The Manufacturing Executive
The Manufacturing Executive

Episode · 5 months ago

Get Started w/ Data Collection & Robotics Today w/ Aaron Prather


Data collection, automation, robotics — these are things reserved for the budgets of the biggest companies out there, right?

Wrong. Anyone can do it with one simple trick:

Just get started.

That’s the simple advice shared by our latest guest, Aaron Prather, R&D Evangelist for FedEx Express, who is deeply passionate about both topics — and if you don’t believe me, just check out his LinkedIn.

In this episode, we discuss:

- The benefits of data collection, automation and robotics for your business

- Why you don’t need to fear robots stealing your jobs

- Why success in either involves getting started and employee input

To ensure that you never miss an episode of The Manufacturing Executive, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or here.

There's so many use cases. I'veseen in so many facilities. It's like you don't need to bug that thinginto a bigger system. It can be self sufficient on its own. Justget started. Welcome to the manufacturing executive podcast, where we explore the strategiesand experiences that are driving midsize manufacturers forward. Here you'll discover new insights from passionatemanufacturing leaders who have compelling stories to share about their successes and struggles,and you'll learn from B tob sales and marketing experts about how to apply actionablebusiness development strategies inside your business. Let's get into the show. Welcome toanother episode of the Manufacturing Executive podcast. I'm Joe Sullivan, your host,a Co founder of the Industrial Marketing Agency Gorilla. Seventy six, two thousandand twenty and two thousand and twenty one have obviously brought a wide variety ofchallenges about for manufacturers, and near the top of that list is the supplychain disruption. Looking back over the last year and a half, very fewmanufacturing leaders could probably look at you with a straight face and say supply chainissues didn't really affect our business. I guess today is a leader in thelogistics world that has seen technology, from robotics to smart data change the manufacturingsapply chain at a faster pace than ever before, and it's this technology thatcan help us prepare for and better navigate future logistics challenges and supply chain disruptions. So let me introduce him. With over twenty five years at Fedex,Aaron prayther has developed and deployed numerous technology applications across the Fedex enterprise, fromhub operations in Memphis, Indianapolis and Oakland to courier operations around the world.He has worked in every corner of Fedex's Day to day operations. In hiscurrent role as senior advisor technology planning and research, Aaron leads efforts to findand deploy new technologies into Fedex operations, including robotics and automation. Outside ofFEDEX AREON participates in developing robot standards at the Uria and ul through the FedexInstitute of Technology at the University of Memphis, he works with universities and colleges inthe development of educational programs for the next generation of technologists in logistics.Aaron received an MBA from Christian brothers university and holds a Bas from the Universityof Memphis in geographic information science and cartography. Aaron, welcome to the show.Thanks, Ran Joe. Let's just dive right in here are and youare somebody who has worked inside of Fedex for over twenty five years, andso if anyone I've talked to on the show knows logistics and supply chain,is probably going to be you. Obviously, the last year and a half hasbeen a complete mass on the supply chain front in a lot of ways, and I'd love for you to start things out here by just talking abouthow and why the manufacturing supply chain became such a mess when the pandemic setin. Great question, Joe. Yeah, and we actually had, we've hada front row here on my side of the fence of actually seeing thisall play out. And yet the pandemic very much wrecked global supply chains asvirus spread and shut down facilities across the globe very much start hampering what we'vebeen building for numerous decades of the Justin time model of getting your parts madeand shipped and to the final assembly plants. Done that whole. So they justfound it little peace sort of crumbled under the virus and shut downs aroundthe world. So it is still an ongoing challenge. It is interesting tosee how supply chains have evolved so quickly. As factories do come back online,they are trying to catch up,...

