We're living in an age when technology never seems to slow down, and the supply chain is no exception. There's no end to new ideas and tools for streamlining the movement of goods from the plant to D.C. and on to the consumer. Just keeping up with new developments in technology can be a challenging task. Following are excerpts from conversations between SupplyChainBrain editors and industry experts about the technological advances with the greatest potential for "disrupting" the supply chain, now and in the very near future.
Guy Courtin, vice president of industry and solution strategy, Infor: It’s an overused term, “disruptive technologies.” But some of the things that I’m looking at today are truly at the cusp of disruption: 3D printing, the Internet of Things, virtual and augmented reality, and even some old, common ones like social and mobile.
Steve Simmerman, senior director of sales, JDA: Artificial intelligence and big data are really affecting the systems of the future in the warehouse. We’re seeing more and more advanced planning and optimization engines being implemented on the software side of solutions. The same thing is happening on the material-handling side — many more intelligent robots, conveyors and warehouse execution systems. Machine learning is also a huge factor in the warehouse of the future.
John White, president and CEO, Fortna: I’ve been in this industry for 25 years in some way or another, and this is probably the most exciting time to be in it. The technologies are making it very exciting. We’re seeing lots of developments where we’re taking best practices from many other industries, including aerospace and defense and automotive. Robots are entering our warehouse and distribution arena. They’re able to deal with a lack of standards and more variability than they ever have before. Autonomous vehicles and drones, as well as augmented reality and wearables, are taking on an increased role in supporting warehousing distribution. And warehouse execution systems are bringing all of these technologies together, creating a broader solution that’s better optimizing people, flow and process, in order to achieve greater speed of order fulfillment.
Scott Eggenberger, director of business development, ProShip: Automation is becoming more prevalent inside the D.C., as a means of performing repetitive tasks, and doing things consistently and with the same process. The return on investment for automation is looking better every year, with people running more shifts, and more parcels being delivered. You get payback from a piece of equipment that never calls in sick, doesn’t have family problems, doesn’t quit and you don’t have to replace. It starts to become a pretty attractive proposition.
Joseph Shamir, CEO, ToolsGroup: Machine learning is a configuration that comes from the discipline of artificial intelligence. It conforms and creates a mechanism that allows the machine to learn from past events, and be able to predict future similar events based on all the attributes that happened in the past.
Courtin: What’s interesting about virtual and augmented reality is how they help the deeper parts of the supply chain. They help the employee who stocks my shelves, who’s been on the job for two weeks and needs to know exactly where to put certain things. Yes, I can give him a planogram on paper. Or I can give him glasses or some sort of virtual or augmented reality tool, which will tell him where to put the stock, or where product is in the stockroom.
Simmerman: Augmented reality is happening in the warehouse. Several customers are using Google Glass, or other types of devices like it. In one case, we’re seeing the merger of Google Glass and voice recognition, so that it’s hands-free and eyes-free. A lot is being done with augmented and virtual reality. The Internet of Things is affecting warehouses. And there’s a resurgence in RFID [radio frequency identification], both at the D.C. and store level. The technology is there, but it’s on a typical adoption lifecycle curve, where we go through a hype cycle, it recedes for a while, then goes mainstream.
Keith Phillips, president and CEO, Voxware: Augmented reality is unlike virtual reality, which blocks out the world and replaces it with something virtual. Augmented reality takes the environment that the worker is operating in, and brings different technologies into that workspace.
Jeff Christensen, vice president of products, Seegrid: Vision guidance for automated vehicles in industrial automation is a way of getting to independent navigation. The vehicle can adapt to the environment and drive to anywhere it needs to be. Traditional automated vehicles have tape guidance, paint, wires or reflectors — things that are built into the infrastructure.
Mick McCormick, vice president of warehouse solutions, Hyster-Yale Group: AGVs [automated guided vehicles] have been around in the supply chain and in manufacturing for years and years. The name itself is almost indicative of the challenges they’ve had. “AGV” implied a customized unit. What’s needed today is a lot more scale, and a lot more flexibility. When you look at lift trucks and add the moniker “robotics,” now you’ve got something with scale and the ability to support it across a wide geography. You’ve also got something that’s easily maintained. So you go from a custom piece to something that’s conventional. With the falling price of sensors today, and the increasing speed of computation, it’s becoming easier to quickly automate operations. You tie that in with telemetry data, and now you’ve got a full picture of what’s possible, and can slowly scale that up according to your infrastructure’s needs.
Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer, Rethink Robotics: Among the compelling things we’re seeing in automation these days are robots that are able to change tasks. They’re very flexible and adaptable. We’re all looking to create agile supply chains — we need robots that can change what they do in the course of a week or day, or even from hour to hour. As most manufacturing leaders will attest, the environment in a manufacturing or distribution operation shifts. Things aren’t always in the same place. A lot of equipment is on wheels or carts. So the ability to deal with the variation is really important.
