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Teen inventors, supply chain exec talk robotic delivery solutions

Teen inventors Harry Wang and Jonathan Lei

What do you get when you curate a conversation between two teenage tech whizzes and a 30-year veteran of the supply chain industry?

A snapshot of the supply chain profession past and present. And a glimpse of the new tech talent that will continue to reshape an industry undergoing radical change.

“Your mix of supply chain knowledge with technical [expertise] is going to make you both wildly successful,” said Kevin O’Meara, vice president, integrated supply chain for Shaw Industries, a leading manufacturer of flooring products. “The days of being like me where you’re all about supply chain – those days are gone.”

O’Meara participated in a telephone conversation with eighth grade students Jonathan Lei, of Acton, Massachusetts, and Harry Wang, of Carlisle, Massachusetts.

Wang and Lei were among over 400 finalists at the 2018 National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo, held at the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan.

Their invention, named Robo Postal, consists of an automated delivery system that addresses the problem with short-term delivery – “It’s extremely expensive because of the hub and spoke system,” Lei explained.

Robo Postal finds the fastest route from its current location to a specified destination by using an onboard GPS and a compass. It then navigates the grid with the shortest route calculated.

The Conversation

O’Meara asked Lei and Wang about potential applications for the technology. Do they envision deploying Robo Postal from a truck, or would the technology be used to deliver packages from a warehouse to the final destination?

“We were thinking about it as point-to-point rather than standard delivery,” said Lei. A user would summon the robot via app – “like Uber Eats for package delivery,” he said.

O’Meara applauded that idea but also suggested the inventors broaden their thinking by considering the delivery concept known as “stem and petal,” in which a driver pulls up to a central location – the stem – then “petals” out the final deliveries located in a single high-density area.

“Imagine if I’m the driver,” O’Meara explained. “Rather than making 20 deliveries, I just shoot them out and they make all the deliveries.”

O’Meara and the teens engaged in some back and forth about drones. Lei and Wang researched aerial technology but didn’t think drones would function efficiently in an urban environment. O’Meara agreed but suggested that rural areas might benefit from a combination of drones and Robo Postal.

“You have this incredible technology,” he said. “Now let your mind wander in terms of all the ways it could be utilized.”

On April 27, Lei and Wang were featured on the CW’s “Did I Mention Invention” television program. The digital natives said they have been interested in computer programming and video games since they were in elementary school, and that they perfected the technology while attending a computer science academy called KTByte.

O’Meara’s background, by contrast, is steeped in traditional supply chain and logistics practice. He joined the military out of college, where he “got a feeling for how supply chain works,” and has held numerous executive positions with major brands including Schneider and Whirlpool.

Old and new

He gave the kids a brief history of the supply chain industry. Walmart (NYSE: WMT), he explained, invented the idea that a supply chain can be a competitive advantage.

“They built out an incredible supply chain and no one could touch it.” Dell was another early adopter known for moving its products quickly – “a recipe for massive profitability even though Dell didn’t make any computer that was different than any other computer.”

O’Meara also said, “Then of course Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) came along, and Amazon is far more a supply chain company than it is a retailer, marketer or merchandiser.”

“Supply chain,” he concluded, “has moved from a back office necessary evil to the front office. It is the core of what companies do today.”

The disruptors

But that core now revolves around technology innovation, a shift that Lei and Wang are well-positioned to benefit from.

“What’s interesting is the more you learn, the more you are inspired,” said Lei, who recently enrolled in artificial intelligence classes.

What else is on their agenda? Lei already has his own website hosting service with around 60 customers and 190 orders from 20 countries. His goal is to become an entrepreneur.

Wang said he is thinking about going into the technology field. “I just find it interesting,” he said.

Robo Postal is right in line with the evolution of the industry, O’Meara said. “In fact you are further ahead than some. There is no doubt my industry is in good hands.”

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]