Innovation Monitor: Supply Chains: Smart Ports, Blockchain & Warehouse Robots

Innovation Monitor: Supply Chains: Smart Ports, Blockchain & Warehouse Robots

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Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.

As we approach the two year mark into the global pandemic, we’re taking a moment to consider how, amidst the incredible resiliency and ingenuity we saw around the world, this once in a century crisis demonstrated how some systems and networks are far less resilient.

This week, we consider the global supply chain — manufacturing, transportation and logistics — disruptions to which we still see today. On one hand, micro-logistics boomed during the pandemic’s lockdown, and small businesses began to adopt big-box store practices and automation tech to “better, faster, cheaper.” A lasting change of the pandemic is how shipping and warehouse logistics have incorporated machines and robots across the retail spectrum.

The global supply chain is an analogue world that relies on ports (the country’s two largest are Los Angeles and Long Beach), shipping containers, and massive boats that traverse oceans. Many anticipate that the global supply chain and production logjams will continue through the yearend, a peak season for purchases and consumption.

It’s a sector on the brink of explosive investment and innovation. In fact, according to research and advisory firm LogisticsIQ, the global warehouse automation market is projected to increase to USD ~30 billion by 2026 at a CAGR of 14%, from $15 billion in 2019. So this week, we’ll explore the tech powering warehouses and ports, and offering new forms of traceability through blockchain.

We close this edition of Innovation Monitor with a big thank you to Ranjan Roy, our longtime newsletter partner who has been a fantastic collaborator on this project. It’s been a fun journey looking out into the tech world and writing these each week with you. We wish you all the best ask you embark on your next adventure! Thank you for reading. As always, if you were forwarded this email, you can easily sign up here.

All best,
Erica Matsumoto Warehouse Automation While we won’t cover manufacturing tech in this edition, the world of production tech is evolving quickly. And upon producing a particular good, delivering the item from factory to consumer is a complicated network that is often geographically and economically vast.

Blockchain tech for traceability, drones for increased safety and monitoring, connected and automated storage containers, and data analytics tools to predict, forecast, and prevent port traffic are all in varying stages of implementation and scale around the world.

Let’s begin with warehouses.

Warehouses, the holder of inventories, are organized, sorted labyrinths that require, generally two types of tasks: the movement of items and boxes and specific placement of such items and boxes. Subsequently, the two categories of tasks in warehouses prime for ‘automation’ or machine assistance have led to actions that require legs, like moving boxes from the front to the back of the space, and tasks that require hands, like picking items up and placing them in the right place.

“If you look at a modern warehouse, people actually rarely move,” says Peter Chen, cofounder and CEO of Covariant. “Moving stuff between the fixed points — that’s a problem that mechatronics is really great for.”

Sorting

A company to note is AutoStore, that offer “Warehouse Robots at your service,” recently written up about in Bloomberg. Watch as wheeled robots and boxes of items glide across the gridded floor:

Let’s see more on the floor robots, sorting and storing items. Of the many companies, we are spotlighting Hai Robotics, which offers a suite of swiveling, sliding robots that have integrated into the apparel, household chemical, and electronics supply chain. The company’s autonomous, case-handling robotic (ACR) system recently raised $200M. Here’s a video of robotic efficiency:

The world of robotic picking arms is also rather fascinating, because automating the motions of hands requires more than just the right hardware. The technology must nimbly adapt to a wide variety of product shapes and sizes in ever-changing orientations.

Covariant, a company is developing AI that powers these moving machines, and is building the Covariant Brain, “a universal AI that allows robots to see, reason, and act on the world around them.” In Transit Smart Ports & Connected Containers While we won’t cover manufacturing tech in this edition, the world of production tech is evolving quickly, and upon producing a particular good, delivering the item from factory to consumer is a complicated network that is often geographically and economically vast. Blockchain tech for traceability, drones for increased safety and monitoring, connected and automated storage containers, and data analytics tools to predict, forecast, and prevent port traffic are all in varying stages of implementation and scale around the world.

The first side loading and parallel layout fully automated container terminal in the world was put into operation on Saturday after automation transformation in east China’s Shandong Province. Equipped with 22 overhead cranes, the port can deal with over 600 containers in a morning.

What does this automation mean for truck drivers and dockworkers? Here’s a video from Los Angeles, one of the world’s largest and most important ports.

How can automation and tech improve efficiency and support workers at ports? Just as tech can improve efficiency within warehouses, there are ample opportunities for similar types of human in the loop processes at ports.

Despite the importance of the U.S. market, U.S. ports have exhibited glaring shortcomings for many, many years. Not one cracked the top 50 in last year’s Container Port Performance Index, which compares efficiency at 351 sites around the world. For example, moving a container off of a large ship in L.A. takes twice as long as it does in Shanghai. And while Asian ports generally run 24/7 (or 168 hours a week), many in the U.S. run just 112 hours a week, with nights and weekends off. This is part of the goods shortage we’ve seen throughout the country. Traceability Finally, we’ll dive into Blockchain applications on tackling the tricky problem of traceability. In the fashion world, H&M Kering have launched pilot programs applying blockchain to its supply chain.

In the world of food, traceability opens up a whole new world. Imagine being able to trace the food on your plate from “farm to fork” with a scan of a QR code.

As this fascinating Harvard Business Review piece describes, the traceability and specificity to which the blockchain is applied to complex, multi-party transactions and movement of goods, the accuracy and automation it offers is novel and potentially transformative.

This Week in Innovation History

November 5th, 2007: The Android Operating System is launched

In November 2007, as Apple’s iPhone grew in popularity, there was a great deal of speculation on how Google would respond. On November 5th of that year, instead of launching a new phone, Andy Rubin announced on the Google Blog the launch of a mobile operating system in a post titled “Where’s my gPhone?” You can watch a video of the OS launch here, but for a bit more retro fun, here was a commercial released days before in conjunction with the Open Handset Alliance with a number of kids saying what they’d want in a phone:

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