ProMat was an intense 4 days of innovation and wonderful customer interactions. If there was one macro theme, it was on efficiency of one flavor or another. The value proposition of most firms was “invest in our technology to do more with less”. Streamline labor, mechanize distasteful or dangerous tasks, squeeze more inventory into the same building, etc.
While the warehouse management and logistics space has been on this trend for years, the impact of the macroeconomic indicators was clear in everyone we talked to. I don’t want to spend money; but, if I did, how much ROI can you deliver, and how quickly?
Let’s explore some of the major topics and favorite takeaways from Promat 2023 last week:
1. Make the robot do it: robotics and task automation
Robotics of all kinds were on the innovation floor this year. Rather than a consistent theme, firms were showing a high degree of variety and creativity in their offerings:
- Automation of picking carts
- Integration of robots to racking
- Human movement robots
- Loading, Sorting, Accuracy
- You name it!
This continues an increasing focus on leveraging robotics and warehouse task automation to address process efficiency, consistency, and the ever-present issue with recruiting and retainment in our space. Firms are seeking to add predictability to processes that are not improved by human interaction as a hedge against uncertainty.
2. Play well with others: tech stack agnosticism
On the tech side, exhibitors want you to know exactly what they do (and what they don’t!). The trend continues away from mega software suites that do everything in favor of specialized solutions that do 1 to 3 things (and well).
The clear message is “Yes, we’re SaaS. Yes, we have an open API. We play well with what you have and what you might purchase in the future.”
This openness allows for companies to be nimble and plug holes in their organization’s needs. Conversely, it allows companies to buy for their needs, rather than overbuying features and modules that they may never need.
The customer gets what they want, no fluff.
3. Where did everyone go? Manpower continues to be unpredictable
Recruiting continues to be an issue in both freight and warehousing industries due to a combination of general ignorance of our profession, combined with those knowledgeable not finding it appealing.
We spoke to several solutions providers this year that are seeking to provide analytical or structural support around these topics. Some are focused on maximizing the efficiency of the worker themselves.
This can take the form of algorithmic support in scheduling shifts or optimizing the workflows themselves. Best-in-breed warehouse management software has allowed Deposco customers to eliminate excess hiring, overtime or, in cases like Educational Development Corporation, full shifts.
Some solutions focused on bringing warehouse and logistics labor into the gig economy. This is highly appealing to firms that experience incredible seasonality in their demand, or want to flex their staff at the same time they push a flash sale online.
Finally, there was an incredible increase in the variety of wearables on show. Traditional video and audio cueing systems have evolved for increased accessibility and intuitiveness. Augmented reality was showing up at several vendors in a more mature state than a decade ago, unlocking all kinds of potential use cases while fine-tuning existing ones.
If you can’t fix the headcount, it’s another asset that needs to be as productive and dynamic as possible.
4. Due diligence – How do I survive today over buying for the future?
Even if you are bullish on the economy, the reality is that inexpensive financing is harder to come by. This has lengthened sales cycles and focused the magnifying glass tightly on ROI. If you didn’t have the investment in the budget already, you are really honing in on where your dollars will be most impactful for the business in the near term. Now more than ever.
We’re hearing a deep interest in investment, but the issue becomes whether the finance and leadership teams think NOW is the right time for a particular supply chain investment. While exhibitors must make the WHY US case, there is increasing pressure to also answer WHY NOW?
If your solution has a multi-year investment payback, there is a strong chance that customers – reluctantly – must close their wallets. But, if you can drive revenue up or spend down quickly, buyers are showing an insatiable appetite for those solutions.
The combination of the above themes are where plucky and nimble firms or alliances can shine. We stood up our ProMat demo in 3 weeks with our integration partner, SVT Robotics. Being able to demonstrate that you can purchase (alone or in a package) and deliver value in Year 1 is going from a strong value proposition to table stakes.
Enhanced due diligence and a focus on navigating the near-term chaos is front of mind.
5. Quick stand-up – No more 2 years (Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That!™)
Everyone has the horror story of the ‘never-ending implementation’.
Can your business survive an 8-figure price tag when full speed is only achievable after 2 years and a whole lot of curse words?
The companies mentioned above know this, and are opting for more modular solutions that focus on core features and specific use cases, which lets them refine the deployment time. Many of these solutions also map onto your existing process, meaning that the learning curve for the worker is minimized as well.
If you are a peak-to-peak execution business, you can’t adopt mega solutions that will be deployed in Christmas 2025; you need it by October this year when you are delivering. Otherwise, you’ll be getting coal this year from your customers.
While there are major transitions that can rarely be expedited – for example, new facility standups and ERPs requiring heavy engineering – the adoption and extraction of value from technology is under intense scrutiny.
Related Resources to help you crush your Peak Season 2023: industry report, videos, and more!
Closing thoughts and other ProMat 2023 highlights
There were a lot of technology investments brewing at ProMat this year. While consumer trends in many categories have stayed constant or even accelerated, there are many column inches spent on telling us “Just wait; the sky WILL fall.” This is pervasive in the conversations we’re having and plays in and out of the themes we’ve laid out.
The reality is that no macroeconomic trend effects land evenly. Some firms will thrive or grow while others are disproportionately penalized. Firms need to focus on their core values and invest to reinforce or evolve those. Luckily, the sheer volume of innovation shows that the Logistics Support industry has responded with gusto on how you can still invest – wisely — for success in the coming years.
Electrification – We’ll save this topic to expand on in a future post!