Perpetual pilot purgatory

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

By ·

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.

Subscribe to Logistics Management Magazine!

Subscribe today. It's FREE!
Get timely insider information that you can use to better manage your entire logistics operation.

Article Topics

Materials Handling · MHI · All Topics
Latest Whitepaper
Is It Time For a New Network Strategy?
A successful supply chain network design gives companies a competitive advantage, pinpoints ways to significantly reduce costs, improves service levels, reduces overall cycle times, streamlines all processes and systems used, and more.
Download Today!
From the May 2019 Logistics Management Magazine
May is our Technology Issue, and we’ve devoted the majority of our pages this month to the evolution of the technology toolbox that’s now within our grasp.
The Digital Supply Chain Takes Shape
Top 30 U.S. Ports 2019: Trade tensions determine where cargo goes next
View More From this Issue
Subscribe to Our Email Newsletter
Sign up today to receive our FREE, weekly newsletter!
Latest Webcast
Technology Roundtable: Are you ready for what’s next?
In this webcast LM's group editorial director Michael Levans gathers four top supply chain management technology analysts to discuss how some of the hottest software and technologies is helping logistics and supply chain management professionals streamline their operations to meet the pressing demands of digital commerce and manage through the tightest labor market in a generation.
Register Today!
35th Annual Salary Survey: Compensation matters more than ever
While job satisfaction remains the primary reason for today’s logistics managers to stay with one...
2019 Rate Outlook: Pressure Builds
In 2019, the world economy will enter a third straight year of broad-based growth, but many...

2019 Transportation Management Systems (TMS) Market Update: Keeping pace with the times
The transportation management systems market is growing right along with the number of challenges...
The Logistics News that Shaped 2018
Every year at this time, group news editor Jeff Berman combs through the mountain of news that was...