At MODEX 2022, held at the end of March in Atlanta, attendees made it clear they were ready to embrace in-person tradeshows once again. In fact, according to show sponsor MHI’s official records, more than 37,000 visitors toured the 405,000-square-foot show floor with booths from 857 exhibitors!
Although we’ve all proven that it is possible to conduct business and be productive via virtual means, show attendees were eager for face-to-face time. They actively sought opportunities to share their biggest supply chain challenges and solicit ideas, input, and solution recommendations from exhibitors.
The DCS’ booth was no exception. Our team spoke with a broad range of guests from small, medium, and large companies representing multiple markets, industries, and positions within their respective supply chains.
Yet, despite that diversity among visitors to our exhibit, we repeatedly heard about the same four supply chain challenges. And nearly every guest we chatted with reported experiencing at least three, if not all four of them. They include:
- Supply chain disarray caused by transportation delays, port congestion, capacity limitations, and the resulting shortages of – and excessive lead times for – inventory, parts, components, and other products.
- Labor scarcity at all levels of companies’ operations, but particularly in warehouse associate and material handler positions.
- Struggles with meeting the heightened demands of the e-commerce boom, including inventory proliferation, customer expectations for fast and free shipping, and intense competition.
- A lack of already installed automated solutions at companies who failed to embrace digital supply chain technologies more aggressively three to five years ago.
None of the four biggest supply chain challenges reported by visitors to our MODEX exhibit – and overheard throughout the show floor – surprised our team. As a system integrator focused on crafting customized material handling equipment designs that address our customers’ unique operational needs since 1982, we’ve been well aware of all of them. We’ve also been developing and delivering solutions that address each one.
Tackling Supply Chain Delays and Inventory Shortages
In terms of supply chain delays and the general challenge of not being able to get whatever is needed in a timely manner, we haven’t been immune ourselves. Lead times on components and materials have been steadily growing over the past 24 months, with increasing potential to delay our customers’ projects.
We’ve been creatively navigating our own supply chain issues with innovative measures that include strengthening relationships with our vendors and suppliers, streamlined design and engineering processes, and a collection of novel freight and logistics strategies. This combination of tactics has helped to significantly minimize disruptions in the execution of our customers’ projects.
Further, as a system integrator that has chosen to work with a broad variety of material handling system original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), DCS is able to source technologies and components from multiple suppliers. That allows us to not only recommend the optimal solution for our customers’ unique needs, but also to compare lead times prior to making a purchasing decision. Armed with that information, we can partner with the vendor whose forecasted deliveries will best keep a project on schedule.
Addressing Labor Scarcity in the Warehouse
With the huge shift to e-commerce, many retail distribution centers are now filling and shipping thousands of small, individual orders to unique consumers. To keep up with the demand, conventional, manual warehouses would love to increase their headcount. But for a variety of reasons – including an exceptionally low unemployment rate of 3.6% and widespread job growth in the field – warehouse and fulfillment associate attraction and retention has become an exercise in futility.
There are, however, solutions DCS recommends (all of which were on display at MODEX 2022) that can be deployed relatively quickly and affordably to help bolster the productivity of a current workforce. These include motor-driven roller (MDR) transport conveyor to move items throughout a facility while associates stay in assigned areas. This can dramatically cut the amount of time employees spend walking to transport items, pick products, or push carts.
Further, light-directed putwalls support the separation of batch or wave picked items into discrete orders by illuminating an individual position in a shelving system. This helps a single associate fill multiple orders faster and with greater accuracy. Finally, simple sortation systems – such as push-tray or bomb-bay styles – can accommodate a variety of product sizes, shapes, and weights while automatically sorting items into individual orders with minimal human intervention.
Meeting E-Commerce Struggles in the Middle (Mile)
Retailers battered by the exponential increase in the number of e-commerce parcels they must ship direct-to-consumer are looking for every advantage when it comes to meeting delivery service level agreements (SLAs). Because a delayed shipment can result in an unhappy customer, and competition is fierce, customer retention has become paramount.
While much attention has been paid to streamlining and accelerating last mile deliveries as part of an effective SLA strategy, certain retailers are also investing in solutions that increase their middle mile efficiency. In the middle mile, parcels are received from upstream partners then sorted directly for transportation to last mile carriers.
Historically, retailers have outsourced this task, typically to one of the major parcel carriers. To gain more control, however, retailers seeking to conquer the middle mile establish one (or more) designated sorting facilities outside of their network of distribution centers. These facilities are built specifically to maximize efficiency by sorting packages prior to routing to last mile carriers, thereby cutting overall delivery times.
Implementing DCS’ turnkey Semi-Automated Bulk Sort solution is ideal for achieving this middle mile strategy. It incorporates a bulk sorter outfitted with a series of pushers that impel batches of mixed outbound parcels onto a chute. Each chute feeds a manual sortation workstation where an associate manually sorts the items by destination and size.
At the workstations the sorted parcels are routed to one of several zones depending on their destination or characteristics. These can include a final zone for sorting small parcels sorted into different carrier gaylords, an accumulation lane that buffers outbound cartons, and a zone of carton sortation for manual routing to carrier-specific lanes. Modularly configurable, areas within the Semi-Automated Bulk Sort solution can be turned off and on to accommodate shifting order volumes while enabling fewer workers to manage variable throughput more efficiently.
Countering Delayed Automation Investment Remorse
Thinking back to just a few years ago an oft-repeated argument against implementing automated material handling technologies was that jobs would disappear. As it turned out, of course, now warehouses and distribution centers have more job openings than applicants to fill them. The result has been a reframed perception of automation – and considerably increased demand.
For companies that regret not investing in automation three to five years ago, all is not lost. Indeed, it was impossible to walk through the MODEX exhibit hall and not notice the overwhelming abundance of autonomous mobile robot (AMR) solutions roaming throughout different booths.
Operations that would benefit from goods-to-person picking and autonomous transport of loads can ease into automation by deploying flexible, scalable AMR technologies. These robots can be deployed in a fraction of the time and at significantly less cost than traditional, fixed automation – such as shuttles, cube-based storage, and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS).
The AMRs showcased at MODEX are outfitted with sensors, sophisticated navigation, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) technologies that allow them to adapt to their surroundings and safely interact with their human colleagues. A huge array of options and attachments allow base units to be customized to match individual application requirements. Their touchscreen interfaces are intuitive and easy to understand. And nearly every supplier offered leasing programs that enabled operations to add more robots to supplement their existing fleet as needed to accommodate shifting volumes.
Is your company facing any of these supply chain challenges? Let DCS help you tackle them with a custom solution engineered to meet your unique needs. Connect with us.
Megan Taylor, Marketing Specialist firstname.lastname@example.org
With two years of material handling experience, Megan Taylor serves as the Marketing Specialist for Designed Conveyor Systems and oversees the marketing strategy for both internal and external marketing initiatives. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her West Highland White Terrier, Murphy.