Episode 14

The Evolution and Growth of Automation Technologies

with Kara Ashby

Kara Ashby

President of Sedlak Supply Chain Consultants

In this episode, Tee Ganbold sits down with Kara Ashby, President of Sedlak Supply Chain Consultants to talk about the evolution of Automation and how companies are utilizing the ever-changing technologies in the supply chain to increase productivity and drive growth.

Topics in this conversation include:

  • How Sedlak is helping clients with automation needs (2:00)
  • Exploring the core values of family, faith and profession in automation (4:46)
  • Where is automation headed in the future? (6:28)
  • Working with larger and smaller companies in providing automation solutions (8:50)
  • With automation being more familiar to clients, how is it changing? (11:35)
  • How the pandemic has pushed innovations in automation (13:40)
  • Where Sedlak is focusing on growth? (17:30)
  • Exciting initiatives for the future of Sedlak (19:20)

Automating The Chain bridges the learning gap between business executives and their technical counterparts. Each episode, we learn from CTOs and experts in industrial automation as they explain their technology in an accessible way. For more information, or to subscribe, please visit automatingthechain.com.

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Tee Ganbold  0:09  

Welcome to Automating The Chain, the weekly podcast and webinar specifically engineered to support and educate executives as they explore the potential of industrial automation. Each week we sit down with an executive leader or their technical counterpart of an international organization to discuss how they plan to leverage industrial automation to advance their business, who also have startups focused on automating the supply chain, explain the technology in an accessible way. Experts in the field will color in historical and current case studies. Without further ado, let’s get into the show.


Hi, Kara! How are you today?


Kara Ashby  0:56  

Good, Tee Ganbold. How are you?


Tee Ganbold  0:57  

Very well, thank you. Well, I just want to begin by introducing you to anyone listening or watching today’s episode of Automating The Chain. Kara Ashby, you are the current CEO—or president, as you say in America—of Sedlak consultancy. You guys are a supply chain consultancy and you’ve been essentially a, I believe, fourth-generation family business and you’re the only female in your family that’s been running this business, as of the last two years. That shouldn’t matter, but it’s still significant in the sense that we don’t have enough female leaders out there. But on that note, I just want to turn it to you and say, firstly, thank you very much for being on the show and, secondly, I would love to learn more about Sedlak. Where are you going in the next 20, 30 years? And of course, what are you guys doing right now?


Kara Ashby  1:59  

Thanks to you. I’m happy to be on the show today. So as you mentioned, I’m in my second year of being the president of Sedlak. And I’ve actually been with the company a little over 24 years now. When I first started, I started with an IT project (which was helping one of our clients implement a new WMS) and actually fell in love with that type of work. You got to meet and talk with all levels of an organization—from floor level associates all the way up to CIO, CEO—and I had a great time. Long days, long nights, but I have been really spending most of my time in that arena of Sedlak. However, over the last several years as automation and technology have changed drastically, this is my new kind of area of passion: robots, automating some outdated facilities for our clients, helping them gain their real true potential in the facility and supply chain space. So it’s been a lot of fun, a lot of hard work. Sedlak really specializes in all of the new technologies that are out there from robotics to goods-to-person to high-speed sortation. We really look to see what’s best for our clients and what makes sense for their product lines and how they’re growing and what their ROI is. We never want to propose something that will not work for them. And I really think over the next 5, 10, 15 years, the market is really going to expand. We’ve seen that over the last couple years, not only with automation but with technology and systems as well. There’s a lot of new supply chain software out there that our clients are looking at and we’re helping them choose what makes sense for their company and where they’re headed. So it should be a really exciting next 10, 15, 20 years. There’s gonna be a lot of growth, a lot of growth.


Tee Ganbold  4:08  

One of the founding principles, actually three of them: family, faith, profession. What I found so interesting about that is your profession is the supply chain industry and it seems like you’ve really passed that on as a family. I’ve just wondered, from an automation perspective, how do you feel about your family now? Are they all specializing in automation? Is that where the next generation is sort of going down? I know it’s quite a personal question but when I saw that…


Kara Ashby  4:43  

No, that’s a very good question. We really strive here at Sedlak to be very well-balanced and all of our associates have automation backgrounds and systems backgrounds and I really think that’s important because you can develop a strategy involving automation, but you really need to fit it into the overall picture of the facility, which is driven by a system of some sort. So here at Sedlak, we’re really kind of taking a multi-pronged approach of looking at all these new automation technologies out there, as well as how they fit in with the different systems running the facilities. We really do think that this is the way of the future, of automating facilities with robots and different kinds of AMR, AGVs. There’s a ton on the market right now that our clients are looking at. So it should be something that everyone really analyzes and makes sure it makes sense for them. And that’s why we’re here, to help them do that.


