Warehouse Automation Steps up a Gear at Hannover Messe and ProMat 2019

Subscribe To Download This Insight

2Q 2019 | IN-5470

When walking the halls of Hannover Messe in Germany and ProMat 2019 in Chicago, it was impossible to miss the ubiquity of highly sophisticated and automated robots, vehicles, and mechanized systems. While intelligent automation has been the focus of Industry 4.0 efforts in the manufacturing sector for years, it is abundantly clear that similar momentum is now building in the warehouse, the beating heart of the supply chain.

Registered users can unlock up to five pieces of premium content each month.

Log in or register to unlock this Insight.


On the Exhibition Floors


When walking the halls of Hannover Messe in Germany and ProMat 2019 in Chicago, it was impossible to miss the ubiquity of highly sophisticated and automated robots, vehicles, and mechanized systems. While intelligent automation has been the focus of Industry 4.0 efforts in the manufacturing sector for years, it is abundantly clear that similar momentum is now building in the warehouse, the beating heart of the supply chain.


The fact that robotic arm vendors, visions system developers, systems integrators, gripping solution providers, and conveyor hardware manufacturers were all out in force in Hannover and Chicago is clearly testament to the rapid maturation of warehouse automation. While fixed automation in the form of conveyors and Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) has been a core feature of high throughput warehousing for years, Hannover and ProMat have provided a glimpse in to how robots will fit in to the supply chain of the future. Automation heavyweights such as Honeywell Intelligrated, Dematic, and Bastian Solutions, as well as emerging contenders such as AutoStore and Berkshire Grey, have all demonstrated the importance of integrating a wide range of robotic elements into automated operations while also modernizing more traditional, mechatronic, fixed automation. The diversity and depth of innovation from systems integrators, hardware Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and software providers is creating a flourishing ecosystem that is blurring the lines of competition and partnership and creating enormous opportunity for the entire network of technology providers and end users.


Hannover and ProMat also went beyond the physical realm by exploring the power of automation at the Supply Chain Management (SCM) level. As capabilities grow in the areas of inventory management, asset tracking, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the potential to model and simulate supply chain operations emerges, too. Again, following examples set in the manufacturing sector, supply chains are now exploring the transformational power of digital twins and control towers not only at the warehouse level, but also enterprise-wide. Manufacturing, distribution, retail, finance, and sales and marketing are no longer seen as isolated silos but rather interconnected nodes within the supply chain. Speaking to companies as diverse as Deutsche Bahn Systel, Bosch Rexroth, LogistiVIEW, and SAP in Hannover and Chicago, all of which spoke in clear terms about digital twins and control towers, confirms this.

A Complex Landscape


The transformational power of robotics is now clear as automation becomes a critical component in supply chain automation and the quest for same-day delivery, which, thanks to the likes of Amazon, will soon become an industry standard. It is no surprise then that robotic innovation has created a great deal of anticipation among the Systems Integrators (Sis), many of which were showing off their robotics capabilities alongside their more traditional, yet still vital, AS/RS and conveyor systems, which are impressive feats of engineering themselves. The exploration of more novel robotics capabilities has become a mandatory feature for these companies, all of which fear disruption if they fail to adapt to new methods of automation. Hannover Messe and ProMat have clearly shown that there is no single form of automation that is pulling ahead. Instead, it’s an even race with horses for courses: each robot or form of automation serving a unique purpose in the warehouse. Robotic arms, grippers, Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs), AS/RS, conveyors, and various hybrids of these forms of automation have all found their place within the warehouse. With such a wide range of form factors and use cases available to warehouses, tech vendors and solution providers are scared of backing the wrong horse and are therefore keeping their options wide in fear of getting left behind. But complexity is also coming from the vendors themselves. There is now very little to choose between the established vendors themselves, while strong contenders are still emerging, creating a turbulent vendor market, albeit one full of innovation. It is this hardware anxiety that is leading to hardware agnosticism and an increasingly complex vendor landscape where the lines between competitors and partners are becoming ever more blurred. Expect this “coopetition” to continue as the warehouse automation market continues to grow in size and complexity.


