Reflections on MODEX 2024

If MODEX 2024 is any indication, supply chain leaders are more intent than ever to understand the innovations that can boost their competitive advantage, even as supply chain and materials handling demands evolve. A record number of professionals – 48,733 attendees and 1,200+ exhibitors – gathered in Atlanta March 11 – 14 to explore every facet of our complex, fast-paced industry.

“Robotic piece-picking has evolved from proof-of-concept to a proven solution that delivers strong ROI.”
Jake Heldenberg
Head of Solution Design
“There are unique factors to consider when determining whether to deploy AS/RS or AMRs.”
Andy Lockhart
Director of Strategic Engagement

This year, we had the privilege of learning about attendees’ unique automation needs and exploring the questions that are crucial to design market-leading systems in several locations:

More importantly, MODEX 2024 was an opportunity to ask questions. At Vanderlande, we believe our ability to create the market-leading innovations and automated systems the world’s most successful brands rely on begins with our ability to listen, wonder, explore and learn – actions at the core of our motto “warehousing answered.”

This year’s event presented an opportunity to explore firsthand what our colleagues are considering in their automation journeys. And while it is clear from those inquisitive conversations that organizations are at very different points in their automation journeys, the overall adoption of automation is increasing. This includes those who are just considering automation with the modernization of their sorting and conveyor systems – solutions Vanderlande offers as well – to operations that are deploying the latest, proven robotic picking systems, AS/RS and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in production environments.

Like so many attendees, we also encountered several recurring themes and events at the conference. For instance, there was much discussion around unique factors that warehouse and distribution center leaders should consider when determining whether to deploy AS/RS or AMRs. We heard this both on the show floor and from those who attended the MHI AS/RS Industry Group session “How AS/RS Differ from AMR Solutions and Where They Can Collaborate,” where Vanderlande presented along with Director of Sales at Cimcorp Automation Derek Richard and Chief Revenue Officer at Hai Robotics Brian Reihart.

Vanderlande’s “Piece Talk: How Robotics and Warehouse Automation Enable Your Customer Promise,” in the RightHand Robotics booth examined how robotic piece-picking has evolved from proof-of-concept to a proven solution that delivers strong ROI while enabling warehouses to overcome a host of commonly encountered challenges.

Transformative developments and trends

Those conversations and ones we had on the show floor brought to light a number of transformative developments and trends we see shaping the adoption and refinement of automation, as well as the organizations they support.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the hottest term in supply chains today, but how AI is defined varies greatly

According to the 2024 MHI Annual Industry Report unveiled at MODEX 2024, some 85% of supply chain leaders believe they will have adopted AI in their operations within the next five years, with 27% already using it today. But in an era where virtually every new technology touts AI capabilities, one question must be asked, “how exactly do we define AI?” At MODEX we encountered numerous definitions, but for our purposes we define AI as technology that learns and improves as it gains experience doing various tasks – with functions like robotic picking in which robots learned how to pick various SKUs being one example.

Robotic operations, including picking, are now proven – but organizations face questions

From attendees at MODEX 2024, it is clear that the use case for robotics is now widely known, with solutions like the one we offer through our RightHand Robotics partnership effectively delivering the throughput and order accuracy that high-volume facilities demand. Simultaneously the use of AMRs and AS/RS systems is now mainstream. Organizations no longer face questions about the validity of the technologies, but instead what roadmap and deployment plan best aligns with their current needs and future requirements. This is particularly clear in the decision-making process that must occur when determining whether to deploy AMRs or AS/RS systems.

Significant innovation is occurring at the software layer

While this year’s event included its share of eye-catching innovations, much of the most ground-breaking developments in supply chains today are taking place not in the form factor of the devices and machines being unveiled and perfected, but in the software used to operate them. This is particularly true in robotic pickers that benefit from enhanced vision software that enables them to pick a much wider array of SKUs with ease. The challenge associated with innovation at the software layer is that it is not readily visible. For this reason, materials handling operations should consider the hallmarks of robust software when determining which systems and innovations to invest in. These include the user experience and ease of use, security, integration capabilities, and of course support and service.

Warehouses and distribution centers still face the same challenges

One thing that has not changed is that attendees by and large still face the same challenges we saw at ProMat 2023 and at MODEX 2022. These include the demand for faster delivery times and throughput, increased volume – the latest Census Bureau report shows that e-commerce sales increased 7% in Q4 2023 versus the same period last year – and the difficulty not only of attracting labor, but retaining it. Automation continues to be the answer to these challenges.

MODEX 2024 did not disappoint. And perhaps most importantly, it underscored what we are seeing more broadly: There is an optimism and excitement among the leaders of supply chains and materials handling operations today, and growing confidence that our industry has returned to a more normal and balanced state following the upheaval of recent years.

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