It was a few interesting days in Chicago.

I recently attended a trade show that featured “the future of supply chains”: ProMat 2023. Quite a different experience from attending one of the many roofing shows the rest of the Roofing Supply Pro team, and I have been exposed to over the years. Covering the roofing supply industry well beyond the bounds of our legacy publication, Roofing Contractor, will require many more study trips such as this.

Most of my years in roofing-oriented distribution were about operations. While I loved dealing with roofing contractors and selling roofing, my main focus was keeping a lid on expenses and ensuring “the trains run on time.” While it is true that nothing happens until someone sells something, leaning into operational excellence is a daily part of the routine of any successful roofing supply company or branch.

The future of the supply chain looks like something from outer space compared to the routines we deal with in even the most modern roofing supply enterprise. ProMat, a show presented by MHI, a leading trade association serving the supply chain, featured booth after booth of robotic arms and software solutions for the manufacturing and high-volume retail sides of the supply chain. All good, but I was after something more “down to earth.” I was not disappointed.

Virtually every manufacturer of forklifts and forklift accessories was on hand to show off their latest and greatest innovations. Notably, there were many firms exhibiting products and services all about safety. That is a good thing for everyone involved in operating a lift. Without these magnificent machines — which we take for granted — the roofing supply world would grind to a virtual halt.

Of particular interest to me were the manufacturers showing forks. Yes, forks. If you have operated a forklift in a roofing warehouse for a few years, you know they wear out and must be replaced. I have learned that you now have an option of forks with “headlights” on the tips. I can think of instances where that might be extremely useful. And one really creative solution is a video camera on the fork sending images to a screen the operator can monitor for those precarious and “really high” picks.

Speaking of “really high,” ProMat featured all manners of specialty and even automated rack systems. For Roofing Supply Pro, we are not interested in all those sexy things. There were, however, several manufacturers of conventional selective and cantilever rack systems. One new one was from Australia with a rack manufactured in Vietnam.

I noted several unique solutions for guarding rack uprights that were relatively inexpensive and easy to install. When was the last time you mounted a serious rack inspection? If it is time, consider not only repairing damaged uprights and beams but add on some protective measures to make the next inspection goes smoother.  

One exhibitor did have a “high-tech” solution that would appeal to roofing supply companies. They furnish a video security system that operates from an exclusive Wi-Fi system. Protecting materials and equipment stored outdoors is a perennial issue in the roofing and building material supply industry. With this kind of broadband horsepower, you can monitor acres and acres with a high degree of reliability.

To overcome the drudgery of re-striping warehouse floors, at least two manufacturers of laser/high-intensity lighting systems that “paint” the warehouse floor with stripes (in your choice of colors), directional signs, or just about anything else you would want to be painted on your floor exhibited at the show. And if you want to move the lines, just move the light fixtures.

This brief commentary does not do the ProMat experience justice. Two days and 30,000 steps were still not enough to see everything; even with me walking past any exhibitor I thought would not appeal to a roofing supply company.

ProMat is an every-other-year trade show. In the alternating years, MHI produces MODEX, which should be more attuned to the needs of the roofing supply industry since it leans into logistics beyond the walls of the distribution center. You will find me there March 11-14, 2024 in Atlanta.

Stay tuned to Roofing Supply Pro for much, much more information about all of the new and innovative solutions for materials handling. While you are at it, make sure you tell all of your operational team to sign up for our twice-monthly eNews.