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Manifest 2023: An Outsider’s Perspective

Coming to Manifest, the annual Las Vegas trade show that assembles leaders, innovators and investors within the logistics and supply chain space, as someone with a tertiary interest is a bit intimidating. Walking into the Caesars Forum this past week one was immediately overwhelmed by massive electric autonomous trucks, AI powered robots and a plethora of software intended to reimagine supply chains.

But after three days of listening to industry execs, I left with a better understanding of the pain points and the possibilities that exist—and how those packages from Amazon arrive so quickly.

Creating a symbiotic relationship: robotics and people

Robotics and automation were center stage in conversation and on the expo floor. Speakers presented the power and possibilities technology is capable of to both improve the supply chain and worker well-being. While the looming question remains; how many jobs will be replaced by robots, a more uplifting theme circulated about how AI could reimagine roles and allow for jobs that once were physical, demanding and plagued with injury to be shifted to more creative and strategic functions. 

David Guggina, EVP, supply chain at Walmart, talked about how an employee in one of the retailer’s warehouses who previously built and moved pallets now has a state-of-the-art robot taking on the heavy lifting, and instead uses her days to reevaluate space usage to maximize capacity and improve the flow of goods through the facility. 

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Patrick Kelleher, global chief development officer, DHL Supply Chain, presented DHL and Boston Dynamics’s co-designed robot, Stretch, now being utilized in a select group of the supply chain giant’s warehouses. Stretch, equipped with suction cup-covered arms, is capable of picking up and moving 50-pound boxes from trucks to warehouses. Stretch will help warehouses operate more efficiently without forcing humans out of their jobs. Instead, DHL claims, people will work alongside robots, taking on value-added jobs such as fixing them when necessary. 

Data: key to a better supply chain

Data was also a central theme. Agnostic to industry, organizations that have found ways to integrate various operating systems and build smarter “tech stacks” are primed to outperform their competitors. Being able to quickly consolidate information—whether it be related to monitoring shipments from factories or understanding delivery to the end consumer—is all part of the future of a more effective supply chain.

Knowing how to mine, consolidate and leverage data is central to allowing companies to better plan and and prepare for unforeseen obstacles like weather disruptions or pandemics. Ramona Hood, CEO and president of FedEx Custom Critical, discussed the power of data from all points of the product journey.

Consolidated information is what allows her team to understand larger trends and then forecast accurately for the future. In this “full loop” of information and data, FedEx is able to provide better and faster resolutions for clients—critical when it comes to moving lifesaving products such as PPE and medical devices.

Sustainability talk: the conversation persists

When it came to sustainability—another buzzword that seems as common these days in retail rhetoric as “omnichannel,” the ongoing debate persisted as far as how much could be done through innovation to become a more sustainable industry. Tanja Dysli, chief supply chain officer, U.S. at IKEA discussed rebuilding stores to support fulfillment and returns in an effort to achieve a goal of becoming climate positive and end-to-end circular by 2030. Brands and service providers debated what circularity meant for their respective organizations and how realistic it is to create a profitable business while being net-neutral, or even net-positive to the environment.

VCs invest: putting money behind innovation

When it came to innovation and VC investment, there was quite a bit of chatter about the growth of the sector and the money flooding in. Depending on the source, it seems like the influx of VC capital coming into supply chain technology is cooling off, but it certainly did not feel that way at Manifest. Craig Fuller, CEO and founder of FreightWaves, said that the pandemic created an opportunity for supply chain tech and that was on full display with more than 1,000 startups and investors walking the show floor.

Venture capitalists were focused on connecting with dynamic companies promising to innovate everything from warehouse fulfillment centers to technology that guaranteed real-time supply chain visibility. The takeaway from the VC community to startups? Ensure that pitches and products speak directly to how they’ll benefit the bottom line. Charles Griffith, chief technology officer at Quiet Platforms (a wholly-owned subsidiary of American Eagle Outfitters) emphasized that in today’s volatile economic environment, leadership is doing everything to avoid risk, and that includes companies being overly cautious and strategic in the investments they are making.

The customer: aka me

When it came to the end customer (and me selfishly thinking about my Amazon deliveries), experience and cost are still paramount. While claims were made regarding customer willingness to wait for packages if it meant more sustainable delivery methods, or their willingness to pay more for more sustainable packaging, the reality remains that the consumer wants the best product, at the best price, and wants it as soon as humanly (or robotically) possible.