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Supply Chain Automation And The Next Level of Supply Chain Robotics

a photo of a robot holding a box, depicting the fact that companies are seeing the advantages of robots amidst the progress in supply chain automation today

The role of supply chains as value drivers entails that there is a constant need to enhance speed and productivity. After all, the performance of a supply chain ties inextricably to the success of a business. For many years, technology has been helping companies respond to such need. Now, with the rise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a new generation of machines is taking over. Robots have become a key component of supply chain automation, and they will continue to transform operations in the space. In fact, projections suggest that 620,000 warehousing and logistics robot units will be shipped per year by 2021. Similarly, global sales will reach $22.4 billion the same year.

Indeed, many businesses are recognizing the advantages of robots. Thanks to supply chain robotics, more and more companies can cater to the growing demand for same-day delivery purchases.  Moreover, it’s improving the ability of businesses to innovate, deliver exceptional customer service, and gain a competitive advantage.

Bold Business associate Publisher John R. Miles interviewed Dr. Jean-Pierre Bardet, Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Miami, Dr. Byron Clayton, CEO Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, and Scott Gebicke, VP and head of global energy, industrial and building sectors at Jabil during the 2nd annual Synapse Innovation Summit regarding the impact of automation in global supply chains.

The Autonomous Robots Roving Warehouses Today                                           

Since their introduction in 1962, robotic equipment has been aiding operations in industrial manufacturing. With the rise of technological advancements like AI, machine learning and the Internet of Things, they have become immensely sophisticated over the years. Nowadays, robots in supply chain automation have advanced mobility, connectivity and safety measures built into their systems. These capabilities are driving robotic adoption in a broad range of applications across different industries.

a photo quote of Daniel Theobald amidst the progress in supply chain automation and several companies' recognition of the advantages of robots today
Daniel Theobald weighs in on the market for supply chain automation and the developments in supply chain robotics

One of the notable advantages of robots today over those from that past is that they are now less obtrusive. As a result, they are more suited to work alongside humans. Intuitive learning models even allow technicians and employees to train autonomous robots. As AI continues to advance, such learning will enable robots to be more responsive with minimal human feedback.

Different types of robotic equipment are bringing new levels of efficiency to supply chain automation.

Drones with RFID-scanning technology can perform real-time inventory visibility in warehouses. Robots operating with the goods-to-person function are eliminating a lot of unnecessary walking. They carry carts and move products between workers and stations. Likewise, they can be programmed to travel flexible routes in the warehouse. Self-driving forklifts perform load-handling processes that provide little-added value. Some of them have features such as navigation lasers, 3D camera, and acoustic warning indicators. These enable forklifts to safely move around in the vicinity of human workers.

Advantages of Robots Achieving Value Through Supply Chain Automation

Every year, the average warehouse worker wastes nearly seven weeks in excess motion. This wastage translates to more than $4.3 billion in labor. Employing autonomous robots for supply chain automation can reduce costs and raise revenue potential through optimized productivity and efficiency. They can also boost speed and inject flexibility into processes. For businesses, such abilities lead to increased value creation.

a photo of a robot sorting out boxes inside a warehouse amidst the progress in supply chain automation and several companies' recognition of the advantages of robots today
Robots operating with the goods-to-person function are eliminating a lot of unnecessary walking.

Supply chain robotics allows human workers to pass on tasks that they cannot, should not, or do not want to do. Among the advantages of robots is that they can work around the clock with consistent levels of quality and productivity. They can also access highly hazardous environments. This case leads to improved employee safety. Additionally, supply chain robotics reduces the error rate and frequency of inventory checks. Optimization of picking, sorting and storing times is also possible. Moreover, robots can bolster supply chain automation by performing mundane tasks with a lower value. This fact enables employees to focus more on strategic efforts that cannot be automated, such as customer service.

Continued development of autonomous robots could mean big things for supply chain automation. Expected improvements in dexterity, AI and trainability will open more opportunities for value creation.

a photo quote of Dr. Jean-Pierre Bardet amidst the progress in supply chain automation and several companies' recognition of the advantages of robots today
Dr. Jean-Pierre Bardet notes the impact of AI amidst advancements in supply chain robotics

Companies Boosting Supply Chains with Robots

Amazon is one of the top leading companies when it comes to recognizing the advantages of robots and to the adoption of supply chain robotics. Since it acquired Kiva Systems, the e-commerce giant has continually expanded deployment. As of January 2017, Amazon has had more than 45,000 warehouse robots.

BMW Group has also been developing innovations for supply chain automation. Among them are robots and autonomous transport systems. BMW’s Munich factory produces 1,000 units each day with the help of robots that press metal and assemble parts. They have undoubtedly harnessed the advantages of robots. Additionally, the automaker has ongoing trials for augmented reality glasses for scanning and packing in the warehouse. The glasses can increase productivity by 20 percent and reduce error rate by 33 percent.

Director of Robotic Shuttles at Bastian Solutions, Chris Morgan, noted that even more companies would follow suit in the coming years. “The technology has improved dramatically in the last decade,” he said. “Costs are coming down and allowing everyone to participate in the development and advancement of automation as a whole.”

Effectively Leveraging Supply Chain Robotics

Clearly, robots have become a critical technology in supply chain automation. Businesses that embrace this fact must continue to find innovative ways in their applications since more and more companies are recognizing the advantages of robots. According to Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, “Anyone can build a robot that does one thing well; the real opportunity lies in deploying a modular platform that can be extended to a wide variety of solutions.”

Moreover, extracting value out of the data related to supply chain automation is paramount. Companies who are better able to leverage such data will be in a better position to drive value for customers. Supply chain robotics provides a mechanism to do just that.

a photo quote of Bruce E. Welty amidst several companies' recognition of the advantages of robots and the progress in supply chain automation today
Bruce E. Welty notes what is necessary for companies utilizing supply chain automation amidst advancements in supply chain robotics

As the prevalence of robotics in supply chain automation continues to increase, roles and responsibilities of employees are likely to evolve. Retraining staff is necessary to equip them with skills to operate such advanced machines. Businesses must strive for a balance between automation and human involvement to ensure seamless progress. After all, robots in the supply chain should support humans, not replace them.


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