when it comes to tech legends, it’s hard to think of somebody more influential than Steve “The Woz” Wozniak, creator of the Apple personal computer, a recent inductee into the IndustryWeek Manufacturing Hall of Fame, founder of Wheels of Zeus, and one whose lifelong ambition was to be considered an “engineer’s engineer.”

And yet, Woz isn’t necessarily a true believer in all tech innovations, even those pushed forward by the company he founded. As one of the keynote speakers at ProMat 2015, Woz opined, for instance, that 3-D printing might be overhyped, with only limited applications for consumers due to various limitations, such as the amount of time it takes to print something (hours and hours) and the specific types of materials that the printers can handle.

He’s also a bit skeptical of the need for the gadget of the hour. “The Apple that’s selling a $17,000 Apple Watch doesn’t seem like the same Apple that once helped to move the world forward with its products,” Woz says.

On the other hand, he’s quite enthused about the prospects of self-driving vehicles and delivery drones. “If I could order something from Amazon and get it delivered it to me in 15 minutes, I’d do it. And it’ll be that kind of instant gratification that could help drive development and adoption of drones.”

As a former school teacher, Woz is keenly interested in the development of the next generation of thinkers and doers. “The biggest problem with schools today,” he says, “is class size, which makes it tough for kids to get the one-on-one attention they need. However, if computers ever come close to mimicking the human brain—if they ever achieve something like consciousness—you could devote one computer to every student, and that would revolutionize education.”

Speaking of revolutions, Renee Niemi, director of the Android and Chrome global business at Google for Work and another keynote speaker at ProMat 2015, has been closely monitoring what some call the 4th Industrial Revolution (or Industry 4.0), and what others call the Internet of Things. No matter what you call it, this revolution involves the marriage of information and materials to the point where products of all types are internetworked and intelligent, in the sense that they carry accessible and actionable information.

“Industry 4.0 isn’t just about products and systems, though,” Niemi points out. “It’s also and mostly about people. So as we set out to adapt our supply chains for Industry 4.0, how do we change the culture of our businesses so that people will accept and embrace this revolution?”

Niemi sees three technologies in particular as key to bringing companies up to speed as we rush forward into the future of material handling and logistics:

• The cloud

• Mobile

• Apps.

Analytics is a crucial element of all of these technologies, because we now have the ability to focus more on using all the data we’ve been collecting and storing, and doing something meaningful with it.

“When you combine these three technologies—when you have connected workers who have access to connected analytics and a connected supply chain—you end up with connected insights, and that means you can make better decisions faster,” she says.

Niemi suggests that companies should seriously consider providing a connected device to every one of their employees, which will not only provide workers the ability to be more flexible in their jobs, but will also greatly accelerate the ability of companies to take advantage of the connected insights that will help them become more efficient, more productive and ultimately, more profitable.