InPerson interview: Michael Larsson of Dematic

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Michael Larsson’s career in automation and robotics has spanned more than three decades. Today, he is president of Dematic, with responsibility for Dematic Americas and Kion Industrial Truck Services for the Americas, and serves on the executive board of Kion Group, Dematic’s parent company. Before joining Dematic as executive vice president in 2021, Larsson was senior vice president and managing director of ABB’s Robotics and Discrete Automation business unit. He has worked with clients globally, including those in the electronics, automotive, aerospace, and consumer goods industries. Larsson holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Stockholm University School of Economics in Sweden.

Q: How would you describe the current state of our supply chains?

A: The state of the global supply chain remains complex, marked by ongoing challenges stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, geopolitical tensions, shifting consumer demands, and higher interest rates. However, amidst these challenges, the industry exhibits resilience and adaptability. Companies are proactively reassessing their supply chain strategies, considering reshoring production, and diversifying their supplier base to mitigate risks.

In addition, advancements in technology, particularly the rapid adoption of AI, are revolutionizing supply chain operations. These technological innovations foster agility, enable data-driven decision-making, and enhance supply chain visibility and efficiency. Sustainability considerations are gaining prominence, reflecting a growing commitment to responsible business practices. Despite the ongoing labor shortages, supply chain leaders are prioritizing resilience and leveraging data and AI-driven insights to navigate uncertainties and drive future growth.

Q: Are you seeing any other notable trends in automation?

A: As a general trend, we’re seeing a rise in flexible fulfillment. Rather than a traditional warehouse with conveyors, racking, shuttles, etc., that are fixed in place, we are shifting toward technologies such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). These solutions enable users to program them to move around a distribution center floor autonomously. They can run 24/7, even in a dark warehouse, and provide increased efficiency and labor optimization for our customers.

Powered by software, these technologies optimize operations, ensuring users have insights into all areas of their distribution center. With this access, users can also manage throughput, adjust to peak, and provide data on how equipment is running.

Q: How have newer technologies like robotics changed automation design during the past 10 years?

A: Advancements in robotics have not only introduced greater efficiency but also fostered the development of more versatile and interactive automated storage solutions. These next-generation systems represent a paradigm shift, offering enhanced capabilities to handle a diverse range of inventory configurations and support various order fulfillment activities.

For instance, integrated installations combining multiple forms of automated storage, robotics, and manual pick cells have become increasingly prevalent. This trend has resulted in improvements such as increased throughput, enhanced storage density, and streamlined processes, ultimately revolutionizing the way warehouses operate and adapt to evolving demands.

Q: In what ways is artificial intelligence being applied to automation?

A: AI is revolutionizing automation by enabling data-driven decision-making processes. At Dematic, AI plays a critical role in leveraging data to optimize throughput, manage inventory surges, identify vendor risks, and navigate unexpected peaks. By analyzing diverse data sources, AI can proactively predict disruptions throughout the supply chain, giving managers more time to react and prepare, thereby minimizing downtime and preserving profits.

Looking ahead, AI will become increasingly indispensable, with autonomous, connected, intelligent supply chains poised to become universally adopted. This transformative technology allows businesses to make informed decisions and streamline operations, ultimately enhancing efficiency and competitiveness in the evolving landscape of automation. In a recent report from MHI and Deloitte, 87% of survey respondents predicted autonomous, connected, and intelligent supply chains would be the norm by 2027, while only 5% said the industry was there today.

Q: Do you see autonomous mobile robots as competition for traditional conveying systems and forklifts?

A: AMRs offer advantages in warehouse automation, showcasing flexibility, adaptability, and safety features. However, it’s essential to recognize that conveyors remain a fundamental component of warehouse operations, serving as the backbone for material movement in virtually every facility. While AMRs excel in dynamic environments and offer benefits like freeing up labor, quick implementation, and enhanced safety features, conveyors provide consistent and reliable transport, especially for high-volume and repetitive tasks.

Ideally, both systems work collaboratively to optimize warehouse flow, with AMRs navigating around obstacles and complementing conveyor systems to ensure seamless operations. This integrated approach allows warehouses to leverage the strengths of each technology, ultimately enhancing productivity, efficiency, and safety while adapting to evolving industry demands.

Q: You oversee both the Dematic and Kion brands. Is there an advantage for customers to work with a large company like yours that offers a wide range of solutions?

A: Yes, because we’re part of the Kion group, our customers gain distinct advantages extending beyond our global presence and wide-ranging solutions. While Dematic specializes in the supply chain sector, the Kion portfolio of brands encompasses the world’s leading providers of forklift trucks and warehouse equipment. Anything a customer needs to ensure the smooth flow of materials through their facilities, we have within the Kion umbrella. That partnership enables another layer of innovation, agility, and flexibility, too, because the brands are working together in harmony to make better end-to-end solutions for our customers.

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