Consumers and business customers have long bought products that come to them through connections between retailers, distributors, manufacturers, and parts suppliers. The difference today is speed, the quality of information, and the chance that a manufacturer or parts supplier may use robotics or 3D printing to help fulfill an order. Supply chain connections are becoming increasingly more seamless.
“It's about aligning human intelligence with automation by digitally connecting customers, manufacturers, and suppliers,” says Mark Lindquist, the chairman of Rapid-Line, a $25-million metal fabricator, which connects much of its supply chain to many of the 13 robots it uses on its Grand Rapids, Michigan, plant floor.
At Rapid-Line, robotics has provided a consistency when it comes to parts quality. And 3D printers are used within an eight- to 12-hour window to create new parts prototypes. “You dramatically reduce your inventory requirements,” says Lindquist. “You process more sales. You don’t have to buy a building.”
Increasingly, 3D printers are becoming part of the automated supply chain. Ryan Harrison, a senior product designer at GoPro, the San Mateo, Calif., the producer of versatile, wearable cameras, recalls a time when prototyping new parts took up to a week to be delivered to his product research lab. He now orders new parts by sending 3D CAD files through a cloud-based 3D printing firm, Fast Radius in Chamblee, Georgia, outside of Atlanta. Harrison can press “print” at 6:00 pm, and have parts delivered via UPS by 10:00 am.
“It’s basically like you have 50 machines at your disposal,” says Harrison. “The benefit of 3D printing is, you’re building on demand, so that you’re not warehousing parts.” Adds Mitch Free, the chairman of Fast Radius, “It makes sense to produce high-value products on demand that don’t have mass appeal.”
Gathering clouds for automation
Manufacturers are looking to IT systems that are cloud-based to help run order fulfillment and shipping processes. By using IT systems managed by outside vendors, companies don’t need to worry about maintaining the technology, or keeping the technology secure. It’s the responsibility of others.
Cloud-based systems help enable automation for mid-sized businesses. This allows companies to quickly scale up new processes, applications or services—or simply to collect operational data as it surfaces (often from sensors) in the supply chain.
The benefits of automation
Many of these new, fast-developing technologies within the digital supply chain promise cost-saving, value-creating benefits to manufacturers and distributors alike. These include:
A key question is whether there are limits to automation. An argument as old as the start of the Industrial Revolution posits that automation displaces workers. But one manufacturing engineering leader who extensively uses automated robotics systems within his New Jersey aerospace parts company disagrees. He contends that automated robots have “freed up workers to do other, more value-added tasks.”
Some worry that supply chain automation—fueled by cloud-based systems— provides security risks. But others see the potential of outside shipping, distribution and production vendors with cloud-based systems to offer much better security and back-up than they themselves can provide.
Indeed, Lindquist and Harrison subscribe to the notion that the supply chain will become increasingly automated. Robotics, 3D printing and cloud-based technologies will play a key role. “It’s getting from an idea to a product sooner,” say GoPro’s Harrison. “And not only that, it’s going to be a bigger win for the customer.”
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