Taking Stock: Meeting the tech rockstars

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by Emily Atkins
Inside Logistics editor Emily Atkins

Getting into and moving around at ProMat in Chicago this April was like being at a rock concert. The crowds were thick, excited and vibrating with possibilities. It was as though everybody wanted an autograph, but the rockstars here were the technologies
on display.

In my 16 years of attending this show I’ve never seen anything like it. And MHI, which produces the tradeshow and conference every other year, reports that 2019 was the biggest show ever. It was fabulous to see our industry so amped up. Solutions providers were swamped, with people lined up to see products and demos. And the visitors were anxious to take in as many options as they could.

It’s easy to understand why. The competitive stresses on distribution operations right now are enormous. The “Amazon effect” is real, and it is pushing distribution operations to fulfill orders faster and more accurately than ever. It’s upping the pressure on physical systems and the software connecting it all to be hyper-efficient or lose out to the competition.

With the well-documented and continuing labour shortage, it’s just not possible to increase production by adding more people. Likewise, real estate costs have skyrocketed and combined with the trend towards hyperlocal fulfillment, adapting to smaller distribution spaces is a new requirement for many.

Technology has become the solution that everyone is seeking. From automated storage and retrieval, now available on increasingly tiny footprints, to robotic picking, to automated vehicles, to faster battery solutions, AI and more, it was the promise of a tech solution that brought the crowds to ProMat.

There is so much to choose from; how is a distribution manager to figure out what will stick and what will turn out to be a fad? Recall the RFID craze in the early 2000s – it did not turn out to be the solution many expected it to be.

I don’t have the answers. There is so much to choose from, so much of it is sexy-geeky and cool, and the sales pitches are smoothly convincing. But I suspect that many of you have an idea of what will last and what will fizzle. Will you share your picks for the new tech that’s ‘most likely to last’? Please drop me a note!