Material Handling & Logistics Conference: Day 1

The future of work, robotics and artificial intelligence were on the first morning’s agenda.

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If it’s September, it must be Park City.

For the last 15 years, I’ve been trekking to Park City, Utah the weekend after Labor Day to attend Dematic’s Material Handling & Logistics Conference. Full disclosure: For the last several years, I’ve been on the conference planning committee. But, like that guy who was a customer before he bought the razor company, I was a long-time attendee before participating in planning. Besides the fact that it’s a fabulous location, the food is great and the keynote speakers and entertainment are top notch (this year, its Colin Powell and John Fogerty), what I’ve always liked about this event is the emphasis on learning and the opportunity to network with titles ranging from warehouse supervisors to C level executives.

Today was day one. This morning opened with introductory remarks from Hasan Dandashly, Dematic’s new CEO and, with three months under his belt, still “the new kid on the block.” While his remarks were brief, I think he captured the sense of our industry right now when he said that it is “truly an exciting time to be in our industry” and noted that we’re witnessing a technology innovation. 

This morning, I had a chance to attend three educational sessions. One was about the future of work in a highly automated world from Deloitte’s Kelly Monahan; the second was a panel discussion on selling an automation project to the C-suite; and the third a presentation on artificial intelligence, or AI, by George Babu, a co-founder of the robotics company Kindred (I’ll be featuring Kindred’s robotic putwall solution at a Gap facility in the November issue of Modern Materials Handling). I came away with three takeaways from the morning.

Labor remains one of the most vexing issues for our industry

Monahan’s presentation wasn’t about the labor shortage facing just about every distribution center in the country. Rather, she focused on the future of work as business and people adapt to the explosion of automation and new technologies in the workplace at all levels. She noted that we will all have to change the way we do work to create more meaningful experiences for our employees and our customers. The three big questions companies need to think about are: What work should be automated, and does the automation deliver a competitive edge; Who should do the work – full-time employees, contractors, freelancers or, part-time help: and Where should the work take place? For instance, does everyone have to come into an office. But while Monahan was looking to the future, attendees were still dealing with the here and now, including one who asked her if there was a way to not just learn about the availability of a workforce in a given area, but the quality of that workforce. His challenge: Just getting people who would clock in at 7 and stay till 3.

Supply chain, and materials handling, struggles to reach the C-Suite

Getting supply chain’s seat at the table is a topic that we visit often in Supply Chain Management Review, and it’s still a struggle. That was one of my bullets after listening to a great panel discussion on how to sell an automation project to the CFO that included executives from Michael Kors, Canadian Tire, Geodis and a former Amazon and Walmart executive. Finding that key partner in the organization who can be a champion for the project remains elusive, as does getting the attention of senior decision makers. But, the labor issue came up in this session as well. Brock Eckles, director of strategic solutions for the 3PL Geodis, noted that a large consumer electronics company that is one of his clients has made a decision to invest heavily in automation because they can no longer fight the war over associates. Ron Kyslinger, a former Walmart SVP, argued that automation should be looked at as create sustainable jobs, defined as “a job that someone wants to get out of bed in the morning for and is proud to do.” He noted that no one brags at Thanksgiving that they pack boxes in a distribution center, “but train them that operate and maintain automation and it’s something they want to do every day. That’s sustainable and we have to get that into the C-Suite.”

Artificial intelligence is here, but it has a long way to go

AI is four years into what will like be a 20-year-development cycle. And, it may very well be at the peak of Gartner’s technology hype cycle. Neither of those take away from the potential for the technologies impact on warehouse operations and supply chain in general. That was the message from George Babu, who is the co-founder of Kindred, a company that states it is “building artificial intelligence for robots to operate in the real world.” (By the way, if you haven’t seen the video of Kindred’s robotic putwall, it’s pretty cool. Along with explaining just what is artificial intelligence, he talked about some of the applications already in use. For instance, AI is the technology behind Amazon’s cashier-less checkouts; a Boston Dynamics human robot that looks and acts like a person to pick cartons; and the machine vision behind PINC’s drone technology used to take inventory in warehouses. “We don’t yet know the limits of AI,” Babu said, “but every day, we’re discovering new use cases.”

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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