ProMat 2023: The “I” Word & Other Key Takeaways

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, with over 1,000 exhibitors and more than 50,000 attendees, ProMat was sensory overload. How can I possibly summarize everything I saw and heard there over two days and 20,000+ steps of walking?

The short answer is I can’t. As the saying goes, next time, you just have to be there.

Instead, I’ll focus on three high-level takeaways.

Before I dive in, I’d like to thank Locus Robotics for the opportunity to present at their booth, which was bigger than some houses and included a small presentation theater. I was among several presenters they hosted, including customers like UPS, DHL, and Calendar Holdings. It was like a mini three-day conference embedded within ProMat. In the interest of time and space, I’ll share highlights from my presentation (“Warehouse Robots: What We’ve Learned So Far,” based on research results from our Indago supply chain research community) and the other sessions I attended in a future post. 

That said, here are my takeaways from ProMat.

The “I” Word Getting More Attention: Interoperability

When you’ve been an industry analyst for 24+ years, you come across themes, trends, and challenges that emerge again and again, like springtime perennials.

Remember the old ERP vs. Best-of-Breed (BoB) debates of 20 years ago? It’s still going on in some circles, even though the debate is less relevant today than it was in the past, as time and acquisitions have blurred the distinction between the two. That said, for those in the ERP camp, one of their main arguments against BoB was the cost and challenges associated with integrating many different software applications together. 

Integrating different solutions is one side of the coin, the other side is getting them to interoperate with each other efficiently and intelligently in a production environment.

For example, in a survey we conducted with members of our Indago supply chain research community in May 2019, our members said that “understanding integration requirements with other apps” was the most important factor to ensure a successful transportation management system (TMS) implementation. 

Put differently, if you only consider the features and functions of a software or hardware solution and you don’t take into account how it will integrate/interoperate with your other software and/or hardware solutions, you’re likely setting yourself up for implementation failure — or at least, you won’t fully realize the business benefits you expect.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that with numerous warehouse management systems (WMS) and hundreds of mobile robotics companies in the market, interoperability is getting more and more attention from both solution providers and customers.

At ProMat, for example, Locus Robotics — which has three different bots in its fleet (Origin, Vector, and Max), each designed for different use cases — announced LocusONE, “the industry’s first data science-driven warehouse automation platform to enable seamless operation and management of large quantities of multiple AMR form factors as a single, coordinated fleet in all sizes of warehouses.” Here’s more from the press release:

With LocusONE, LocusBots engage in a diverse array of tasks — including each picking and putaway, case picking and putaway, replenishment, pallet building, routine routes, point-to-point transport, counting, and more — within a single warehouse. The data science behind the scenes optimizes the mix of tasks throughout the day to achieve optimal warehouse productivity.

LocusONE integrates with any WMS system to provide flexible and dynamic fleet management and enables easy deployment of a mix of Locus Origin, Vector, and Max AMRs tailored to meet each warehouse’s specific needs.

Also at the show, you could see the Berkshire Grey Robotic Shuttle Put Wall integrated with Locus Origin and Locus Vector bots (see January 2023 partnership announcement), and you could also see Locus bots and FANUC CRX cobots working together:

Meanwhile, CoEvolution made its U.S. debut at ProMat. According to the company’s announcement, “CoEvolution’s core technology is AI-powered software that can control different types of robots and coordinate them seamlessly, so they operate as a homogenous fleet. Using this core technology engine, the company builds multi-robot orchestration software solutions for customers that are innovative, highly efficient and flexible, including synergized robot control systems, automation process orchestration, and smart logistics simulators.”

I also met with the folks at Softeon who demonstrated their LUCA supply chain execution platform, “a fully composable (configurable) toolset that includes low code/no code integrations to everything from mobile robots to good-to-person technologies and more; ‘drag and drop’ pre-built configurations to dozens of MHE and other systems; advanced workflow management capabilities; a configurable user interface builder; and more.” Here’s another excerpt from the press release:

The LUCA platform supports Softeon WMS and WES solutions by enhancing their ability to easily connect to a wide variety of equipment types and providers. But LUCA’s capabilities are also available as a standalone solution that enables companies to integrate systems and workflows across an increasingly heterogeneous environment of hardware and software providers [emphasis mine].

The reality is that virtually all companies are going to have a diverse set of software applications and automation technologies (from different vendors) in their logistics operations. Remember how painful it was (perhaps still is) making multiple TMS, WMS, and ERP systems work well together? Now add a bunch of different autonomous mobile robots to the mix. It won’t be fun.

The bottom line: Talking about integration/interoperability is not as cool as seeing autonomous mobile robots in action (such as this humanoid robot by Agility Robotics, which won the MHI Innovation Award for best new product at the show), but if you don’t discuss integration/interoperability upfront with your solution providers and develop a strategy to make all these software applications and automation systems work together efficiently and intelligently, you will soon regret it.

A Killer App for Robots: Loading/Unloading Trailers

What warehouse job do workers hate the most, or is the most time consuming, inefficient, and dangerous?

I’m guessing loading and unloading trailers/containers is near the top of the list, based on the number of automation solutions focused on it.

Last month, ArcBest introduced its “Vaux freight movement technology, an innovative suite of hardware and software that modernizes and transforms how freight is loaded, unloaded and transferred” (see my comments about it at the time). They demonstrated the solution at ProMat, which you can also see in this video.

You also had this solution from Pickle Robot Company:

And the Stretch robot from Boston Dynamics:

And this solution from Slip Robotics: 

And yet another solution, TruckBot from Mujin Corp.:

Apparently, loading and unloading trailers/containers is a killer app for warehouse robots.

Market Consolidation Is Inevitable

According to the ProMat exhibitor list, there were 113 Autonomous Mobile Robots vendors, 100 Automated Guided Vehicle Systems vendors, and 46 Autonomous Fork Trucks vendors at the show (among many other exhibitors).

That’s a lot of vendors. 

Yes, this is a growing market with a bright future, but I’m willing to bet there won’t be 113 AMR vendors in five years, or maybe even in two years. As we’ve seen in the supply chain and logistics software market over the years (and the 3PL market too), this market will start to consolidate soon. Many of today’s vendors will either go out of business (due to, for example, better solutions offered by competitors or their inability to get additional funding) or they will merge with or get acquired by a competitor.

We’ll see multiple best-of-breeds coming together to form a single, unified, interoperable solution platform.

Like I said, the same themes and trends keep popping up again and again.