Last week's MODEX 2022 trade show featured numerous demonstrations of materials handling technology, a return to face-to-face events with more than 37,000 attendees, and a growing number of robotics exhibitors. While global supply chain challenges, labor shortages, and pandemic-accelerated e-commerce have all increased adoption of supply chain automation, what can suppliers, integrators, and, most importantly, operators expect? What should end users demand?
Robotics 24/7 has already shared numerous announcements around MODEX and initial robotics trends and observations. Here are more from some exhibitors, speakers, and attendees from the Atlanta event. We spoke with the following industry experts:
- Gerard Andrews, senior product marketing manager, robotics, at NVIDIA Corp.
- Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3)
- Kelly Kamlager, senior director of marketing at RIOS Intelligent Machines Inc.
- Aaron Prather, senior technical advisor at FedEx Express
- A.K. Schultz, co-founder and CEO of SVT Robotics Inc.
- Matt Wade, head of marketing, BlueBotics SA
What was the most interesting robotics offering you saw at MODEX 2022?
Andrews: We have a saying that “Everything that moves will be autonomous.” So for me, it was really interesting to witness this vision taking hold with the levels of autonomy displayed in robots that do mobile manipulation.
From impressive autonomous forklifts to the Boston Dynamics' Stretch, it is amazing to see that these robots are now deployed in production. It is obvious that mobile manipulation presents a very hard set of problems to solve.
But with all of the advancements in GPU-enabled edge AI and computing, vendors are coming up with some truly innovative and safe new robots.
Kamlager: Ours, of course! The full-stack technology approach RIOS offers enables customers to go to a single provider for AI-powered robotics with robots-as-a-service [RaaS].
It seems like AGV [automated guided vehicle] providers have figured out a way to scale successfully in this market. From every dimension, they have figured it out.
Prather: Besides Boston Dynamics finally showing off Stretch, I think that Locus, Vecna, and Plus One were big winners. All three of them showed solutions that are ready—or soon will be—to go.
Locus showed the diversity of its fleet after its acquisition of Waypoint. Vecna showed its expansion into pallet handling. Plus One showed depalletizing and integration into other vendors like Tompkins and Locus.
Schultz: To see so many people engaged and so many tech companies connecting in one venue, especially after everything we've gone through with COVID and supply chain disruptions, it was quite remarkable.
The OPEX Infinity solution was impressive. No surprise—OPEX traditionally has a high standard for its technology. With Infinity, the company has done a great job of solving high-density racking while maintaining tremendous throughput.
Berkshire Grey's Spectrum Gripper, a picking arm with a single suction end, is solving for enormous assortment and size of materials. This flexibility will enable warehouses to lower operational costs.
Wade: It was interesting to see more automated vehicle suppliers showing examples of fleet operation and interoperability—two themes that end users are demanding more and more.
For instance, you had Jungheinrich with an automated forklift and tow tractor tugger working together, OTTO Motors with a unit-load AGV running alongside its new forked AGV, and Bastian Solutions really impressing us with its AutoStore, mobile robot, and conveyor setup.
And on our own stand, our multi-brand fleet demo also drove lots of visitor questions.
Were there any new trends that you observed this year?
Andrews: I think that there is a recognition that a modern automated warehouse environment is likely to contain different robots from different manufacturers to execute different tasks. And I was able to get a sense of that by observing the numerous multi-vendor demos that were scattered around the show. I would expect that the trend of forming partnerships to deliver more complete solutions will accelerate.
This is an exciting development for NVIDIA, as we are already enabling companies to build digital twins of their facilities and to simulate the performance and operation of their heterogeneous fleets of robots. Our tool, NVIDIA Omniverse, allows the facility owners to optimize warehouse operations before deploying their robots in the real world.
Burnstein: There's a lot more automation than ever before—robotics, autonomous forklifts, smart sensors, mobile robots, etc.
Kamlager: This year's trends included the proliferation of AGVs, demand for mixed palletizing and parcel sortation, and more partnerships between large systems integrators and AI-powered robotics startups.
We also saw that palletizing is becoming widespread, and an increasing number of customers are seeking solutions for high-mix, low-volume, and rapid change of SKUs.
Many startups continue to pursue the holy grail of pick and place/pack of the broadest number of SKUs. Customers are still dissatisfied with the technological limitations for pick-and-pack applications, particularly in e-commerce.
Prather: MODEX definitely killed the “Trade shows are dead” crowd. The size of the crowds are not there yet, but the people attending them are buying.
Talking to most vendors, they really liked the higher number of buyers versus a high number of attendees.
However, I think this caught some vendors flat-footed. There were a lot of vendors that had a booth to just have a booth. They were not showing anything new really, but at least they were there. With people buying, I would rather have a booth than not have one when my competitors are there.
Schultz: What I witnessed for trends was more holistic. Five years ago, you could count the number of automation and robotics companies on two hands. This year, I saw hundreds of companies, and the majority were production-ready.
I often hear “Robotics are coming.” I think it's fair to say, “Robotics are here.”
Some of the explosion in this industry is likely due to the commitment of the venture capital community to invest in these technologies. But I also think that underlying technology—computing technology, AI, etc.—have converged to make it easier to build something that really works well. These technologies were bleeding-edge but are now more commonly accessible.
Wade: Since the market demand for automation is growing strongly—due to hiring challenges, the need to improve resilience, and so on—there seemed to be more AGV and AMR suppliers than ever before at MODEX 2022. We saw several companies from Asia making what we think was their first appearance.
What would you like to see more of at this show or others?
Andrews: I really enjoyed attending a show where the attendees were so laser-focused on exploring solutions for their real business challenges. So if I could change one thing, I would have liked more networking opportunities off the show floor to connect with these business leaders.
Burnstein: I'd like to see more machine vision, AI, and a broader range of robotic applications for every industry. That's what we plan to showcase at Automate 2022, along with new applications for small, midsize, and large companies in warehousing and distribution, automotive, electronics, aerospace, metalworking, consumer goods, and more.
Kamlager: More relatable automation solutions and lots of customers.
Prather: I would like to see some layout to the show that makes sense. The robot arm vendors were scattered around the show. There was some concentration of mobile robots in one hall, but they were also a bit scattered.
At Automate, there was a whole aisle of just arm vendors, and other companies were placed next to others in their space. Vendors may not like being right next to their competitors, but for a buyer, it makes my life so much easier.
Schultz: How about SVT Robotics in every booth! Kidding aside—because our goal is connectivity, we'd really like to see more companies take advantage of our platform to solve for integration.
Before we started SVT Robotics, the problem wasn't the tech—it was that companies couldn't implement tech in a reasonable time span or financial cost required to justify the investment. This integration problem has stymied the entire industry. It would be great to see SVT Robotics continue to be part of the ongoing solution.
Wade: We would find more closely-themed networking opportunities helpful, as at such a busy show, it can be challenging to get interested parties together. Plus, our team agreed, the more free foot massages, the better!