Autonomous vehicles take test drives around distribution centers
The largest materials handling conference in North America, ProMat, is held every other year in Chicago. At the last show in 2017, there was only one company talking about autonomous forklifts, and they didn’t have a real demo. This year, no less than 20 vendors were hyping autonomous lift trucks and every one of the leading manufacturers presented fully automated product put-away and retrieval demos. And then there were the robots …
While most of the business use cases for robots were on the co-located Automate 2019 show floor and focused on manufacturing, there were dozens of companies on the ProMat side showing robots that did everything from sweeping the floor to scanning pallet positions in racks. In fact, automation at distribution centers and along the complete supply chain is nearing a tipping point, according to the 2019 MHI Annual Industry Report, which predicts a 95 percent increase in projected spending this year over last.
The MHI survey of 1,052 supply chain professionals found that companies are planning significant investments in technology and automation this year:
- Fifty-seven percent are planning investments in new technology that will total more than $1 million over the next two years (up 10 percent over last year’s survey);
- Thirty-four percent are planning to spend more than $5 million; and,
- Twenty-two percent are planning to spend more than $10 million.
The main reason for the increase in spending on automation is the tight labor market, according to several ProMat speakers. Another is that more companies want to make their supply chains digital in key areas, including innovation/technology, customer engagement and workplace environment.
“The future of material handling is the delivery of integrated solutions — the synergy of traditional material handling products and cutting-edge advances in automation technology. By efficiently and reliably performing a variety of repetitive transportation and pallet handling tasks, automated solutions can help reallocate labor to more value-added tasks with greater flexibility and for a lower total cost of ownership,” said Michael Field, CEO of The Raymond Corporation, a forklift manufacturer.
Speakers at ProMat supported Mr. Field’s view, adding that logistics and transportation companies and vendors are closely watching the experience distributors and others have with their autonomous vehicles, considering the closed environment of the warehouse a good test for potential broader (cars, vans and trucks) use on the nation’s highways.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What technologies will have the biggest impact on the retail supply chain over the next five years? Do you see distribution centers as good testing grounds for autonomous vehicles, robots and other technology before being rolled out elsewhere?