Tony Dobson, managing director, Snapfulfil: A small robot that can drag things around the warehouse costs $30,000-$40,000. That can replace five or six people on a rotating shift. The ROI is just incredible on getting automation to do fundamentally simple tasks. You use people, with the hands and coordination to do the selection and scanning, and then you use the robots to do the trudging around the warehouse.
Al Dekin, senior vice president of sales and marketing, Locus Robotics: There’s a tremendous opportunity to leverage robots inside the four walls, to eliminate a lot of unproductive walking. It’s sort of taking a conveyor concept and putting it on steroids. Conveyors provide a basis for the movement of goods through the warehouse. Robots are even simpler. They provide a great deal of flexibility. An analogy I like to use is that conveyors are a lot like a subway system in Manhattan. They’re very good at transporting 500 people from 42nd Street down to Battery Park. But we think about the use of robots as something like an Uber inside the four walls. It’s about being able to manage and deploy very small and modular forms of transportation that can go anywhere, at any time, for any reason. That’s where you really start to unlock the value of robots.
Lawton: For the last 40 years, most of the supply-chain operations that used robots have been in the automotive industry. Sixty-five percent of all robots in the U.S. are sold into automotive. They’re doing things like welding and painting parts that go onto cars. That’s changing really rapidly. For the longest time, because you had to program a robot, it was essentially a science project to deploy, and limited the number of places where you could use them. Today, robots are used in small and medium-sized businesses. They’re in a wide variety of industries, from plastics to beverages and high-tech. They’re unloading production lines. They’re inserting circuit boards into testers. They’re changing out different devices in the manufacturing process. All of a sudden, robots can be used in a much wider variety [of applications] than they ever have been historically.
Bruce Welty, chairman, Locus Robotics: Just like the iPhone or the Tesla car is a platform, we’re doing most of our innovations in the software, and then we’re delivering those to your platform. We’re going to see more and more innovation around navigation, optimization and planning. We’ll continue to find really significant productivity gains with just software updates.
Christensen: The collaboration between automation and humans is critical for the growth of robotics in the industrial sector. If you segregate automation from people, you are segregating your business. All businesses are fully integrated, so you have to think of robots as just another colleague and team member alongside your human co-worker. We create systems to build trust between humans and the robots, so they can understand each other, and predict what the other is going to do. They can work collaboratively, not just in a physical sense, but in a business value sense.
Phillips: We’re not replacing human workers, but we’re certainly making them more efficient, enabling warehouses to take cost out of the supply chain. Which is just critical.
Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief innovation officer, Vecna Robotics: The factors that make a fleet of robots operate seamlessly within a supply chain come down to the level of collaboration and innovation, not only with humans in the environment, but also with equipment and systems. One of the things we hear most from customers today is their need to be agile. Fixed infrastructure and big projects with a long time horizon typically don’t get finished before their needs have changed. Companies are looking at an environment that mixes fleets, equipment and people, all working together effectively. That way, when something unexpected comes along — a peak, a fast mover, a seasonal change, a hot product — they’re able to adapt operations very quickly, and keep up with the competition.
Lawton: It is absolutely the case that robots going forward are going to be able to leverage artificial intelligence and look for patterns that are just beyond the capability of humans. What we’ll also see in manufacturing and distribution operations, though, is people being supported by robots, with the ability to leverage artificial intelligence. The decisions made by humans are augmented by the capabilities of these A.I.-enabled robots.
White: It’s an exciting time. There are a lot of new technologies coming out. I think we’re going to see greater adoption and maturing of technology. As with anything, things get improved. We’ll be able to optimize at a level that has not been done to date. Robotics will definitely grow. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll see more of that in the environment.
Chris Heslop, senior marketing manager, Honeywell: Automation is a phenomenon that we’ve been watching very closely. It’s not just a question of automation, or scanning, or voice, or whatever. There’s a place for all of these, when it comes to addressing spikes in activity. The advantage of automation is that you build repeatable systems and processes. The disadvantage is the upfront cost, and maybe the lack of flexibility that you have with full automation. That’s where having a combination of automation and dynamic capabilities like voice-directed work gives you a good balance. And that’s how I see many customers continuing to work.
Simmerman: The level of automation that’s going into D.C.s today, in response to the Amazon or Uber effect — all the digitization of the supply chain — is forcing the warehouse of the future to be more proactive, in terms of knowing in advance what it’s going to be doing. We see proactive and very dynamic systems that can respond to changing demand patterns, as a result of the e-commerce and omnichannel demand signal.
Lawton: When I think about 2030, one of the unique positions that robots are in is the opportunity to fuse together the automation of the cognitive with that of the physical. Robots are one of the few places where you have a device that is able to think, act and sense. That level of understanding can be used to drive insights. And then you use those insights to drive action.
Christensen: Supply chain, manufacturing and the growth of mass customization, with the overall complexity of everything that is being built and delivered today, are going to require automation. There’s no question about it in my mind.
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