Hints of Philly's robotic future: Drones and data dashboards speed deliveries. Will this cut jobs?

Elliott Bokeno, an engineer for Workhorse, an Ohio- based, publicly traded company that makes electric vans for UPS and other shippers, is offsite in this picture, directing a van-based HorseFly package-delivery drone the company is developing for Amazon and others. The octocopter and its load are visible in front of the model house behind the screen. The company showed off its systems at the PMMI equipment-manufacturers convention, which drew 6,000 to the Pennsylvania Convention Center on April 16.

The robots are here, as well as the data systems that make it possible to work faster, cheaper, from a distance, through your smartphone. Here are three recent Philly examples:

On the road 

Last winter, when homes and businesses were burning extra bottled-gas fuel and frozen roads slowed deliveries, AmeriGas, the nation’s largest propane distributor, put its new data dashboard to work pinpointing which trucks to roll where to reach the most users, in the worst weather, by the fastest way possible. 

“It’s a magical tool,” says Jerry Sheridan, CEO of King of Prussia-based AmeriGas, referring to the “district dashboard” system, designed by Radnor-based Qlik, which splits nearly 2 million AmeriGas customers in all 50 states into 640 retail zones handling five million deliveries a year. “Now, a manager can see where all his drivers are, six or seven trucks out at any one time. [If] there’s an emergency, a driver can see how much propane is available, and who’s capable of a delivery.

“The system shows your, safety, customer service, growth and distribution performance information,” mapped, graphed, charted and colored, customized for the user, Sheridan added. “It’s like the dashboard when you’re driving a car,” but easier to update. “You can look at it a few minutes and really get your arms around the operation. It shows where you stand, for example, as a store manager, and through the chain of command. And now our drivers carrying iPads can use it to execute their routes.

“By knowing where the trucks were, and monitoring compliance, we were able to pull $20 million in costs out of the system” this year, Sheridan said. “It’s a massive return” on a software installation. “One of our lead business-intelligence guys is getting hugs from people in the field when they find out he’s the guy who helped put this together. And he’s not a hugging kind of guy.”

Back in 2011, AmeriGas had installed enterprise software from SAP SE, whose U.S. headquarters is in Newtown Square, to manage its customer data. But a few years ago, his team realized all the data were being used by accountants in investment and regulatory statements, but not “by our managers in our retail locations. We couldn’t answer the simple question: Did we have a good day today, or not?” recalls Sheridan.

So, in 2015, AmeriGas went hunting for more software that could create easy-to-read “dashboard” screens that truck drivers and managers could use to plot work. “We looked long and hard at how people received information, to understand how their local business group was performing” to create a “district dashboard” for each retail zone, AmeriGas CIO James Maguire said.

Qlik isn’t a household name, even for AmeriGas workers. Other firms helped with the installation. Qlik competed with Seattle-based Tableau and SAP, among others. “SAP has much better tools now than when we started looking,” said Maguire. “But we were looking at trying to get something moving very, very fast,” and Qlik said it could do that, and did, integrating with SAP. Sheridan and Maguire couldn’t quantify total savings, because the lower cost enables them to fill more orders. But they know a key metric — gallons delivered per mile — is rising, while miles between stops are dropping. Which is good.

From the sky

The boxy electric delivery van was parked in a batting cage set on plastic turf, inside a loud exhibit hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. This was Monday, at PMMI PACK EXPO East 2018, the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute’s annual show, attracting 6,000 mid-Atlantic factory owners and makers of pills, packaged food, and metal goods April 16-18, where they swapped deal talk and argued which technologies would compel them to upgrade systems this year.

The van’s cab top buzzed and the roof drew back. A white drone rose from the truck, eight vertical propellers spinning, black hanging arms bearing a load in a brown paper bag.

Elliot Bokeno, an engineer for publicly-traded, Ohio-based Workhorse, which builds electric vans for UPS and is testing drone systems for Amazon, put the Horsefly octocopter drone through its paces.

It placed the bag gently on the ground outside a model home, then landed on it by accident; Bokeno slipped under the netting and nudged the drone with his foot, without breaking his patter. That “doesn’t happen” outdoors, where the system uses GPS, he told the crowd.

The drone buzzed back to pick up the bag and lifted it into the truck. “We wrote that software,” Bokeno told the crowd. One drone does multiple deliveries, the most-distant in a driver’s territory. “The truck can continue on its way and make other deliveries.” The drones will catch up. Except in heavy snow or hail or winds over 20 knots.

Won’t this put drivers and loaders out of work? I ask. “Autonomous tech is coming,” said Bokeno. There will still be human loaders, and route programmers: “The drone is not going to work for everything.”

The use of “bags” was a takeaway for Mike Bacior, a FedEx representative watching the demo from the delivery giant’s Lewisberry, Pa. hub. “Bags are the future.” Easier for drones to manage, than boxes, he said.

In the pipe 

Deep in Fairmount Park, Carey Fisher, director of engineering for Georgia-based OmniMetrix, shut the cover on a box that looked like a fancy electric meter. It was an OmniMetrix Hero rectifier, passing current to a buried steel pipeline pushing crude oil toward Delta Airlines’ Monroe Energy oil refinery in Delaware County. The low current keeps the pipe from rusting.

Electrified steel pipe is an old technology. But the Hero is packed with sensors to remotely measure and wirelessly report that the pipe is still connected, and resisting rust. So the pipeline company’s corrosion technicians don’t have to walk through the woods to check the dials.

Customers include cellphone tower operator American Tower, which uses the meters to decide which towers to service when a hurricane is bearing down, as well as Acme and Amazon’s Whole Foods, which use the meters to centralize refrigeration and freezer temperature monitoring.

“These meters helped Sprint keep its cell towers in Puerto Rico running during the hurricane,” maintained Walt Czarnecki, the Abington native who is OmniMetrix’s CEO. (The company is owned by Delaware-based Acorn Energy.) “We’re going to continue to grow, in this Internet of Things space.”