Observations on Robotics from the MODEX 2024 Show in Atlanta

Guest blog by MHI member company Roboteon

Not that there was much doubt, but if there were any lingering concerns about the level of interest in automating logistics operations in distribution and manufacturing, the MODEX 2024 conference in mid-March in Atlanta put them firmly to rest.

The bi-annual trade show and conference saw blowout attendance and exhibitor numbers, with almost 49,000 registrants – an incredible number. That according to show producer MHI – once known as the Materials Handling Institute of America.

MODEX runs every even numbered year in Atlanta, while the older ProMat show – also from MHI – runs in odd years in Chicago.

This year’s MODEX show registration – which includes exhibitor staff – was up 32% from the most recent show in 2022. The number of exhibitors was also up sharply, numbering some 1200, another all-time record.

Simply put, for much of the show the aisles were packed, indicating the high level of interest in technology.

And that level of congestion in the aisles is really saying something, because this year MODEX added a third exhibit hall, up from the two halls that had been the norm since the first MODEX was held in 2012.

At the show, Roboteon spoke with more than 100 attendees at our large booth in hall C, and identified some interesting trends we think are worth sharing,

Let’s start with this: it is clear most companies are early in the process of evaluating and piloting robots in distribution and for logistics functions in manufacturing. So if that describes where your company is at right now,  you are hardly alone – though the sense of urgency is also clearly rising.

Second, many show attendees were looking for help in identifying what types of robots for what applications were right for their companies, and what would be the likely ROI. The key takeaway: education is key right now, even as interest soars, but more overall industry expertise is also needed.

Relatedly, it is clear there is huge pent up demand for materials handling robotics in both manufacturing and distribution, as companies wrestle with use case selection, integration,  and ROI, with pilot programs often taking too long to show the value, for a variety of reasons.

One of these is a lack of software support capable of accelerating the integration of robots with Warehouse Management, ERP, Manufacturing Execution, and other systems. Also helpful: software with pre-built applications for robot-enabled order picking and other processes, highly configurable workflows, and other capabilities to support fulfillment execution using robots. Or more accurately, robots and humans, working together as one.

Indeed, understanding of the role of software in robot success varied significantly across attendees we spoke with. Some were focused on basic integration between a robot system and their Warehouse Management or ERP software for a specific application, such as collaborative picking, as just one example.

Others were looking at the bigger picture and understood the value of using a software platform not only to handle the core integration, but also enable advanced execution functionality, and to easily add robots of different types and/or from different vendors over time, rather than being locked into a particular robot vendor’s software.

Case in point: We spoke with an IT director for a major high tech company, who told us he was supporting nine different point-to-point robot integrations, which was a real issue for the company, and greatly limited on-going flexibility.

The good news: there are a few software platforms available right now to address these and other challenges and opportunities. Gartner uses the term “Multi-agent Orchestration Platforms” to categorize this newer type of software, driven by robotics. We don’t know if that term itself will stick, but the capabilities it includes most certainly will.

It’s an exciting time for distribution and manufacturing managers, with all these automation choices to consider. Demand for such automation is clearly strong, but the process is often taking longer than it should. Other companies are not looking at the pig picture in terms of adding other robots and orchestrating flows across heterogeneous automation environments.

An overarching robotic software platform may be just the ticket for accelerating proof of concept trials, actual deployments, and time-to-value, while maximizing system throughput and cost reduction achievable with robotics


Author: Dan Gilmore, Chief Marketing Officer, Roboteon