Sean Wallingford is president and CEO of Swisslog Americas, where he is responsible for growth opportunities and extending the company’s market position in the region. Wallingford was previously the president of warehouse solutions at Vanderlande Industries for North America. He also spent nearly 10 years at Honeywell Intelligrated, serving in different roles, including vice president of software product management.
Q: How would you describe the current state of the material handling market?
A: Supply chain disruptions, changing consumer behaviors, and labor continue to present challenges, although not to the extent of the last couple of years. In addition, the supply chain is changing, with increasing volumes for last-mile delivery and faster order fulfillment times creating the need to fully reshape fulfillment strategies to confront those changes. This is especially evident in the e-grocery segment, where there is an immediate need to meet growing consumer expectations for quick, easy access to groceries and food items.
This is why there’s an increased demand for space-efficient, easy-to-operate, and scalable automation technologies and solutions. Companies are exploring automation solutions and seek to harness digital technology and data to increase supply chain visibility, thereby improving the customer experience and business performance. They are using both historical and real-time (or near real-time) data to proactively anticipate changes in demand and using automation to respond.
Q: You were just named president and CEO at Swisslog Americas. What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure?
A: First, I want to ensure Swisslog continues to support our customers with the advanced automation solutions and software they need, while also setting us on a path of strong and sustainable growth. Key to this is bringing renewed focus and fresh insight on capturing additional growth opportunities in the Americas and further extending the company’s market position in the region.
We see the most potential for this growth and customer value in three main areas, which we will continue strengthen. First is our integrated solutions, including robot-based applications like our ACPaQ mixed-case palletizer. Second is standardized AS/RS applications, including our CarryPick order picking solution and AutoStore. Third is intelligent software, such as our SynQ management software. Across all of our solutions, SynQ is a key differentiator for Swisslog in the market.
Q: How has the adoption of autonomous mobile robots and articulated-arm robots changed distribution operations?
A: As companies continue to deal with labor shortages, automated warehouse solutions have provided a means for many of them to maintain productivity and efficiency levels while dealing with a reduced labor force. A number of companies are also using automation technology as a way to attract potential employees who are looking for opportunities to work with technology and want to be a part of a modern, enhanced work experience.
Automated robotic solutions support market growth and provide greater control and visibility of the supply chain. In addition, automated solutions lower operational costs and increase the speed and efficiency of distribution networks. Artificial intelligence (AI) is also making the warehouse of the future more dynamic, more agile, and more responsive. For instance, AI enables robotics to self-learn from experience, which means that robotic picking ability improves over time with enhanced picking strategies for new products.
Q: Swisslog unveiled its ACPaQ robotic system at the ProMat show in March. This technology is new to North America. What advantages does it offer?
A: Creating customized mixed pallets for individual stores from single-SKU (stock-keeping unit) pallets is one of the most important and challenging areas of successful retail warehouse operations. Swisslog’s ACPaQ automated mixed-case palletizer meets the growing demands of this application, fulfilling the task in an efficient and economical manner.
It is a scalable, robotic, and data-driven palletizing solution for fully automated order picking of mixed-case pallets that can deliver increased throughput up to 1,000 units per hour—two to three times more than traditional solutions. It is designed to grow as a company’s business grows, configurable using modules, and scalable for mid-sized and large distribution centers shipping up to 500,000 cases per day.
Q: Much of your background is in software strategy and product management. In your view, what software advancements will have the biggest impact on the industry?
A: One of the advancements is the growth of connected and intelligent systems. As solutions become more standardized, it becomes easier to leverage data (e.g., edge data, sensor data, product data, operational data) to make more insightful and effective operational decisions. This standardization is especially important for AI-enabled solutions. Maturity in solution design and software platforms will enable companies to leverage these technologies as well as information that has traditionally been more widely used outside of our industry.
Another advancement is the productization of software platforms from integrators like Swisslog. This will bring a level of standardization to software that will be more beneficial than customized software, especially in the long term. This will include increased flexibility and configurability, as well as a framework for continued evolution.
Q: Many suppliers and their customers have had difficulty getting parts for their automated systems over the past two years. Are you seeing this constraint beginning to ease?A: Yes, we are starting to see some relief. However, it is currently not occurring consistently across the industry or across all suppliers. There are still commodity disruptions and other macro disruptions that are creating challenges for suppliers and their customers. It’s important to remember that we are in the midst of a massive shift in supply chains that has been partly driven by the supply chain disruptions of the last couple of years. A number of companies are re-evaluating their supply chain networks, with some even taking steps to nearshore and/or reshore certain operations. These types of activities will further impact the flow of supplies and products in the short term.