A look at what is in store for 2020 Material Handling Equipment

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Technology continues to be the driving force, but it’s evolving.

By Bob Trebilcock · January 2, 2020

Business growth concept year 2020

In early December, a researcher asked me what were going to be the solutions driving the supply chain 20 years from now.  To be honest, I didn’t have a clue. I think back to stories I was writing less than a decade ago, and none of them predicted the rise in robotics or the emergence of things like artificial intelligence or the Internet of Things. Then e-commerce fulfillment kicked into high gear, and we were all off to the races.

But the question got me to thinking about what I’m going to be watching in the coming year, which is a little safer time period for prognostication. I came up with four trends.


Given the energy and investment in robotics in our space, suggesting that there will be a robotics trend in 2020 is a safe bet. After all the pilots and promises, what I see happening is that robot solution providers, and the end user community, are realizing that there is no one size fits all robot. This was driven home to me during a conversation I had with Joel Reed, the CEO of IAM Robotics, who had concluded that their solution is really good at handling health and beauty related products, and so that was going be the company’s laser focus in 2020. Why try and shoehorn it into another environment. Similarly, I spoke to another robotic solution provider who observed that his company and his competitors each had a sweet spot, and that sweet spot varied from provider to provider. He envisioned a future where a warehouse might have more than one fleet of robots, just as most facilities have more than one type of lift truck. The challenge, of course, will be the management system that can bring those together along with the rest of the automation. As Vargo’s Art Eldred notes, “The difficulty is that there is no standardization among the robotic providers. Each has their own standards, communication protocols and capabilities.” Someone will have to figure all of that out as robots proliferate. 

It’s all about the algorithm

A few years ago, I wrote a column titled It’s All About The Software following a Modex or Promat show. What I’d noticed is that solution providers were no longer talking about the features and functionality of their hardware at the booths; rather, it was about how their software was transforming the solutions they were bringing to market. That story continues, but, I think the next chapter focuses on how algorithms are transforming our space. The catch, which was pointed out to me by Melonee Wise, the CEO of Fetch Robotics, is that when you develop an algorithm you’re never sure how it’s going to perform over time as it scales. For that reason, Wise said she was expecting to see an uptick in software to verify or validate algorithms.

Edge computing

Not all that long ago, we saw the wireless revolution in the warehouse as barcode scanners, mobile printers, voice headsets and the like were decoupled from the computers that controlled them. That enabled the mobile worker, who could take a device to the point at which the work was being done. But, those tools were essentially dumb terminals – the computing power and analytics were back somewhere else. Edge computing changes that. It puts computing power and analytics down on the floor, enabling truly real-time decision making and real optimization of the associate pushing a cart or driving a lift truck. The early leaders appear to be the voice technology providers, consulting firms like Fortna – see their smart carts – and some of the autonomous mobile robot providers. I’m writing about this trend in the February and March issues of MMH.   

The evolution of WES and a revitalized WMS

Edge computing and the proliferation of sensors and other Internet of Thing technologies is enabling the evolution of the WES. But, instead of the warehouse execution systems that orchestrate activities in automated warehouses, the new WES is a work execution system. It’s designed to bring that same level of optimization developed by warehouse execution providers to conventional warehouses. The leaders in this space include those mentioned above, but, don’t count the WMS providers out. Manhattan, Softeon, HighJump and JDA are playing in this emerging space. I’m sure there are others. In addition to real-time optimization, Softeon is also incorporating simulation and forecasting into its suite. “After 20 years of incremental gins in WMS technology, this focus on optimization is a step change,” notes Dan Gilmore, Softeon’s chief marketing officer. “That’s kind of remarkable, if you think about it, since WMS is such a mature technology.”