...but it's creating some new opportunities outthere and we're actually seeing like restoring efforts here in the United States and we'resome factories are bringing certain parts back home to be made. We're seeing thatin the chip industry and for us at Fedex, I mean we're here tosupport those efforts. Our network has been built to be as global as youneeded to be or as local as you needed to be, and so weare working with our customers every day to make sure of Becaus a change theirsupply chains and get them back up and running. We're right there with themhelping them every way we can. Awesome. When you and I talked a fewweeks ago, you quoted Fred Smith, the founder of fed x, andthe quote was the data around the package is becoming as valuable as thepackage itself. I thought that was really interesting and was wondering if you gotunpack that a little bit for us. Yeah, I mean going back tohow supply chains evolved and then took this great pool will shock to themselves.The more data you have around your supply chain and how things are flowing throughit is really critical and it really proved itself out during the pandemic that ifyou had a robust digitalization of your supply chain already placed, you were ableto sort of ebb and flow a lot easier than your competition that might nothave done that work free pandemic. And so yes, our customers are demandinga lot more information about their packages and and it is going beyond the Barcode. We're very much getting into technologies now where it's just not your courier scanningyour package into the network and back out of the network that they deliver it, but it's tracking how's it moving through the network? Is it moving safelythrough the network, based off of certain parameters that you might have set,something like for our vaccine shipments, you got to make sure that those shipmentsare staying cool as they travel through the network. So having sensorwar technology onthere, but then also just I together all these various data feedes where youcan see your items manufactured at the plant, how they move on to the nextstep how all that tracking is taking place, probably internal to your ownfacilities, and then handing that off to a shipper like a Fedex to moveit on to its next destination and US providing data back to you so youhave trackability of all of your goods as they move internally within your network andeven externally through other channels, like myself here for X. Yeah, that'sthat's really interesting. We've mentioned an example to me when we talked recently aboutyou kind of reference that Crazy Dallas North Texas winner storm that we had Februarythis year, two thousand and twenty one, and how the data component allowed fedx and on behalf of all the business customers they have, to beable to navigate this mass and for the sake of some contacts and wonder ifyou could maybe talk through some of the some of what went on there andhow how the data actually helped get companies through that. Yeah, I meanwhen you have a major storm like with the US experience this winner and Texas, I mean that storm shut down the Texas Power Grid. I mean weare talking super powerful storm and so not only are you losing pretty much awhole major state in the middle of the country that packages are transversing. Butsome of that weather actually came up into our area of your Memphis. Wememphisis all record of ounce of snow. That's a challenge for southern states dealwith that much snow, and so it did slow down one of our majorfacilities. But the whole thing is is because we had all this data andwe can see where packages were originating from and where they're going, we wereable to create reroutes around those networks. We were able to use our Indianapolishub to do more of those trans cons across the country from east coast ofWest Coast, west coast the east coast. It also allowed us to use ourtrucking network more wisely, realizing that maybe moving through the state of Texasand not a wise motion at this time...

...of okay, how do we movethat through? It are what are they always alternate routes? What other conveyancesare available to us? It's a lot of folks don't realize that, eventhough you will see trucks and planes operating and they might not be logoed asPHL or ups or Amazon or Fedex, that's not to say those packages mightnot be transversing on those kind of perfect carriers as well. So it's beingable to use all of this data and look across the entire ecosystem network oftransportation and seeing who has capacity, who doesn't have capacity, who's going whichway and might actually be able to take an extra load. I mean,all this came together during those storms and it was able to be used bylogistics firms like myself to really help our customers get their packages back on trackand get them moving as a major storm sat in the middle of the country. Yeah, it's really interesting about wondering like how long ago, if thishad happened ten years ago, how different with that have been? I imaginethe technology is just changing so quickly. It would have been ten years agoit'd have been very much a struggle. And the good thing is is itwas actually probably about ten years ago, is we started this journey down there, that we saw that these new technologies were coming online, that cloud computingwas going to be the future. So you could have these huge data sets, you pile in these new technologies in just Iot, now blockchain, allthese start layering in and starting to build these robust systems for us. Soyeah, ten years ago they would have been a completely different story. Butit just shows how embracing technology early on and building these powerful solutions now existsand actually helped us really power through a lot of this pandemic. I wouldhave been actually more scared of where we could have been if we didn't havethese technologies invested in a long time ago. I think the pandemic would actually beena lot worse than many cases, because we just would have had thesedata flows of how could we re route not only around a storm, butjust areas of the country they were shut down, to the staffing issues becauseof outbreaks, and just where are other places you can manufacture your products andshift to those? All of this goes back to those strong data sets.And it's not just companies like Fedex, as they can use use these.A lot of companies can use these data sets if they are providing that kindof information into into the network. Aaron, let's shift gears here for a secondand talk about robots. I first discovered you on Linkedin because of allthe incredible videos that you're always curating around robots doing unique things. I realize, of course, you're coming at this from a logistics point of view.But what is it about robotics that has, you know, as you so interestedin this topic and and always, you know, kind of sharing informationabout robotics and how things are changing there? Yeah, I mean that's that.That is my core function. Aerothetics is my team really is focused alot on robotics and introducing those into our operations, anything from fixed arms thatare doing picking place to mobile robots that are moving some of our bigger productaround, and I'm very passionate about this because I really think that robotics andautomation are going to be the future keys for the United States going forward tokeep our common growing. We are facing a big baby boomer retirement right nowand as those folks exit the workforce into their golden years, we just don'thave enough folks coming into a back build those. So we really need tolook at automation and robotics to help our workforce that's going to stay on byteaming up with robotics to keep factories moving, our warehouses moving and just keep oureconomy growing along with it. It's very interesting that, like right now, there are so many opportunities out there for robotics. It's a just agreat feel to be in and even though...

