Supply chains have increasingly come to rely on automation to improve efficiency and resiliency. Humans are no longer physically needed to manufacture products, load them onto trucks, deliver them to ports and load them onto ships, before they’re finally transferred to other trucks and delivered to warehouses. However, this process still very much involves hands-on assistance from people. A more “people-less” supply chain allows humans to monitor the whole process while every step is run autonomously.
Technological advances such as 5G connectivity, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and the internet of things (IoT) are making end-to-end automation possible. Even drone delivery isn't an entirely farfetched concept; Amazon.com Inc. is among the organizations that have experimented with it. The possibilities are endless, and the potential results could break new ground as supply chains evolve into efficient systems that can operate more autonomously.
Not all of the aforementioned technologies will produce results overnight, however. Per Gartner Inc.’s 2020 Hype Cycle for supply-chain strategy, it could take more than 10 years for A.I. to reach its plateau of productivity. Self-driving delivery trucks are still being tested, including the deployment of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to move cases and pallets, as well as advanced automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RSs) that store goods in large racks and rely on rail-attached robotic shuttles to move along the structure.
As robots assist with the physical components of the supply chain, automatically packaging and loading items, it will become more automated and less reliant on human involvement. Similarly, A.I. and machine learning will have the capacity to automate routine decisions, improving planning and other aspects of the digital supply chain. These technologies will help supply chains overcome their current challenges, and become more resilient to further disruptions.
Research has shown that A.I. and the future of automation — particularly the need to embrace the technology to remain competitive — is essential to the survival of global enterprises. However, this broad assessment fails to zero in on specific industries, creating the impression that some are exempt, when they are not. The need for A.I. and automation very much applies to supply chains in any industry, and even more so with the challenges introduced in 2020. It’s imperative that supply chains grow and become capable of handling whatever the world throws at them. They must be able to run on data autonomously, and operate effectively in an increasingly disrupted environment.
This isn’t a transition that businesses can hold off on thinking about while the necessary technology matures. They must start focusing on the prospects of a less-manual supply chain right, now while recognizing that it isn’t going to happen overnight. Each step of the way must be thought out and coordinated, taking the vast number of variables and influences into consideration. Supply chains may not remain linear; growing interest in the circular economy could have a huge impact on what shape these networks take going forward.
That said, evolution of the supply chain isn’t as simple as using robotics, A.I. and machine learning to replace manual tasks; people will still be overseeing and organizing the entire process. But now they’ll have the support they need from these technologies to do their jobs more efficiently. A more effective strategy would be to start by breaking down the needs of a company’s supply chain. It can then be rebuilt to meet the demands of the business, all the while deploying technology that’s ready to go, and can bring new value to the use case. This will likely involve network redesign, which then requires supporting organization and process redesign, and updating relevant systems. Which, in effect, means that businesses need to start planning now to prepare for the powerful and self-sufficient supply chains of tomorrow.
Supply chains are evolving. Their future lies in automation for both physical and digital aspects. Businesses can find hints of this future within the technological innovations that are developing around them, including robotics, A.I. and machine learning. There is the potential to combine those technologies into one extraordinary supply chain that operates independently of the manual processes that are currently in place. This automated and streamlined future is as exciting as it is inspiring, and it will completely transform the way in which products are manufactured, distributed and delivered.
Antony Lovell is vice president of applications with Vuealta.
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