To this day, very few people outside of the supply chain business have an understanding of how products show up on the shelves of the stores they frequent. They know that the products they buy were grown or made somewhere, but the processing path to the store is a mystery.

Recent estimates of the distance between a product’s point of origin (where it was grown or manufactured) and your dinner table range between 1,000 and 1,500 miles; at every step along the way, people using connected devices are expediting the product’s progress to ensure it is available when and where you want it to be. There are tens of thousands of people work through the night at warehouses and DCs (distribution centers) to load and move the products into trucks that show up at the stores the next morning.

Last week in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to participate in the MODEX 2014 trade show. Held in “even numbered” years, its counterpart in odd numbered years is ProMat. ProMat 2015 will be held in Chicago and is traditionally the larger of the two events.

Making appearances at this year’s show were connected devices in the areas of 3D printing, augmented reality wearables and robotics. Even a lighter than air cargo lifting craft was on display.

Also of interest was an unprecedented level of recruiting for knowledge workers by the companies exhibiting advanced systems like robotics. This included Amazon’s Kiva Systems, the robotics company that is transforming eCommerce fulfillment.

3D printers were being used in at least three booths to create models of warehouse equipment layouts, derived from CAD drawings. The resulting models were small, no more than 14 inches in length, height and width, but gave a good physical representation of things like conveyor lines, picking towers and sortation tables. All of the printers observed were made by MakerBot. The intent of the 3D model is to provide a visual reference when you are at the location where the equipment would be installed. This is the next step in warehouse design.

Warehouse and distribution centers around the world have been using wearables for years. One example is the use of belt-mounted devices with tethered headsets to enable “hands free” activities such as order picking. Now, augmented reality devices are making an appearance and suggest a new direction for productivity improvement in the warehouse.

In the Business to Consumer world, Google Glass is the most prominent device, and application developers for consumer-focused uses are increasing in numbers and use cases.

In the material-handling world, devices such as Google Glass have a significant challenge: surviving extended daily use in harsh environments. Warehouses and DCs are high-activity workspaces, with temperatures ranging from high summer temperatures to minus 30 degrees in freezers that hold the ice cream you love to eat. They are dropped all the time. Devices used here must be ruggedized, and have longer battery lives than consumer wearables.

A megatrend emerging in material handling is the use of wearables that can combine vision and voice technologies in a way that helps workers find and handle products faster, and with fewer errors. Fewer errors in order processing will result in happier customers.

A good example of a ruggedized augmented reality device that will be deployed into a live customer environment later this year is Knapp’s KiSoft (pronounced “key soft”) Vision. This device uses vision only to guide workers through a warehouse to find locations and products in a more efficient and error-free manner. Knapp has adopted a “zero defect warehouse” program in support of its customers, and KiSoft Vision is one near-term technology that will support its agenda. Click here to see how this works.

Robotics is becoming increasingly important to material handling, and Amazon is a clear leader in this initiative. Its Kiva Systems automation company was prominently positioned at the main entrance to the show, and it had a simulated warehouse in which its robots put away and picked products to fulfill orders. Watch this video and remember it the next time you buy diapers from Diapers.com. And as you watch, think about the extraordinary degree of “connectivity” all the devices you are watching must have, and what effort goes into making a robotic ecosystem function.

With the megatrend shift away from low-skilled workers to robotic systems in DCs, the need for knowledge workers to design, make, install, run and maintain these systems is creating a highly competitive labor market, and the companies exhibiting at MODEX not only knew that, they were openly recruiting during the show. As I mentioned above, Amazon was very aggressively recruiting in the areas of Engineering, facilities, operations management, IT infrastructure, transportation and finance. It had available a career brochure and handouts making the case for employment at Amazon.

Amazon was not alone. I counted six other large systems manufacturers and integrators with large “We Are Hiring” signage prominently displayed.

For the first time in my experience attending MODEX and ProMat, the organizers of the show put in place a program where teams of local high school students with an interest in supply chain careers were tasked with designing a warehouse that incorporated the best technologies that they saw as they toured the show. Indeed, a leading publication, MHI Solutions, provided show attendees with a special edition entitled “Supply Chain Workforce and the Talent Shortage.”

As MODEX and ProMat are the signature annual shows for the material handling segment of the supply chain industry, new technologies on display are those that are considered viable for adoption. Only those applications and devices that are deemed to have commercial potential make it to the show floor. In the case of KiSoft Vision mentioned above, it was conceived in 2008 and took six years to make it to a customer’s real time operation.

If you want to be amazed and awed at the infrastructure behind the delivery to you of the products you use, then attend ProMat 2015 next March in Chicago. You’ll see me there as well.

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