How Dematic is investing in R&D to solve complex problems
Imagine you work in a warehouse and have to package up a pallet with various products to be shipped to a grocery store – items like pop, chips, pasta, canned goods, etc. It’s pretty simple, right? You put the chips on top of the pop because if you did it the other way, the chips would get crushed. You put the heavier boxes at the bottom to create stability so the whole thing doesn’t fall over.
Simple. Except it isn’t. In reality your brain is just really, really good a quickly identifying an objects physical properties – weight, shape, stability – and solves what is, in fact, a rather complex mathematical problem without you even being consciously aware of it. But if you’re not really aware you’re doing it, how would you teach a computer to do it? There are so many variables you can’t possibly program them all; you need to create software that can think intuitively, extrapolate, and learn from each experience.
It’s an immensely complex problem, and one that Dematic is hoping to solve through research. Dematic is a global player in the supply management and warehouse automation field, with roots that can be traced back to 1819 and the founding of German crane manufacturer Demag.
Their Software Development team in Waterloo is considerably newer – an arm of the company that landed here in 2013 thanks largely to the company’s commitment to researching problems and finding creative solutions.
A few years ago, Dematic started to invest in new product development, with a specific focus on software to help companies optimize their supply chains. The company sought out a top tier executive who could lead a new software R&D team and quickly found on Pete Devenyi, former SVP of Enterprise Software from BlackBerry. Interested in learning more about Waterloo Region, Dematic researched the community and found a university globally-renowned for research and innovation, a top ranked talent pool, and one of the most robust tech communities anywhere in the world.
They made a decision: why bring Devenyi to Michigan when the talent, resources and research capabilities to build the cutting edge software they needed were here. And so Dematic’s Waterloo office was born.
Devenyi subsequently hired Scott Wahl, a former BlackBerry colleague as software director to run the Waterloo office. They have now grown the Waterloo branch of Dematic to 30 people, including co-op students and recent graduates from University of Waterloo, and there is no signs of stopping. The team works closely with the rest of the global software organization, with teams in US, Germany, and Australia, to accelerate software innovation and product delivery. While the team is part of a $2B global organization, they have enough autonomy to run like startup. This allows them to remain nimble and flexible, but still have the resources and confidence of a large organization to back them up.
Innovative ideas aren’t exactly new to Dematic – in 1908 the company (then Demag) built the world’s largest floating crane, which was used to construct the famed White Star steam ships RMS Titanic and RMS Olympic.
But, what sets Dematic apart today is a focus on using research to stay ahead of the curve. Through a partnership with the University of Waterloo’s Department of Management Sciences in the Faculty of Engineering, and leveraging grants from both Collaborative Research & Development (CRD) and Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), Dematic has been researching and developing advanced mathematical models and machine learning algorithms to solve complex automation problems.
One of the focus areas for the Waterloo team is to develop advanced analytics capabilities. The end goal: give customers the insights they need to manage their operations efficiently and turn managers into researchers within their own warehouses; constantly analysing, improving, and iterating on design and process, rather than simply repeating– leave that for the robots!
Dematic is also investing in the future of innovative supply chain management through the Dematic Scholarship for Excellence in Supply Chain Optimization with the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering. The scholarship is awarded to one male and one female second year engineering student at the University, selected based on academic standing and an essay submission.
In an age where consumer expectations, not organizational capabilities, determine who succeeds, Dematic’s seems poised to change the way we experience receiving… well, just about everything.