Many feel that the success of ProMat, the largest show of its kind, reflects the “global pulse” of the world’s economy and in particular, materials handling.  If the atmosphere and attendance at the show is an indicator, the global mood is positive and upbeat.
The 300,000 plus square feet of McCormick Place seemed packed from open to close with over 34,000 registered attendees from over 125 countries. A look at participants reveals companies that are poised to grow.  Over 85% of the attendees had buying authority and over 30% intimated plans to spend over 1 million dollars within the next 18 months. This leads to the first big take away: you need to get prepared!

Statistics gathered from ProMat and improving economic conditions around the world point to growth. Steve Forbes, who gave a passionate keynote address, reverberated these sentiments directly by declaring, “In the next generation, the United States will be indisputably the top manufacturer in the world.” That is a pretty powerful comment from a very powerful businessman. He asserted that growth would be brought on by the United States’ technology and brainpower, two things that have always allowed the U.S. to excel and dominate world industry. Forbes goes on to say that as a country, we must look beyond formal education and economic growth to fuel a “creative society.” The ability to solve complex problems and develop high-tech tools will drive innovation, jobs growth, and the ability to sustain the next great economic leap for our country and the rest of the world. This leads to the second take away: technology is going to drive great advancements in materials handling.

This was illustrated by the winner of the first-ever product innovation contest held at ProMat. The winner of the “Best New Product” was awarded to PackSize Limited for their iQ Fusion. The iQ Fusion forms a piece of cardboard into a custom-sized, easy-open, no-filler required box, then automatically packages the item-to-be-shipped into the box, complete with necessary labels. The theme of technological innovation was echoed by Edie Weiner, president of consulting group Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc. She supported Forbes’ sentiment about technology and innovation driving economic growth and employment, particularly in the materials handling industry, and she added that in order to succeed, we must abandon our pre-conceived notions about materials handling. Confirming what Forbes said about developing a creative society, Weiner stated,  “Our thinking is stuck in yesterday, and why we have to break away from that and see the world for where it’s really going, not from where we think it is. Because the way we see the future is really colored by everything that we’ve ever learned, so it’s important to start fresh and new.” Robotics and automation will lead the growth, but we must break out of our shells, foster creative attitudes and try new things in order to progress. This automation trend will lead way to our final big take away: automation will lead to jobs returning to the United States!

Henrik I. Christensen, Kuka Chair of Robotics & Director of Robotics at Georgia Tech, tackled the subject in his January 21 keynote address. Christensen noted that Apple and many other companies are “re-shoring some of their manufacturing operations because advances in automation and robotics are making it possible.”  He countered a recent “60 Minutes” report suggesting that automation is deteriorating jobs in America by pointing out that automation and robotics have improved productivity by as much as 20%. This, coupled with rising labor costs in Asia, is leading to re-shoring of jobs here in the U.S. Further, for every manufacturing job brought back to the United States, 1.3 related jobs are created. Christensen recognized that an adoption curve exists. Integrating automation into current infrastructure and retrofitting are two of the major hurdles to overcome.  However, there is little doubt that if we continue to pursue automation and robotics innovation, it will lead to the repatriation of American jobs and improve our economic outlook.

While there were hundreds of booths and a tremendous amount of available information to digest over the few days ProMat was in session, these three “big ideas” struck us as guiding principles that will fuel growth in our industry, the supply chain and our nation’s economy.