Meanwhile, new federal regulations related to food security along with consumers’ changing demands are doing their part to drive changes and heighten interest in automation.
“Traceability is a significant external driver,” remarks Pete Hartman, president of Retrotech. He points to last year’s listeria outbreak in cantaloupes as a recent example of the visibility gaps that exist in the supply chain, and which the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) attempt to address. “[Officials] knew it was the melons, but they couldn’t find out where they came from.”
A new breed of automation tools
Fortunately, the automation tools being introduced today are better than ever at addressing the challenges brought about by the proliferation of SKUs, longer and more complex supply chains, and traceability requirements, says Hartman.
“The automation market is maturing,” he says, much like the computer industry has over the past few decades. “There was a time when the computer industry was very fragmented,” recalls Hartman. The consumer was very focused on a particular manufacturer and its hardware technology, whether it was IBM, DEC, or Compaq, for instance. “But, if you go into someone’s office today and ask him what kind of computer he has, he may not even know. What he does know, however, is the functionality and capabilities that he enjoys by having a computer and software on his desk. And, that’s similar to what’s happening in the material handling and automation business.”
In other words, “People are becoming more focused on the application driven issues as opposed to the specific equipment or technology,” explains Hartman. “There’s a growth in what we call the ‘systems engineering’ aspect of developing these capabilities within an organization that is much less dependent on hardware. Just like in the computer industry, there is a wide range of providers with very good, very stable, very workable technology.”
Hartman is quick to note, however, that, “Most technologies are just an enabler. Unless the linkage has been made between the technology and the business problem to be solved, you don’t achieve success.”
In fact, one of the biggest challenges for potential buyers “is to understand—and to move past—the glitz of the equipment and be sure that the business problem is being properly addressed,” Hartman emphasizes.
The good news is that more sophisticated modeling and simulation tools are being developed to accurately identify those business problems so that the right automation systems can be implemented, says Hartman.
“We now have simulation tools that actually replicate the physics of a given situation. For example, if something goes wrong and a box falls on the floor, the simulation tools depict that box on the floor, its movement, and the result. We have the ability to see what’s happening in the systems with an incredible degree of accuracy, which in turn gives us greater certainty around the solution to the problem, before we commit to spending big bucks on the equipment.”
For Retrotech, their role is to provide customers with in-depth knowledge to make an informed decision.
“We are not an equipment manufacturer,” says Hartman. “Our value proposition to our customers is that we’ll do the front-end work,” which entails a comprehensive analysis that’s conducted before the equipment is purchased. Then, “Once a decision is made by the customer to proceed with an implementation, we’ll get the equipment from the manufacturer(s), Daifuku or Swisslog, for example. We then incorporate that equipment into the overall system that has been conceived.”
Indeed, Retrotech used three different equipment manufacturers for one system they designed for Cargill. “So, it’s not vendor specific, whereby one vendor can do this and the other can’t, the equipment is largely interchangeable,” explains Hartman. “What isn’t interchangeable is the design of the equipment and its alignment with solving the business process at hand.”