ProMat 2023 Showcased a Maturing Automation Market Expanding to New Form Factors, with AMRs Taking Center Stage

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By Ryan Wiggin | 2Q 2023 | IN-6903

ProMat 2023 provided valuable insight into the growing levels of supply chain digitalization, with notable advancements from hardware vendors expanding their robot portfolios and leveraging partnerships and acquisitions for new capabilities. Discussions with key vendors highlighted the growing value of effective management systems, strategic industry partnerships, and an evolving investment landscape.

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ProMat Returns after a 4-Year Hiatus


ProMat was back at McCormick Place in Chicago for its first in-person event since 2019, with over 1,000 software and hardware vendors exhibiting solutions for material handling and supply chain management. Developments in Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) and Automated Storage & Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) were the most noticeable, with large booths demonstrating the enhanced unit, case, and pallet picking processes achieved by increasingly larger AMRs, and increasingly smaller AS/RS solutions.

Strategic partnerships between vendors were also showcased, displaying maturing End-to-End (E2E) warehouse solutions. And acquisitions over the last few years were noticeable, with companies exhibiting how technologies have combined to deploy more expansive levels of manual picking enhancement and autonomous capabilities.

Hardware Highlights


One of the most notable solutions on display was automated forklifts, exhibited by a number of vendors, including Yale, The Raymond Corporation, and Seegrid. Many traditional AMR vendors also added forklifts to their existing portfolios, incorporating the same sensing and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technologies to forklift models in a bid to enhance their pallet handling capabilities. From discussions with primary vendors, automating pallet handling represents a key opportunity in the market, one that has remained more untouched as solutions have focused on unit- and case-level automation. These offerings are looking to bring efficiencies by allowing end users to automate pallet putting and picking from floor level and racking, particularly important for facilities further up the supply chain and Business-to-Business (B2B) centers. Manual involvement still remained apparent, with all models incorporating worker stations and handling equipment so that forklifts could be switched from automation to manual operation dependent on immediate end-user needs.

Leading mobile computing company Zebra expanded its presence at the event, with a detailed demonstration on how its machine vision, AMR, and handheld device offerings are directly impacting manual operators and optimizing facility goods flow. Previous acquisitions of both Fetch Robotics (2021) for AMRs and Matrox Imaging (2022) for machine vision have been seamlessly integrated into their E2E package, adding another layer of manual augmentation that continues to remove repetitive, strenuous, and time-consuming tasks from pickers.

AS/RS solutions continue to expand into new form factors, with a broadening scalability and organization that is facilitating more use cases. Key players like AutoStore and Swisslog could be seen not only in their own facilities, but across a number of partner booths and system integrators, acting as the foundation for other automated picking systems. The growing number of partnerships provided additional booths that showcased more E2E warehouse solutions, rather than just single technologies focused on a specific handling process. This is a critical selling point to any end user seeking a complete warehouse automation package, helping them avoid the process of piecing together individual solutions and establishing compatibility.

New areas were also explored, most notably the use of robotic arms for unloading containers and trucks into a facility. Boston Dynamics made its entry in the supply chain space with its case handling arm Stretch; and Mujin unveiled its new automated unloader, TruckBot, with the ability to unload up to 1,000 cases per hour. Both solutions were only case compatible, indicating that applications will be limited to crate unloading (given that trucks are often pallet loaded, not case stacked), but the announcements present another level of automation for a highly repetitive warehouse task. And given the advancements in automated forklifts discussed previously, automated truck and crate unloading is expected to see strong market traction as such solutions mature.

System Considerations and Partnerships for End-to-End Capabilities


The developing supply chain robotics space, coupled with the new additions, sparked conversations around the need for effective Warehouse Execution Systems (WESs) and fleet management systems. Most software vendors have recognized this, with a focus on systems remaining device agnostic to ensure compatibility with increasing levels of automated equipment adoption, but hardware vendors were also showcasing their execution systems in a bid to differentiate solutions from others. Ensuring ease of use and simplified integration with existing warehouse systems will be a key attraction point for end users. Analytics capabilities is a defining factor in these systems, with leading solutions ensuring that end users can use and action insights from the operational data. Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven systems will be influential in this space, as end users will look to such solutions to continuously optimize the flow of automated equipment and help maximize the available worker productivity.

Strategic partnerships and collaboration with system integrators were a clear boost to solutions outreach, not just in terms of visibility at ProMat, but across recent industry deployments. Companies like Bastian Solutions and Berkshire Grey were among a few showcasing how individual solutions from the leading industry providers could be brought together to deliver E2E item handling. Remaining system and device agnostic to ensure broad compatibility will be imperative, as users take on more solutions under the same roof.

Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) remains an important selling point for solutions in the supply chain market, but deeper discussions with vendors indicated that Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) still holds its place in many end-user investment plans. For certain accounting departments, outright purchases can be better managed and planned to align with digitalization strategies. While RaaS can provide flexibility and a means to ensure continuous improvement with a lowering cost per asset as the fleet grows, it is important to not assume that RaaS will become the sole purchasing choice.




Companies Mentioned