Logistics innovation begins in the Kenco lab


3PL’s in-house Innovation Lab is using current technologies to create solutions

In the world of third-party logistics providers, Kenco Group is a familiar name. In business for more than 60 years, the company includes Kenco Logistic Services, Kenco Transportation, Kenco Toyota-Lift, Kenco Management Services and JDK Real Estate. Kenco offers integrated logistics solutions that include distribution and fulfillment, comprehensive transportation management, material handling services, real estate management, and information technology.

Kenco logo

Kenco Group manages over 90 distribution facilities and has over 200 clients. It is the largest women-owned logistics company in the U.S. That gives it a strong position within the industry to build on, and Kenco has done just that with its Innovation Lab, a separate division within the company that seeks out innovative logistics solutions for both its own operations and that of its customers.

“About two years ago we decided to invest in this group because we were always getting requests through RFPs that included changing technology in the industry,” explains Matt McLelland, innovation research manager of the Chattanooga, TN-based firm. “We decided we wanted to take positions in products. We go in and educate customers on things that will affect their operations, for example, either next week, next month, five years or 10 years.”

The Innovation Lab team is just three people: McLelland, Kristi Montgomery, vice president of innovation, and Trever Ehrlich, creative solutions manager. But it answers directly to the CEO, giving it a level of autonomy and the speed necessary to react to customer inquiries.

Areas of research vary, McLelland says, but the group tries to “think inside the box” and solve current problems. The group doesn’t create technologies, rather it works with providers of existing technologies to use those solutions in innovative ways.

Research supports existing customers and uses existing technologies, often in new ways, McLelland says. “There are some things that are interesting to follow, but it doesn’t make sense to do work on the hyperloop, for instance,” he adds.

The group has done a lot of work with drones, McLelland points out. Another is inventory tracking. In fact, Innovation Labs is to implement an inventory tracking solution for testing in a warehouse facility.

“There is a company that does real-time inventory in hospital environments and we talked to them about trying it in a warehouse,” he says. “We’re not inventing the technology, but partnering with companies who have it.”

Another project the group is working on is a “Facetime on wheels” robot. The telepresence robot provides real-time video to allow remote operators the ability to observe and be onsite virtually.

Innovation Labs also created a phone app that automates the process of recording shipment conditions to eliminate chargebacks that occur when a pallet or box is damaged. The app allows the driver to take a picture and uploads that image to a searchable cloud-based storage site.

There is a company that does real-time inventory in hospital environments and we talked to them about trying it in a warehouse. We’re not inventing the technology, but partnering with companies who have it.
— Matt McLelland, innovation research manager

There is also work ongoing with augmented reality, wearables and 3D printing among other areas.

Because the group answers directly to the CEO, it has also become the go-to place for employees within Kenco to submit ideas.

“We are kind of a repository for any of our associates,” McLelland notes. “So if anyone has an idea that might save money, it comes directly to use and we will evaluate it.”

That keeps the innovation moving, he adds, instead of getting bogged down in bureaucracy.

The Kenco Innovation Lab states its mission is to “expand Kenco’s market reach by unleashing ideas and serving as passionate advocates and educators of innovation.”

In a video explaining how it goes about its mission, the Lab notes that it utilizes design thinking, analyzes things from different perspectives, recognizes patterns, ideates from the bottom up, brainstorms with no constrains and performs rapid prototyping.

Its reach, though, goes beyond the walls of Kenco and is impacting the supply chain in ways even it hasn’t imagined.