The Manufacturing Executive
The Manufacturing Executive

Episode · 10 months ago

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

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

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've seen in so many facilities. It's like you don't need to bug that thing into a bigger system. It can be self sufficient on its own. Just get started. Welcome to the manufacturing executive podcast, where we explore the strategies and experiences that are driving midsize manufacturers forward. Here you'll discover new insights from passionate manufacturing 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 actionable business development strategies inside your business. Let's get into the show. Welcome to another episode of the Manufacturing Executive podcast. I'm Joe Sullivan, your host, a Co founder of the Industrial Marketing Agency Gorilla. Seventy six, two thousand and twenty and two thousand and twenty one have obviously brought a wide variety of challenges about for manufacturers, and near the top of that list is the supply chain disruption. Looking back over the last year and a half, very few manufacturing leaders could probably look at you with a straight face and say supply chain issues didn't really affect our business. I guess today is a leader in the logistics world that has seen technology, from robotics to smart data change the manufacturings apply chain at a faster pace than ever before, and it's this technology that can 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, from hub 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 his current role as senior advisor technology planning and research, Aaron leads efforts to find and deploy new technologies into Fedex operations, including robotics and automation. Outside of FEDEX AREON participates in developing robot standards at the Uria and ul through the Fedex Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis, he works with universities and colleges in the 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 University of Memphis in geographic information science and cartography. Aaron, welcome to the show. Thanks, Ran Joe. Let's just dive right in here are and you are somebody who has worked inside of Fedex for over twenty five years, and so 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 has been 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 about how and why the manufacturing supply chain became such a mess when the pandemic set in. Great question, Joe. Yeah, and we actually had, we've had a front row here on my side of the fence of actually seeing this all play out. And yet the pandemic very much wrecked global supply chains as virus spread and shut down facilities across the globe very much start hampering what we've been building for numerous decades of the Justin time model of getting your parts made and shipped and to the final assembly plants. Done that whole. So they just found it little peace sort of crumbled under the virus and shut downs around the world. So it is still an ongoing challenge. It is interesting to see 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 out there and we're actually seeing like restoring efforts here in the United States and we're some factories are bringing certain parts back home to be made. We're seeing that in the chip industry and for us at Fedex, I mean we're here to support those efforts. Our network has been built to be as global as you needed to be or as local as you needed to be, and so we are working with our customers every day to make sure of Becaus a change their supply chains and get them back up and running. We're right there with them helping them every way we can. Awesome. When you and I talked a few weeks ago, you quoted Fred Smith, the founder of fed x, and the quote was the data around the package is becoming as valuable as the package itself. I thought that was really interesting and was wondering if you got unpack that a little bit for us. Yeah, I mean going back to how 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 through it is really critical and it really proved itself out during the pandemic that if you had a robust digitalization of your supply chain already placed, you were able to sort of ebb and flow a lot easier than your competition that might not have done that work free pandemic. And so yes, our customers are demanding a 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 scanning your 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 safely through 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 shipments are staying cool as they travel through the network. So having sensorwar technology on there, but then also just I together all these various data feedes where you can see your items manufactured at the plant, how they move on to the next step how all that tracking is taking place, probably internal to your own facilities, and then handing that off to a shipper like a Fedex to move it on to its next destination and US providing data back to you so you have trackability of all of your goods as they move internally within your network and even externally through other channels, like myself here for X. Yeah, that's that's really interesting. We've mentioned an example to me when we talked recently about you kind of reference that Crazy Dallas North Texas winner storm that we had February this year, two thousand and twenty one, and how the data component allowed fed x and on behalf of all the business customers they have, to be able to navigate this mass and for the sake of some contacts and wonder if you could maybe talk through some of the some of what went on there and how how the data actually helped get companies through that. Yeah, I mean when 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 we are talking super powerful storm and so not only are you losing pretty much a whole major state in the middle of the country that packages are transversing. But some of that weather actually came up into our area of your Memphis. We memphisis all record of ounce of snow. That's a challenge for southern states deal with that much snow, and so it did slow down one of our major facilities. But the whole thing is is because we had all this data and we can see where packages were originating from and where they're going, we were able to create reroutes around those networks. We were able to use our Indianapolis hub to do more of those trans cons across the country from east coast of West Coast, west coast the east coast. It also allowed us to use our trucking network more wisely, realizing that maybe moving through the state of Texas and not a wise motion at this time...

