Real Genius: The Machines Are Getting Smarter

The machines that move material and product along supply chains are getting smarter—increasing efficiency, eliminating monotony and collecting mountains of useful data.

By Amy Drew Thompson

The Internet of Things (IoT) may sound a bit like just another industry buzz word, but it’s not. Nor is it above your tech-knowledge pay grade. Not really, anyway.

The phrase was actually coined back in 1999 by British tech pioneer Kevin Ashton, and it’s something you may already be using in your home. Smart HVAC, smart locks, smart security systems, even smart pet feeders—all of which connect to the Internet, to your phone via apps, to each other—are prime examples.

IoT is the catch-all phrase for the interconnection of all these different devices, enabling them to send and receive data to one another—and ultimately the end-user. And it has been transforming the way companies do business ever since Ashton, while working for Procter & Gamble, noticed that one particular shade of P&G-made lipstick was always out of stock at his local drug store.

Not long after, RFID technology proliferated in the consumer chain, speaking to retailers and suppliers and helping to ensure every shade made it from the factory to the warehouse to the stockroom to the shelves.

It set the stage for data collection on a grand scale, hand-in-hand with smart machines that take the most tedious aspects of material handling and supply chain work and hand it off to a benevolent robotic army.

MHI member Fetch Robotics’ Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), en masse, are just that sort of regiment, though the company’s CEO, Melonee Wise, might emphasize “benevolence” over “army.”

“I think there’s worry at any job site where new technology is brought in, and to some degree Hollywood has demonized robots to the point that some people are specifically concerned about their arrival,” she says.

But once Fetch’s fleet is deployed, she notes, any lingering fears about robots taking jobs evaporate.

“The reality is that our robots take over one task from workers…. Automation has always focused on eliminating the routine, boring or unsafe tasks from every profession. The individuals working alongside our robots quickly find not only that there’s nothing to fear, but there’s a great deal to be gained.”

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