Perpetual pilot purgatory

To move emerging technologies forward, the materials handling community needs to move beyond pilots and share results.

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Last week, I wrapped up my attendance at this year’s annual MHI conference. I have to say, it was one of the most energetic MHI conferences I’ve attended in recent years. A lot of that had to do, I think, with the genuine interest in how technology is changing in our space, and how it may impact the industry going forward. There are a number of new tools out there, from digital like predictive analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to robotics.

But with that interest and excitement there’s a recognition that we’re at a certain tipping point. A lot of the tools are being developed by individuals with skills and expertise in their field but limited experience in materials handling and the broader supply chain applications. On the other side of the equation, experienced industry hands who are tasked with getting more orders out the door faster and at a lower cost than ever may not entirely understand these new technologies and are trying to figure out if, where and how they might be applied to their operations. And everyone is trying to figure out how to make them pay for themselves when compared to a traditional model – say predictive analytics compared to preventative maintenance or introducing robots to the picking process versus a 3 level pick module or pick-to-cart. The result, in some instances, is perpetual pilot purgatory. Yes, some forward thinking end users are kicking the tires and investing in pilots, and more pilots, and more pilots – and even going live with small-scale rollouts – but we haven’t learned enough yet to move the technologies forward at scale. For many end users, the question is even more basic: Where do I go to learn more or see a system in action so I can decide whether I even want to do a pilot?

That was apparent in a conversation I had with Jack Gillespie and Danny Kent from Mechaspin. It’s an Orlando-based engineering company that has done work for the Department of Defense, including the development for the Navy of a Lidar-based anti-collision technology that prevents big ships from colliding; they’d like to adapt that technology to lift trucks.

It was also one piece of a spirited robotics summit on Wednesday morning that drew more attendees than the organizers expected, perhaps underscoring the interest in robotics in our space. The primary purpose of the two-plus hour meeting was to decide whether to create a new group around piece-picking and mobile robotics within MHI. I think the unanimous verdict was to move forward. But an important part of the discussion involving robotics solutions providers, two executives from DHL and Target and a variety of consultants and systems integrators is that right now there’s too much hype and marketing around robotics in our space (mea culpa, perhaps) and not enough real-life examples and data around what works and more importantly, what doesn’t work. We’re all trying to answer those questions, and the brave customers who have been early adopters are playing it close to the vest.

The result: Perpetual pilot purgatory.

There is one solution that can help emerging technologies with promise move forward: Being open and sharing results. And, as several experienced hands at the summit pointed out, there is a precedent: When GM decided to adopt robotics, it published its results and encouraged its suppliers to adopt the technology. The idea was that sharing would move the technology forward faster and GM would still benefit.

People like me and my colleagues in the materials handling media can play a role, but we’re always going to get a sanitized view since companies, especially publicly-traded companies, are reluctant to share their struggles with a new technology. But there needs to be a forum for sharing what works, what doesn’t work and how to get there – perhaps through academia; perhaps through presentations in a safe space like the new robotics industry group; perhaps through research from analyst firms that cover our space; perhaps through publications like ours and those of our competitors. I do believe if early adopters are more willing to share their experiences we’ll advance the technologies further, faster.

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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