...of okay, how do we move that through? It are what are they always alternate routes? What other conveyances are available to us? It's a lot of folks don't realize that, even though you will see trucks and planes operating and they might not be logoed as PHL or ups or Amazon or Fedex, that's not to say those packages might not be transversing on those kind of perfect carriers as well. So it's being able to use all of this data and look across the entire ecosystem network of transportation and seeing who has capacity, who doesn't have capacity, who's going which way 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 by logistics firms like myself to really help our customers get their packages back on track and 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 this had happened ten years ago, how different with that have been? I imagine the technology is just changing so quickly. It would have been ten years ago it'd have been very much a struggle. And the good thing is is it was 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 computing was going to be the future. So you could have these huge data sets, you pile in these new technologies in just Iot, now blockchain, all these start layering in and starting to build these robust systems for us. So yeah, ten years ago they would have been a completely different story. But it just shows how embracing technology early on and building these powerful solutions now exists and actually helped us really power through a lot of this pandemic. I would have been actually more scared of where we could have been if we didn't have these technologies invested in a long time ago. I think the pandemic would actually been a lot worse than many cases, because we just would have had these data flows of how could we re route not only around a storm, but just areas of the country they were shut down, to the staffing issues because of outbreaks, and just where are other places you can manufacture your products and shift 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 kind of information into into the network. Aaron, let's shift gears here for a second and talk about robots. I first discovered you on Linkedin because of all the 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 interested in this topic and and always, you know, kind of sharing information about 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 a lot on robotics and introducing those into our operations, anything from fixed arms that are doing picking place to mobile robots that are moving some of our bigger product around, and I'm very passionate about this because I really think that robotics and automation are going to be the future keys for the United States going forward to keep our common growing. We are facing a big baby boomer retirement right now and as those folks exit the workforce into their golden years, we just don't have enough folks coming into a back build those. So we really need to look at automation and robotics to help our workforce that's going to stay on by teaming up with robotics to keep factories moving, our warehouses moving and just keep our economy 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 a great feel to be in and even though...

I'm not making robots or or doing all some of that, I get to actually put them into the real world and say and really see their full benefit, and so that's where I just become a huge advocate for it, because we've seen the benefit of using robotics in our industry. During the same time we've been hiring like crazy. Our workforce continues to grow even as we had work automation and robotics. So I think we need to keep getting that message out to folks, regardless of wood industry you're in, if you want to keep growing your business, you're going to have to look at automation and robotics to help you accomplish that, because there's just not going to be enough folks out there for all of us to hire, and if we can use robotics and automation wisely, we can all win, and I really like advocating that and that's why I do put the videos out there, even if it's in an industry I have nothing to do with. I just want to show it to folks saying hey, look at this robot and, oh by the way, if you're in this industry, this might 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 from folks 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 to accomplish by that post is just introduce you to a company or somebody that's working on 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, I think you said, in Kentucky, who went from like zero robotics to lights out production in ten days. You got to tell that story and sort of explain the the role robots played there. Oh yeah, I mean, I think one of the biggest things I hear a lot from especially small and medium enterprises, when they were asking about automation and robotics as I just don't know where the start and I just they get into this whole their paralysis of by analysis of they just don't know where the start and what we did in a e Cam, e. In a eastern Kentucky, is he camy was set up to train former coal miners in jobs in advance manufacturing and robotics. A lot of these folks are former hole miners. have been in the coal mining industry for decades and those jobs are starting to disappear. So e Cam e retrains them in advanced manufacturing and robotics. And you were able to take one class. None of them had ever seen a robot in their life and using ready robotics for Jos system, some these skier robots and universal robots, we were able to train those former coal miners from zero knowledge in robotics to lights out production in ten days. So my story always goes back in the the small any enterprises, is just get started. Find a use case in your facility that you think would is an ideal thing for robotics and automation and get started 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 in ten 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 right now, 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 be amazed where the journey page. I think it's a great story and it's a great 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 manufacturing or elsewhere, as an example of like there's some really interesting technology jobs out there 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 I think the point is, you know this...

