In retrospect, change can look sudden and inevitable. Often, though, there's an agonizing period between recognizing a new trend and the moment when it fully takes hold. Something big's about to happen ... but not just yet. That's the sense I got repeatedly, while wandering among the hundreds of exhibits that made up this year's ProMat material-handling show in Chicago.
Here, then, are a few areas where transformation seems to be right around the corner.
The big comeback. The biggest "not yet," of course, is complete recovery from the Great Recession. Vendor after vendor spoke brightly about renewed sales, and customers with money to spend on software and systems. At the same time, they conceded that bottom-line results aren't quite back to where they were before the crash of 2008.
"It's turned around quite a bit from a sales perspective," said Thomas J. Kozenski, vice president of product strategy with RedPrairie Corp., a major vendor of supply-chain execution software. Companies have "come out of the bunkers," he added, even if their eyes are still adjusting to the light.
"Decision-making is slow," said Chad Collins, vice president of marketing and strategy with HighJump Software. He's seen an uptick in sales for the replacement of older warehouse-management systems, many of which were acquired in the late 1990s and early 2000s, just before that other crash. Companies have held on to the old technology as long as possible, determined to get the most out of a major expenditure. (Not to mention systems that often had more bells and whistles than were really needed at the time - but who balks at flashy purchases when budgets are flush?)
Recovery, however, is a slow process. Toyota Material Handling U.S.A., Inc. is a big provider of forklift trucks. National marketing manager Melinda Beckett-Maines said many customers are opting for short-term rentals, which cost them more in the long run but signal a distrust in the signs of a rebounding economy. Aftermarket sales are way up, as warehouse managers scramble to replace the parts they harvested from parked lift trucks when activity plummeted. Sales of new units as well as long-term leases will have to await a return to the levels of 2006, the market peak.
Then there's the question of whether full recovery is really under way. Eric Miller is vice president of worldwide sales with DAP Technologies, which was showing off a new line of rugged mobile tablet computers. He said customers have budgets but are "cautiously spending." He expects a temporary leveling off of activity later this year, perhaps giving businesses a chance to catch their breath on the steep climb back to prosperity.
The coming of the cloud. Only recently have I grudgingly taken the quote marks off what I originally saw as a marketing buzzword - or, at best, a sexier name for "hosting" or "software as a service." App vendors have been much less cynical; they've rushed to put every possible product in the cloud, WMS included. Collins said the trail was blazed by Salesforce.com, along with enterprise resource planning vendors that have begun offering hosted versions of their big financial packages. Now, despite its ties to physical facilities, WMS is gradually headed in that direction as well. Despite early successes by sellers such as RedPrairie, companies still worry about security, the latency of data transmission and the wisdom of cloud-based apps supporting remote facilities, Kozenski said. But vendors are working hard to allay those concerns.
Warehouse automation on the rise. Sort of. Seegrid Corp. sells sophisticated industrial trucks and mobile robots. Chief executive officer A. Matthew Kramer pointed out - and this is a statistic that shocks me every time I hear it - that some 50 percent of warehouses are still run by manual processes. That's a substantial number of facilities with no formal WMS at all.
Collins dismissed the notion that highly automated or "lights-out" warehouses are gaining momentum in the U.S. On the contrary, he said, some companies are backing away from the scenario. One HighJump customer, a maker of bike products, recently opened a second warehouse to serve the West Coast, but didn't replicate the automated environment of its first facility. Instead, it went with a simple pick-to-cart system which can better adjust to shifts in demand.
On the other hand, automation is cropping up in some unlikely places. It's no longer limited to big distributors of electronics or consumer packaged goods. Gerawan Farming is a producer of stone fruit and table grapes. It's using the MX8, the smallest handheld unit manufactured by LXE, to keep track of its saplings. The technology helps the company to comply with new requirements for monitoring the food chain in the event of recalls, said Steven Lane, LXE's senior manager of marketing and communications. Bottom line: the use of automation for managing the flow of product is growing, although human beings remain an essential part of the equation.
Labor management in the crosshairs. Companies have been talking for years about wringing more productivity out of their warehouse workforces, but the need is greater now than ever before. The number-one requirement of Seegrid's customers, Kramer said, is "the ability to consistently manage labor." In some cases, that desire is leading to the adoption of engineered labor standards, which monitor a worker's every move and establish strict performance targets.
But many companies haven't sprung for the capability. Kozenski called labor standards "the best-kept secret about WMS," while claiming that unions are among their biggest fans. Formal standards create "a fair equation for a fair day's effort," he explained. "It becomes the bible that everybody agrees on." Collins said a lot of potential buyers are considering the option, but not before addressing task and process management through adoption of a basic WMS.
Voice speaks up. If there was any single aspect of technology that dominated the conversation at ProMat, it was voice. Roughly 17 companies were present with dedicated systems that promise to voice-enable every imaginable process related to warehousing and inventory control. How long these providers can remain stand-alone entities is another question; the big enterprise vendors are quickly incorporating the capability into their own product suites.
Thomas H. Murray, vice president of product management and marketing with Vocollect (recently acquired by Intermec, Inc.), said voice is migrating from its origins in grocery distribution into such areas as automotive, retail and mass merchandising. At the moment, only about 10 percent of distribution centers around the world are equipped with some kind of voice system, he said. Brad Wyland, vice president of strategic marketing with Datria Systems, Inc., called voice "a huge business plus" that can be deployed in a variety of applications, including business-to-business telephony systems. Still, voice has a ways to go before achieving critical mass in warehousing operations.
From macro to micro. There's one trend we don't have to wait around for: the ever-increasing pressure on supply chains from events that are occurring on a global scale. Whether it's social unrest and revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, or the horrifying sequence of earthquake, tsunami and potential nuclear meltdown in Japan, the impacts are being felt by business all the way down to the warehouse floor. Supply-chain disruptions and soaring energy costs are forcing every level of the organization to find new ways to cut costs and boost efficiency - without degrading customer service. You didn't have to be at ProMat to know that, but it's sobering to recall that geopolitical upheavals can have an effect on every robot, conveyor and lift truck in the place.
- Robert J. Bowman, SupplyChainBrain
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