Tee Ganbold  5:50  

By the way, if anyone is a little bit stuck on the terminology,—AMR and a few other technical terms—please tune in on the weekly bar session where we explain and go through a lot of the keywords as well as history. But turning back to you and Sedlak’s view on the next six years, let’s talk about the industry, where automation in the supply chain is at the moment, and where do you think it will be in the next six years? What is your view from Sedlak?


Kara Ashby  6:27  

Sure. What we’re seeing out there right now is our clients and potential clients are really struggling with speed-to-market, getting their product into the customer’s hands as quickly as possible. There’s also a huge labor shortage going on. People are leaving a facility because they can go down the street and make a little bit more, so it’s creating huge gaps in our clients’ workforce and that’s where the technology, the automation is coming in to help fill that gap of leveling the playing field if you will, and it’s getting their products out faster. It’s giving them a little bit of ease knowing, “Hey, this is a little bit easier. I can pick up a robot and move it to another facility.” If they have to expand and open up a pop-up facility or something like that, this new technology out there is really, really versatile, and that’s what a lot of our clients are seeing. It’s not a bunch of conveyors bolted into the floor that, “Hey, I’m kind of stuck with it here for 10 years.” I think in the next 60 years we’re going to see a lot more automation that’s very flexible, very nimble be brought up very quickly because that’s what our customers need now. They don’t need a project that’s going to take two years to implement. They need something in several weeks to help with the challenges they’re facing in the market. And that’s where we see a lot of these providers are really making that advantageous for our clients and getting things done quickly and up and running. And it’s not a huge learning curve, very short testing cycles, just because it’s so proven out in the marketplace.


Tee Ganbold  8:17  

So it sounds like access is definitely a bounty for the small, medium enterprises. Would you say that, historically, it’s been larger enterprises with x amount of facilities who return to you and say, “We’d like automation”? How has that shifted today? Can you give us quantitatively what the size of facilities you might need to even consider and potentially qualify as your customer?


Kara Ashby  8:46  

Sure. We really work with all ends of the spectrum in terms of our customer base, from small companies all the way up to the very large customers. Historically, the larger companies have tended to be able to have more automation in their facilities because their ROI is easier to digest and be able to get budgets approved. Whereas the smaller companies, that’s a huge stake for them to put in the ground. And what we’re seeing now is the mid to smaller range clients, now with such a short ROI for some of these technologies, that they can get their foot in the door and start using them. So there really is a large interest out there from kind of the mid-market to the smaller end clients looking for this technology and automation. So it’s going to be very interesting for our vendor partners in this space because I think that their demand is going to go through the roof and it’s really going to help our clients out.


Tee Ganbold  9:57  

And do you work—just to give clarity—do you work with the OEM partners as well as the end-users? How do you fit in the ecosystem?


Kara Ashby  10:07  

Sure. We are a true consulting company, so we work with our clients to understand what their needs are. We develop concepts and then we send our packages out to our vendor partners and have them respond with what we asked for. They may come back with a slightly different concept, and then we take those back and work with our clients to say, “We think this may be the best route to take for your facility.” It could be a mix of different vendors in a facility, but we really try to get what makes sense for them and what will help them increase their productivity in the facilities.


Tee Ganbold  10:47  

Fantastic. And for those who are— I always go back to the evolution or the history of something. Have you seen that automation as a concept has been— You said it’s been adopted, but how have you seen the evolution today? For example, are your customers much more tech-savvy? So when you speak to them, you’re actually speaking to more than the CIO level with individuals? Or are you still speaking with the CEOs or the CFOs? Can you just give us a bit of an understanding of that?


Kara Ashby  11:21  

Sure. It has been changing quite frequently. Now that automation is so highly recognizable out in the industry, I feel like our clients are coming to us with more knowledge of what’s out there and what may work, what may not work. They may not necessarily know all the ins and outs of what exactly it does, but they at least are coming to us with an idea of what they would like to do in their facilities and then we help work them through some other alternatives that are out there as well that could help in the facilities. So I do think we still have a very large presence with the CIO, CEO, CFOs, but I would say even the next tier down are doing the homework of “let’s see what’s out there. Let’s see, who knows to do with it.” And so it’s been a very interesting progression of how automation is changing because, back when we first started, a lot of the technologies were unknown or not really realized what it could do for them, so that’s been a change for us.