I'm not making robots or or doingall some of that, I get to actually put them into the real worldand say and really see their full benefit, and so that's where I just becomea huge advocate for it, because we've seen the benefit of using roboticsin our industry. During the same time we've been hiring like crazy. Ourworkforce continues to grow even as we had work automation and robotics. So Ithink we need to keep getting that message out to folks, regardless of woodindustry you're in, if you want to keep growing your business, you're goingto have to look at automation and robotics to help you accomplish that, becausethere's just not going to be enough folks out there for all of us tohire, and if we can use robotics and automation wisely, we can allwin, and I really like advocating that and that's why I do put thevideos out there, even if it's in an industry I have nothing to dowith. I just want to show it to folks saying hey, look atthis robot and, oh by the way, if you're in this industry, thismight be a robot or a solution that might be of interest to you. So that's why I do it and I've had a lot of comments fromfolks in various industry just saying hey, Aaron, thanks for showing me.I didn't know that kind of thing existed. In my end I can use that. I'm going to make a phone call. That's what I wanted toaccomplish by that post is just introduce you to a company or somebody that's workingon something that might benefit you and your cover. I think it's great.You spoken of previous conversation we had about some some former coal miners, Ithink you said, in Kentucky, who went from like zero robotics to lightsout production in ten days. You got to tell that story and sort ofexplain the the role robots played there. Oh yeah, I mean, Ithink one of the biggest things I hear a lot from especially small and mediumenterprises, when they were asking about automation and robotics as I just don't knowwhere the start and I just they get into this whole their paralysis of byanalysis of they just don't know where the start and what we did in ae Cam, e. In a eastern Kentucky, is he camy was setup to train former coal miners in jobs in advance manufacturing and robotics. Alot of these folks are former hole miners. have been in the coal mining industryfor decades and those jobs are starting to disappear. So e Cam eretrains them in advanced manufacturing and robotics. And you were able to take oneclass. None of them had ever seen a robot in their life and usingready robotics for Jos system, some these skier robots and universal robots, wewere able to train those former coal miners from zero knowledge in robotics to lightsout production in ten days. So my story always goes back in the thesmall any enterprises, is just get started. Find a use case in your facilitythat you think would is an ideal thing for robotics and automation and getstarted on it. If you overthink it, you're not going to get anywhere.Here was a group of former coal miners said we're going to do this, guys, we're going to learn this. They jumped in head first and inten days they're doing lights out production. So it can be done everybody.You can automate one of your use cases in one of your facilities rightnow, and I don't care if you're in manufacturing, agriculture, logistics.Find a use case and go after it and just get started and you'll beamazed where the journey page. I think it's a great story and it's agreat thing for business leaders to be looking at. But also, you know, people who are maybe work in the front lines, whether it's a manufacturingor elsewhere, as an example of like there's some really interesting technology jobs outthere that can you know. I'm not saying it's it's plug in play.I mean that's that's one example there right where people moved quickly, but Ithink the point is, you know this...

...sort of technology, this is doesn'tmean years and years of training and some kind of, you know, specialengineering knowledge that only certain people have. Like there are different ways to getinvolved in robotics and the technology side of manufacturing for a lot of people outthere, and I don't think people really realize that. Yeah, absolutely agreewith you there, Joe. People again just are overthinking. Of all,I have to have a mechanical engineering or robotics engineering for your degree to getstarted. I like you read my bio before I am not a roboticist bytray. I sort of grew into this position and it really was I askedfor this position. I really went up to the guy that was doing thisjob before me saying I want to be part of your team, I wantto work in robotics. I actually I was a consultant to the group andthen when that gentleman actually went on to return to academics, because you wantedto do that in his life, and this job opened up, I jumpright in and that's how I got into it. I literally just said Iwant to do this and I'm here to help and I think a lot offolks, if they just can, don't overthink this. Don't think you needthat for year degree. That being in robotics. You don't. You canjust get started a day. You some research, but there are some blugand play applications out there then get you started. There's a lot of mobilerobots that you can have up an operational within an hour out of the crateif you're doing something simple. The more integrations, yes, that does increasesome of these things, but there's so many use cases. I've seen inso many facilities. It's like you don't need to bug that thing into abigger system. It can be self sufficient on its own. Just get startedand I just hope, hope to see more and more folks doing that inthe coming years. And just go do it, guys, go, justgo do it. Yeah, it's great advice. My one of my favoritethings is a marketing guy that that I say all the time. In fact, I've like hashtagged linkedin post this ways, just friggin start. You talked aboutthat analysis proalysis earlier and thinking that, you know, I need this hugesystem and all this technology to be implemented and done perfectly. In thereality is, I think it comes down to, let's find a small problemwe could fix and apply automation or robotics to it. Ask the right peopleand just starting is is probably going to lead to a snowball of things thatcan you know, happen after that, right. Yeah, I mean justget started, talk to your team, get their input. Actually, someof your team members out on the shop floor or out on the warehouse floorcould be the ones that just asmence is what if I could automate one ofyour past and make your life easier? What would it be? And Man, he probably will get it earful and from that list find one to makesense get started. So it's really the ball is in your court. That'sa great tangible advice. There one thing I want to make sure we hiton here and we start. Started this conversation talking about supply chain. Wemoved into talking about robots and automation, as you know, to try tobring these two things together. What can you say about how the data fromyour systems can then go influence the just sticks in Your Business? As youautomate your systems, as you add robotics to it, you're creating more collectionpoints. You can have IOT devices. They're collecting how many parts are comingout of a sea and sea machine, how many uses are going into abox? What parts went into which box? You can start really get building thesestrong data sets within your company. And then, as there's so manyservices out there, I don't even know...

