Cargo-handling robots from three US companies

From “The last pieces of warehouse automation will soon be in place” (The Economist):

The robotics division of Honeywell, a large American technology company, has come up with a vehicle-sized unit that fits onto the back of a lorry. It has a large arm fitted with suction cups which can pick up several boxes at a time and then feed them onto a conveyor belt, or knock down a wall of boxes and sweep them onto the conveyor. An individual human worker can unload between 600 and 1,200 boxes an hour. Honeywell hopes that, once its robot is perfected, a single crew chief will be able to supervise the simultaneous unloading of three or four lorries, each at rates of up to 1,500 boxes an hour.


In Massachusetts, a firm called Boston Dynamics takes a different approach from Honeywell’s. Boston Dynamics is famous in the wider world for an acrobatic humanoid robot called Atlas, and for Spot, a robot that resembles a dog and is now on sale as a device for monitoring what is happening in factories and other large spaces. The firm’s good-handling system, Stretch, is, however, the first it has custom-built for a particular task.

Stretch is smaller and more mobile than Honeywell’s robot, and is able, according to Kevin Blankespoor, Boston Dynamics’ general manager of warehouse robotics, to move easily from one lorry to another, or to a different part of a site altogether. It sports a single arm festooned with sensors and a suction gripper able to handle boxes weighing up to about 25kg. Unlike Honeywell’s system, Stretch can already manage the trick of examining a wall of boxes, working out their sizes and shapes, and choosing which to pick up first. It is, though, slower. The aim is that it will be able to handle 800 cases an hour.

A third contender, Dill, is made by the Pickle Robot Company, also based in Massachusetts. Andrew Meyer, Pickle’s boss, believes Dill has an edge over the competition because Pickle’s engineers have focused on the robot’s ability to handle messy trailers with irregular loads. This is not just a matter of machine vision and an ability to work out where boxes are, but also of understanding the laws of physics, and therefore how particular objects will behave. That helps Dill decide which is the best box to pick up next, and how to deal with it as speedily as possible without dropping it.

In particular, Dill is designed for what Mr Meyer terms “centaur operation”, in which human and robot collaborate, rather than the human’s role being merely supervisory. Dill is skilled at spotting problems it cannot deal with and then calling in human assistance. It can handle 98% of cases on its own, Mr Meyer claims—though it has problems with things like damaged goods and unexpected objects. The upshot is an arrangement which, he says, has a maximum capacity of 1,600 packages an hour, with a realistic average of 1,000.

The next task, which all three companies are now engaged in, is to run the unloading process in reverse by using robots to load lorries in the first place. Besides simply lugging boxes around, this also involves working out how to stack them efficiently.

Why Trilogy Plastics was acquired by Myers Industries Inc.

From “Myers plans network of rotomolding plants” (Plastics News):

A potential capital gains tax increase was the “tipping point” for Stephen Osborn’s decision to sell rotational molder Trilogy Plastics Inc. to Myers Industries Inc.

In an Aug. 6 phone interview, Osborn said he “was looking for the right combination to take forward the vision that we’ve had for 34 years.”

“I wanted a company with the same vision and same culture that made us as good as we are,” he added. “Myers has that culture and Mike McGaugh has that same mindset.”

Myers President and CEO Mike McGaugh added in a separate interview that Myers “had familiarity” with Trilogy.

“We knew [Trilogy] was well run and well operated and had a reputation for quality products and great culture,” he said. “It really fits with Myers’ values.”

McGaugh added that Myers will look to make more acquisitions in rotomolding, injection molding, blow molding and thermoforming. “We want to have a national footprint of rotomolding facilities to deliver better products for our customers,” he said.Potential increases in capital gains tax rates in 2022 were “the tipping point” in Osborn’s decision to find a buyer for Alliance, Ohio-based Trilogy, he said. The federal government has proposed increasing the capital gains rate from 20 percent to almost 40 percent, although no final decision has been made. Any increase would affect business owners looking to sell.


Myers on Aug. 5 reported second-quarter sales of $187.4 million, up more than 58 percent vs. the same quarter in 2020. The firm’s quarterly profit grew more than 32 percent to $11.1 million in the same comparison.

Trilogy ranked 19th in Plastics News‘ most recently published estimate of North American rotomolders with sales of $26 million. The $35 million sales total would move them to 15th in the ranking.