...sort of technology, this is doesn't mean years and years of training and some kind of, you know, special engineering knowledge that only certain people have. Like there are different ways to get involved in robotics and the technology side of manufacturing for a lot of people out there, and I don't think people really realize that. Yeah, absolutely agree with you there, Joe. People again just are overthinking. Of all, I have to have a mechanical engineering or robotics engineering for your degree to get started. I like you read my bio before I am not a roboticist by tray. I sort of grew into this position and it really was I asked for this position. I really went up to the guy that was doing this job before me saying I want to be part of your team, I want to work in robotics. I actually I was a consultant to the group and then when that gentleman actually went on to return to academics, because you wanted to do that in his life, and this job opened up, I jump right in and that's how I got into it. I literally just said I want to do this and I'm here to help and I think a lot of folks, if they just can, don't overthink this. Don't think you need that for year degree. That being in robotics. You don't. You can just get started a day. You some research, but there are some blug and play applications out there then get you started. There's a lot of mobile robots that you can have up an operational within an hour out of the crate if you're doing something simple. The more integrations, yes, that does increase some of these things, but there's so many use cases. I've seen in so many facilities. It's like you don't need to bug that thing into a bigger system. It can be self sufficient on its own. Just get started and I just hope, hope to see more and more folks doing that in the coming years. And just go do it, guys, go, just go do it. Yeah, it's great advice. My one of my favorite things 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 about that analysis proalysis earlier and thinking that, you know, I need this huge system and all this technology to be implemented and done perfectly. In the reality is, I think it comes down to, let's find a small problem we could fix and apply automation or robotics to it. Ask the right people and just starting is is probably going to lead to a snowball of things that can you know, happen after that, right. Yeah, I mean just get started, talk to your team, get their input. Actually, some of your team members out on the shop floor or out on the warehouse floor could be the ones that just asmence is what if I could automate one of your 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 make sense get started. So it's really the ball is in your court. That's a great tangible advice. There one thing I want to make sure we hit on here and we start. Started this conversation talking about supply chain. We moved into talking about robots and automation, as you know, to try to bring these two things together. What can you say about how the data from your systems can then go influence the just sticks in Your Business? As you automate your systems, as you add robotics to it, you're creating more collection points. You can have IOT devices. They're collecting how many parts are coming out of a sea and sea machine, how many uses are going into a box? What parts went into which box? You can start really get building these strong data sets within your company. And then, as there's so many services out there, I don't even know...

...where the where they begin. But if you start realizing there are key data sets that you want to collect on not only just your processes but your product go start collecting those. There are devices, they will help you collect those. There are great sensors from cognets and sick. They can scan your products machine and do visual inspections and you can have that data set and actually number all your parts and just it just keeps building. Then you can tie it into a larger event work mine as your then shipping those I can show you when those parts were picked up at the warehouse. When did they get delivered? If you need additional information, we put sensor, we're stuff onto your shipment and provide that data to you. It goes into another warehouse. You can have collections. I mean it just builds and builds on itself. But the whole thing is, is it skin? Unless you're collecting that data and then actually knowing what you how you're structuring that data your you're sort of going to struggle because then you are getting you I've almost again too much data. But again, start simple. Find out 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 you provide those. Are you what allowed services you mean want to use? If there'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 and just start building from there. The simplest data sets can become those bigger ones over time. That just help you out. But unless you know what you want to, go get your sort of don't collect the fire ohs. That's the first warning. But start simple, just as we said with the robotics pin that's that something use case. Find those early data sets that really makes sense to your business and start go getting it and you'll be amazed where all that leads you to. Great Advice. And is there anything that I did not ask you that you'd like to add to this conversation? I would just again stressed everyone is listen to your workforce. They're going to be your biggest help in all of this. From what tasks should I automate with a robot or 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 look at? How are they currently collecting that? Be surprised that there might already be some data sets being collected through just what the employees are doing on the floor 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 than one. Not only they helping your business thrive by doing just their day to day work, but they're also seeing things that, if you really ask them to give you get that information from them and make them the partner in all the future growth that you want to go after, you're setting yourself up for huge wind down the road. Of just engage your team members, make them part of the process, have them feel like they're being very much listened to and value, because as you implement both these physical and digital solutions down the road, they're going to be critical and making that successful as well. So if there are already balls in ahead of time, you're just against setting yourself over huge wind down the road because you have a partner, they're internally with you, that want to see all the succeed because they were brought in early on in the process as well. Nice way to put a bow on it. Well, Aaron, great conversation. Appreciate you doing this today. Like a you kind of bridge the, you know, logistics and robotics side ds of 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 applications that he's sharing all the time. So, Aaron, well, how can our audience get in touch with you and kind of learn more about what you're doing? As you said, Joe, follow me on Linkedin. That's always the my preferred social media choice. I...

...try and keep up with messages and request 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 just share what you're working on. I always love seeing what other folks are working on and I trying to amplify those as much as possible on my channels of saying Ay, look, look with this these guys are doing in this industry is you just don't know where that's going to go, but linkedin is always the best place for me. Perfect. Well, Aaron, once again, thanks for doing this today. Thank you, Joe. As for the rest of you, I hope to catch you on the next episode of the manufacturing executives. You've been listening to the manufacturing executive podcast. To ensure that you never 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 find an ever expanding collection of articles, videos, guides and tools specifically for bedb manufacturers at Gorilla Seventy sixcom learn thank you so much for listening. Until next time.

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