...where the where they begin. Butif you start realizing there are key data sets that you want to collect onnot only just your processes but your product go start collecting those. There aredevices, they will help you collect those. There are great sensors from cognets andsick. They can scan your products machine and do visual inspections and youcan have that data set and actually number all your parts and just it justkeeps building. Then you can tie it into a larger event work mine asyour then shipping those I can show you when those parts were picked up atthe warehouse. When did they get delivered? If you need additional information, weput sensor, we're stuff onto your shipment and provide that data to you. It goes into another warehouse. You can have collections. I mean itjust builds and builds on itself. But the whole thing is, is itskin? Unless you're collecting that data and then actually knowing what you how you'restructuring that data your you're sort of going to struggle because then you are gettingyou I've almost again too much data. But again, start simple. Findout where that where those key data sets that you know you need to collect, and start going after them. Look for those vendors that can help youprovide those. Are you what allowed services you mean want to use? Ifthere's some AI services out there, there's plenty of those out there now,as we used. So again it's just gets started and just start simple andjust start building from there. The simplest data sets can become those bigger onesover time. That just help you out. But unless you know what you wantto, go get your sort of don't collect the fire ohs. That'sthe first warning. But start simple, just as we said with the roboticspin that's that something use case. Find those early data sets that really makessense to your business and start go getting it and you'll be amazed where allthat leads you to. Great Advice. And is there anything that I didnot ask you that you'd like to add to this conversation? I would justagain stressed everyone is listen to your workforce. They're going to be your biggest helpin all of this. From what tasks should I automate with a robotor automation, they'll help you out there. Ask them about your data sets.What data do you think they think might make sense to collect and lookat? How are they currently collecting that? Be surprised that there might already besome data sets being collected through just what the employees are doing on thefloor or at the warehouse for you. But really engage your team members.They hate. Those frontline folks are gold to your operation in more ways thanone. Not only they helping your business thrive by doing just their day today work, but they're also seeing things that, if you really ask themto give you get that information from them and make them the partner in allthe future growth that you want to go after, you're setting yourself up forhuge wind down the road. Of just engage your team members, make thempart of the process, have them feel like they're being very much listened toand value, because as you implement both these physical and digital solutions down theroad, they're going to be critical and making that successful as well. Soif there are already balls in ahead of time, you're just against setting yourselfover huge wind down the road because you have a partner, they're internally withyou, that want to see all the succeed because they were brought in earlyon in the process as well. Nice way to put a bow on it. Well, Aaron, great conversation. Appreciate you doing this today. Likea you kind of bridge the, you know, logistics and robotics side dsof what we talked about here and keep pumping those videos out on linkedin.If you're not following are and go do that. There's some really interesting applicationsthat he's sharing all the time. So, Aaron, well, how can ouraudience get in touch with you and kind of learn more about what you'redoing? As you said, Joe, follow me on Linkedin. That's alwaysthe my preferred social media choice. I...

...try and keep up with messages andrequest on there as best I can. I am in and dated a lot, but that is the best way to get ahold of me and also justshare what you're working on. I always love seeing what other folks are workingon and I trying to amplify those as much as possible on my channels ofsaying Ay, look, look with this these guys are doing in this industryis you just don't know where that's going to go, but linkedin is alwaysthe best place for me. Perfect. Well, Aaron, once again,thanks for doing this today. Thank you, Joe. As for the rest ofyou, I hope to catch you on the next episode of the manufacturingexecutives. You've been listening to the manufacturing executive podcast. To ensure that younever miss an episode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player.If you'd like to learn more about industrial marketing and sales strategy, you'll findan ever expanding collection of articles, videos, guides and tools specifically for bedb manufacturersat Gorilla Seventy sixcom learn thank you so much for listening. Until nexttime.

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