Myers also does business in injection molding and blow molding under various brands, including Scepter, Akro-Mils and Buckhorn. The firm generates 75 percent of its sales from plastics processing — primarily storage containers and similar products — with the remainder coming from the tire market in repair and retreads.

During the Plastics News Executive Forum in March, McGaugh said that Myers aims to grow both organically and through acquisitions to reach annual sales of $1 billion by the end of 2023. The firm posted sales of just over $500 million in 2020.

PE and PP prices up in June

From “North American resin prices on the move in June” (Plastics News):

Regional prices for all grades of PE were up an average of 5 cents per pound for the month. Makers of high density PE were attempting to add another 2 cents to that total, but that increase had not gone through to most buyers as of June 24. Most regional PE prices had increased 5 cents in May and now are up 38 cents so far in 2021 and 58 cents since January 2020. HDPE prices are up 2 cents less than low and linear low density PE. The June price hike is the seventh consecutive for the PE market.

The North American PP market continued to surprise in June, with prices increasing an average of 12 cents per pound. That surge followed a 13-cent hike that hit the market in May. Prior to that, regional PP prices had dropped 19.5 cents total in March-April. Factoring in previous increases, regional PP prices are up a net of 66.5 cents since December.

The June hike consisted of matching 4 cents of increases in price for polymer-grade propylene (PGP) feedstock and 8 cents of profit margin improvement that was successfully implemented by PP makers. Heading into the last week of June, the PGP hike was expected to be higher and there was doubt if PP makers would see all of the 8 in margin improvement they were seeking. They hadn’t been successful in getting any of the 5 cents in margin they tried to pass in May.

The ultimate makeup of June’s 12-cent hike came as a surprise to some market watchers, including Scott Newell, a market analyst with RTI.

Newell said that North American PP demand is strong across many markets, even though industry data shows a decline from last year. “The data shows sales, which are down because processors can’t get material,” Newell said.

Many PP makers in the region remain on force majeure sales allocations, as the supply chain continues to recover from the ice storm that hit Texas in February. Some producers now are seeking PP price hikes of 3 or 5 cents effective July 1 or 5 cents effective Aug. 1. Producers are not aligned on these moves, which would be in addition to any price changes from PGP. PP makers have gained more than 30 cents in margin improvement in the last year.

From More resin price changes reflect high demand, limited supply” (Plastics News):

Regional prices for all grades of PE were up an average of 5 cents per pound for the month, according to buyers and market watchers contacted by Plastics News. Makers of high density PE were attempting to add another 2 cents to that total, but that increase had not gone through to most buyers as of June 24.

Although PE supplies have been improving since a February ice storm hit Texas and disrupted much PE output, some supply chain challenges remain. Most recently, LyondellBasell Industries declared force majeure on linear low density PE made in La Porte, Texas.

In a June 17 customer letter obtained by Plastics News, LyondellBasell officials said force majeure was needed because of “an equipment failure beyond our reasonable control” at a reactor in La Porte.

Most regional PE prices had increased 5 cents in May and now are up 38 cents so far in 2021 and 58 cents since January 2020. HDPE prices are up 2 cents less than low and linear low density PE. The June price hike is the seventh consecutive for the PE market.

Market analyst Mike Burns said in an email that without additional disruptions, June PE inventory “should help aid the 90-day recovery.” Burns is with Resin Technology Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas.

“There’s still some tightness in the market,” added David Barry, a market analyst with PetroChem Wire in Houston. “Buyers can’t find everything they need, so they’re paying what they have to pay.”

Manufacturing output rose more than expected in May

From “Retail Sales, Factory Data Show Growing Pains for U.S. Recovery” (Bloomberg):

U.S. manufacturing output rose more than expected in May

The surge in demand has manufacturers struggling to keep pace. Factory output climbed 0.9% in May after a 0.1% April decline, the Fed’s report on Tuesday showed. The gain in factory output included a strong rebound in motor vehicle production and strength in machinery and chemicals.

Steady business investment, resilient consumer spending and a more recent pickup in export demand are all helping to fuel orders growth. When paired with a backdrop of lean inventories, factory output is poised to pick up steam in the months ahead.

Even so, headwinds remain. Producers continue to grapple with shipping delays, unfilled job openings and supply shortages like semiconductors.