Of course, the abundance of automation technologies on show in Hannover and Chicago left many people asking the same question: what does the future hold for humans in the automated warehouse of the future? The prevailing response seemed to be that automation is only part of the story, meaning the role of the human worker is far from obsolete. Instead, physical automation, humans, and digital AI are starting to converge in ways that add enormous value for the warehouse. Modelling supply chain operations using a data-driven, intelligently automated digital twin or control tower that works in sync with digitally-enabled humans and automation hardware is the next frontier for the warehouse. In other words, holistically connected strategies that can successfully unite humans and machines will prevail. Tools such as Augmented Reality (AR), voice, and hand-held or wearable devices will therefore continue to add value for the human worker by enabling them to become part of the IoT and optimized in the same way as machines. It’s no surprise then that voice solutions and picking assistance technologies were also well represented on the ProMat exhibition floor. What was surprising was the muted presence of augmented reality technology vendors at ProMat, with only a handful on the exhibition floor, despite the logistics sector potentially being the largest opportunity for AR. This is certainly attributable to the technology itself, which many say is still yet to mature in to a truly transformational technology that is easy and natural for workers to use.

On the Horizon


As the material handling industry continues to learn how emerging automation technologies can be optimized to transform efficiency in the supply chain, a number of challenges remain. Chief among these is the question of scalability and flexibility. While ProMat and Hannover seemed to show that heavy automation is thriving, any automation that requires heavy infrastructure—such as fixed conveyance, AS/RS or models such as AutoStore’s—is inherently unable to adapt to change, which is the only constant, it seems, in the supply chain of the future. Drastic seasonal shifts, rapidly changing product lines, Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) proliferation, custom products, and decreasing batch sizes are still major challenges that require some degree of flexibility. Flexibility is perhaps easier to achieve using AGVs and AMRs, which allow individual robots to be added or removed as required, which can be attractive if combined with consumption-based pricing or a Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) model. More sophisticated robotic gripping systems, which were abundant on the exhibition floors, can also adapt to a widening variety of individual items and heavier payloads, meaning new product lines can be added easily. There is, therefore, a trade-off between throughput volume and flexibility when it comes to warehouse automation. As the warehouse automation technology market matures further, companies will find the correct balance that combines new breeds of robotic automation with the old.


To date, only larger enterprises with enough capital resources have been able to invest in fully automated solutions, which can cost anywhere from the low tens to low hundreds of millions of dollars per deployment. For the deployers of these systems, clearly the efficiency and throughput capabilities are enough to justify these costs, especially in a tight labor market and with customers becoming increasingly expectant of rapid delivery times. If these transformational technologies on display in Hannover and Chicago are only affordable for capital-rich enterprises, this is likely to widen the gulf between the top market and mid-market further. But this would only be half of the story. As discussed, automation is taking multiple forms and competition between vendors is intensifying. While the mid-market may be priced out of large, fixed automation deployments offered by the likes of Bastian Solutions, Honeywell Intelligrated, Knapp, Dematic, and others in this bracket, other forms of automation are becoming increasingly affordable while offering the benefits of flexibility and scalability that heavy automation can lack. The lowering cost of mobile robot hardware, combined with more manageable RaaS deployment models and the reduced need for greenfield development or heavy infrastructure, will bring down the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for AGVs and AMRs and make them more accessible for mid-market companies (at least compared to large-scale fixed automation deployments).


Hannover and ProMat have both ultimately shown the technical potential of automation and strength of innovation in warehousing. The combined investment we can expect from mid-market enterprises, who will be able to afford automation in ever-increasing numbers, and automation-hungry tier 1 enterprises will fuel technical innovation further, and rapidly. No doubt that the supply chain is being revolutionized by automation, but it looks like this transformation could be quick to take hold now that technical barriers are falling and demand for automation shows no sign of slowing. Over the next few years, expect more intense coopetition between vendors and an increasingly complex technical landscape with rapidly emerging technical capabilities.


This executive foresight is part of ABI Research’s Intelligent Supply Chain coverage.


Companies Mentioned