ProMat 2013: Final thoughts from the show

Here are some of the things to be watching over the next year in the materials handling sector.

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Editor’s Note: This article is a blog posting by Bob Trebilcock, executive editor of Modern Materials Handling, LM’s sister publication.

It’s Friday morning and another ProMat is behind us. My legs are shot. My back hurts. My spirits are pretty high. That’s because I think it was a successful show.

The best of the industry was on display. You expect that at ProMat. Of more importance to me is that the end user community – the consumers of our technologies – appear to be in the market to improve their operations. George Prest, CEO of MHI, the sponsor of the show, had a line that really sums it up. “We are an investment in productivity,” he told me. 

I’m sure that’s not the first time I’ve heard that line. It’s certainly a theme we embrace at Modern. But for some reason, it really resonated when Prest expressed it on Wednesday. With that in mind, here are the handful of questions I’m taking home from the show and the trends I want to watch.

Right now, it’s all about multi-channel distribution: Willy Sutton famously said he robs banks because that’s where the money is. At every ProMat, there seems to be an industry that every solution provider is targeting because they’re investing in productivity, to steal Prest’s line. It’s where the money is. A couple of shows ago, it was beverage distribution. Exhibit after exhibit displayed mixed SKU palletizing. This year, it was how to handle case picking for store replenishment and each picking for e-commerce fulfillment in the same facility. I don’t have numbers to back it up, but it seems as if the e-commerce challenge is driving an unprecedented level of automation and doesn’t show any signs of letting up soon. In fact, multi-channel distribution was the theme of the first press conference I attended at Dematic’s booth on Monday and was on the subject of conversations with Daifuku Webb, TGW, Knapp, SSI Schaefer and Muratec.

Should we call it order fulfillment software: I had a long discussion with Jerry Koch, Intelligrated’s director of corporate marketing, about what we should call the emerging software that manages picking and packing activities in a multi-channel distribution environment. The temptation is to think of it as a warehouse control system because many of the solutions are offered by systems integrators and OEMs. Indeed, many of these applications began life as a WCS to route inventory and orders through conveyor and sortation systems. However, the problems they’re being asked to solve today are more complex than routing orders. While there is some overlap with WMS systems, the activities they are managing are different. I vote for order fulfillment system. That’s because in my mind, the facilities taking advantage of these systems, like the one being operated by Gilt Groupe are all about order fulfillment. Receiving and storage are just means to an end. 

Packaging is suddenly cool: Last fall, Clark Skeen, the president of CubiScan (, described how one of his prominent ecommerce customers was using weighing and cubing in conjunction with a packaging system to significantly reduce its shipping costs. “Something is going on there,” he said. I think he’s dead on. Multi-channel distribution is shining a light on packaging in a new way. It was reflected by the fact that the winners of the two innovation awards – Pack Size and Fox IV – both address packaging and shipping. In addition to Pack Size, System Logistics introduced an on-demand packaging solution targeted at e-commerce distribution. 

Where do horizontal carousels fit: What was missing from the show? Horizontal carousels. There were plenty of vertical carousels and vertical lift modules on display, but unless there was a horizontal carousel hiding in a back corner, I didn’t see it. With all the attention paid to shuttle and mini-load systems I started wondering: where do horizontal carousels fit? I posed that question yesterday to Tom Coyne, the CEO of System Logistics. “It’s a good question,” Coyne said. While conceding that shuttles are the technology of the moment and have a number of advantages in high throughput situations, horizontal shuttles still deliver value in picking applications requiring 300 to 400 picks per hour. “We have more tools than we used to,” Coyne said. “I think that as distribution managers focus more on piece picking, they’ll begin to look at all the tools available and find value in horizontal carousels.” 

Unit load got some love: Shuttle and high-speed mini-load technologies that enable goods-to-person picking were certainly on display at the booths of the major systems integrators. For the first time in a long time, there was also attention paid to innovative ways to handle pallet and slip sheet loads. The PalletRunner was prominently displayed at the front of the show.  Dematic highlighted three solutions utilizing automatic guided vehicles, high-density dynamic pallet storage and in the rack pallet shuttles at one of its press conferences. JBT was also demonstrating the combination of AGVs and pallet shuttles for high-density storage. Muratec introduced a new highly maneuverable pallet-handling AGV with a vision guidance system.

What’s up with Kiva: Kiva made its debut at ProMat three or four shows ago. Then, they were the talk of the show. Although they weren’t present this year – and haven’t appeared to be present in the market since Kiva was acquired by Amazon -  they booked four spaces for ProMat 2015. It led any number of companies to wonder what’s next for those little bots.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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