The New York Fed’s index of manufacturing in the state showed more moderate growth in June. A gauge of delivery times climbed to a record high, while more factories reported shrinking inventories.

ICIS of Houston forecasts tight resin markets through the Q4

From “PE, PP, PET markets battle through 2021” (Plastics News):

Analysts with research firm ICIS of Houston took a look at factors impacting PE, PP and PET during a recent online webinar.

PE and PP both have seen major price increases since early 2020 as a result of strong demand and supply constraints. Brian Pruett, senior vice president with the Chemical Data Inc. unit of ICIS, said the PE market might see one or two additional increases this year before the market potentially enters into a price correction.

Regional PP prices could be up again in June, Pruett said, since PGP prices aren’t expected to decline. The lack of shipping container space, as well as higher shipping costs and longer lead times, have made it difficult for foreign PP to enter the domestic market and compete with higher-priced domestic resin.

ICIS Global Editor Joseph Chang said that resin markets could be tight through the fourth quarter, and that end markets could be affected by an increase in decarbonization, with many companies trying to reach net zero by 2050.

Three potential explanations for the puzzling labor shortages

From “Why are American workers becoming harder to find?” (The Economist):

There are three potential explanations for the puzzling shortages: over-generous benefits; fearful workers; and a reallocation of labour between industries. Start with America’s huge fiscal handouts. The latest stimulus cheques, posted in the spring, were for up to $1,400 per person. Seemingly every American knows of a neighbour’s cousin’s boyfriend who received a “stimmy” cheque, then quit his job in order to sit on the sofa. A federal supplement to unemployment insurance (ui), currently $300 a week, ensures that four in ten unemployed people earn more from benefits than they did in their previous job. Economic research has long concluded that more generous benefits blunt incentives to look for work.

Yet this relationship appears to have weakened during the pandemic. The fact that increases in ui payments have been time-limited may make workers reluctant to turn down a job with longer-lasting rewards. In the early part of the pandemic the ui supplement was even more generous, at $600, but its expiry in the summer had “little effect on overall employment”, according to a paper published in February by Arindrajit Dube of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Likewise, in the areas where the current $300 is a relatively larger boost to income, employment growth has not weakened since January, when that uplift was introduced.

This suggests that the second factor, fear, may be important in explaining America’s shortage of staff. Nearly 4m people are not looking for work “because of the coronavirus pandemic”, according to official data. And consider which industries are experiencing the most acute worker shortages. Jobs in health care, recreation and hospitality report the highest level of job openings, relative to employment. Many of these involve plenty of person-to-person contact, making their workers especially vulnerable to infection (a study from California earlier this year found that cooks were most at risk from dying of covid-19). By contrast, in industries where maintaining social distancing or being outside is often easier, labour shortages are less of an issue. The number of job openings per employee in the construction industry is lower today than it was before the pandemic.

The final reason for worker shortages relates to the extraordinary reallocation of resources under way in the economy. The headline growth in vacancies represents the rise in opportunities in some industries—say, clerks in diystores—as others decline, reflecting changing consumer demands. Analysis by The Economist of over 400 local areas also finds a wide variation in job churn across geographies: the gap between jobs growth in the most buoyant areas and that in struggling ones is twice as wide as it was before the pandemic. Workers may take time to catch up with this creative destruction. A former bartender looking for work in downtown Manhattan, for instance, may not quickly spot and secure a position as a delivery driver in farther-out Westchester.

How Are Industrial Manufacturers Embracing AI?

From SupplyChainBrain:

The KPMG study, “Thriving in an AI World,” examined AI adoption in seven industries, but this is the first year that it has addressed industrial manufacturing. And the results in that sector came as something of a surprise to those who assumed that many companies remain on the fence about investing in AI. In fact, 93% of the industrial manufacturing business leaders participating in the study said AI is “moderately to fully functional” in their organizations. That was the highest number among the seven industries surveyed by KPMG. And the same percentage of industrial manufacturing leaders said they wished their companies would even more aggressively adopt AI technology.

Why the strong numbers? Mathews speculates that it’s due to the suitability of AI as a “great enabler” of Industry 4.0 initiatives — the coming of the so-called smart factory. Neely adds that respondents might be more freely defining what constitutes AI today, applying the term to some of what they’ve already been doing in product development and automation. Study respondents offered yet another possible explanation for the rapid progress of AI, with 72% saying that COVID-19 has sped up its adoption.