Tee Ganbold  12:32  

We have these posters of CIOs saying, “Yeah, we have this digital strategy for the next five years.” Now— I don’t if you’ve been listening to a lot of the world economic forum discussions on the great reset, but in two months, things that were planned for five years have been adopted by the C suite of some of the largest enterprises out there. We’re talking about digital transformations that typically take years. In the case of automation, which still is a concept not everyone fully understands simply because there are so many components to it, where’s the market at? And why is it important now more than ever, you know, a year into the pandemic? We’re sitting here all still at home unable to get out of our homes, and yet there are clearly robots doing the work that we simply might not be allowed to do for health reasons and for our own security, our health security.


Kara Ashby  13:35  

Right, that’s very, very true, Tee Ganbold. There’s so much out on the marketplace right now in terms of technologies. I really feel probably in the next several years, there’ll be a grouping together. I think the number of robot companies may be consolidated due to acquisitions and things of that nature. And there’s such a wide array of different platforms out there. There are robots to help in the pharmaceutical or healthcare industry, which are very different than robots to help with picking up a pair of jeans or a piece of apparel. What I see as really critical in looking at automation is how it’s going to reduce your training time, how scalable it is, and how easy it is to implement. Those are the three key areas that we focus on with our clients because, like what you said, people want something up next month and that may not be as easy to do with prior technologies, but where we’re heading in the future, it’s something that we all have to get to and respond to very quickly.


Tee Ganbold  14:51  

So let’s zone in on this year: 2021, a year into the pandemic. What will companies actually need? What can they realistically achieve in a year’s time? If there’s clearly demand, there’s interest, and they want to start automating parts of their, let’s say, manufacturing hub, what can they realistically get? And what should they focus on this year?


Kara Ashby  15:19  

Sure, so the key things are identifying what type of technology you need, because—you know, I throw out some buzzwords: AGVs, AMRs—but there are so many things out there. Do they need a good salesperson solution? Or do they need someone to help in picking? Or do they need goods brought to them in packing? The real shift this year, as you said, is a labor shortage and getting people to work safely amid the pandemic. That’s really where a lot of our clients’ concerns are, is making sure that I can still get my product out the door. Are we actually in for manufacturing is the first key piece and then bring it in, stage it, and then ship it to the end customer and really look at what technologies are out there that fit their needs is really key. With the timelines that we’re seeing for the technology, you can get it in very, very quickly depending on, you know, is it a robot? Is it service? Or is it more of a “hey, I need to bolt conveyor in the ground and do high-speed sortation”? You know, that’s a little bit longer leeway. But it’s something that everyone right now is asking questions about. It’s top of mind for everyone, just to help out with their supply chain and making sure they get their products to their customers.


Tee Ganbold  16:43  

As you know, I’m very passionate about shortening the business-to-business sales cycle simply because it is quite inefficient today, hence my why I am in the automation industry. So for those who are potential customers of yours or potential partners, can you just tell us where is your focus right now? What size customers would you like to be knocking on your door? Or ideally, from a growth perspective, where do you think you would like to focus? So your current customer base, where you’d like to take it, and potentially which markets are you interested in?


Kara Ashby  17:24  

Historically, we’ve really been in all markets and all verticals from retail to wholesale to manufacturing, health care, life science. What we’re seeing right now due to the pandemic are clients who have shifted from a retail to more of an econ strategy because people are tending to just order from home instead of going out. A lot of what we’re seeing is their facilities aren’t set up to handle that surge and growth in the direct-to-consumer space. So that’s where we’re seeing our biggest growth right now is clients who are looking to leverage some current facility networks and changing what the layout looks like inside to help with getting the goods to the customer, so that’s in the form of any kind of automation to help that out. And we’re really looking at all customers, regardless of size, because there’s such a need right now to automate these facilities that historically may not have been automated.


Tee Ganbold  20:03  

Fantastic. Well, Kara, I’m so, so grateful for your time and hope to have you on the show very soon, Kara.


Kara Ashby  20:11  

Yes! Thank you so much, Tee Ganbold. It was great talking with you today.


Tee Ganbold  20:14  

Thanks so much for listening! If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review and let us know what you liked. To follow along with future episodes, be sure to subscribe on the podcast platform of your choice, or head over to AutomatingTheChain.Com for the latest updates. Until next time!