The global supply chain has been highly unpredictable over the past several years. For many organizations, the key to navigating multiple challenges has been deploying automation wherever possible. Their long-term competitiveness rests on mastering operational automation at scale as a critical differentiator.
Automation in the supply chain is certainly not new; companies have been trying to support manual operations with machines for decades. However, recent advances in artificial intelligence-based systems have made automation far more effective. Companies can now use analytics to determine their current state of operations and make needed adjustments accordingly.
Automation can also distribute tasks based on real-time capabilities, location and availability; adapt workflows to efficiently run through diverse levels of demand and operational changes, and share information across people, robots and associated systems. In addition, lower costs for technologies such as lidar, improvements to critical features like chargeable batteries, and the continued broadening adoption of 5G wireless in internet-of-things settings, have created a massive opportunity for companies of all sizes to compete via the integration of automation across their operations.
Efficiency in the Warehouse
There are several reasons why automation in the supply chain makes sense. For one, it can help flatten the curve and provide reliable, continuous productivity at a time when many companies are relying on limited labor in short shifts.
The shortage of workers for distribution, warehousing and manufacturing organizations began well before the 2021 “great resignation” of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs. According to consulting firm Deloitte, the U.S. manufacturing sector could have 2.1 million job vacancies by 2030.
For organizations facing labor shortages, technology can have a huge impact in enabling better throughput and increased quality of products. It can also significantly affect job retention and satisfaction for factory workers.
A good example of how automation can deliver productivity during the labor shortage is the use of self-driving forklifts. There are about 5 billion pallets in circulation every day worldwide, according to the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association. In the U.S. alone, the manufacturing industry relies on more than 4.5 million human operators to move these pallets. These jobs are repetitive and tedious, and in a competitive job market the positions can be difficult to fill and have high turnover rates. People prefer to take on more complicated tasks requiring creativity and problem-solving.
Self-driving forklifts, a type of autonomous mobile robot (AMR), are intelligent fork trucks powered by technology. They’re similar to the pallet-handling industrial trucks used in warehouses to lift and move materials, but with the intelligence to operate without a human.
These systems can help support human workers by independently executing tasks such as moving finished goods to and from conveyors and wrappers, transporting lightweight trash and empty pallets off the production floor, moving goods to and from staging lanes and putaway locations, and delivering parts to manufacturing assembly lines.
These machines can work around the clock without breaks, boosting productivity and output significantly. And by taking on mundane and dangerous jobs, tools such as AMRs enable human workers to find more fulfillment by upskilling and pursuing new opportunities. What’s more, robots can fill in for the workers that an increasing number of facilities have struggled to hire.
Another reason for using automation in the supply chain is that orchestration software combined with automation can respond to changes in real time.
Orchestration — the configuration, management and coordination of systems, applications and services — provides a system-wide perspective which considers the unique strengths of all the components in a supply chain, including human workers, manual handling equipment, AMRs and other systems.
The use of orchestration software combines the problem-solving, abstract reasoning and creative capabilities of humans with the precision and real-time data collection provided by automated systems.
In addition, orchestration considers all automated systems deployed within an environment from multiple vendors. By enabling strategic coordination across multiple platforms, form factors and capabilities, orchestration understands which individuals are available to work, which tasks need to be completed, and how to assign each job to ensure that work continues in the most efficient way.
This combination enables the full capabilities of automation and helps companies reap the benefits of their technology and human capital investments.
Automation also offers the flexibility to scale supply chain operations. Innovative offerings such as robots-as-a-service (RaaS) provide the ability to scale up when activity picks up, and alter automated tasks as your facility’s needs change due to seasonality or change in demand. It also provides a seamless way to grow supply operations as the business grows and to replicate automated workflows across different facilities as needed.
The benefit of a technology offering such as RaaS became abundantly clear in 2020, when manufacturing, distribution and warehousing organizations had to adapt quickly to evolving conditions to survive.
Going forward, organizations can use RaaS to support whatever shifts might be in store for their supply chains, providing scalability and reliability at a time when developments can change rapidly.
Among the financial advantages of RaaS is that there are no upfront costs and the funds come out of a company’s operating expense line, which eliminates the need for capital expense approvals that can delay the implementation of new technology and require investments that can drain budgets.
The model also factors 100% of costs in a traditional robotics deployment, including subscription to the software platform, deployment (shipping, IT integration, and facility mapping), training and support, and maintenance. And because RaaS typically requires a cloud-based architecture, deployment can be completed within weeks.
In general, a cloud-based RaaS model can provide companies with the backbone for greater operational resilience, a necessity in today’s unpredictable industrial landscape.
Data for Visibility
Automation also delivers data that provides visibility and the predictive capacity needed to deal with future disruptions.
With support from orchestration software and robots collecting data throughout the warehouse, company’s systems can make better decisions based on past behaviors.
Supply chain teams can address issues such as what to do if a truck is late, how to reallocate tasks if an employee is out, the fastest way to move throughout the factory and what happens if parts don’t come in on time. Robots can “learn” the answers to these questions over time and act without the need to be told, increasing productivity and throughput.
They can also learn to make better decisions based on constant change over time. The latest robots perform tasks such as materials handling more quickly than ever, and enhance performance without compromising safety. Driving the improved performance is data that’s collected over time through orchestration software.
Using this data, companies can assign work to robot fleets based on real-time demand, resource availability and proximity. The data gathered via automation also provides insights to better understand robot performance and behavior. With this information, developers can update the software and push over-the-air updates to the robots in real-time, so they work smarter and faster.
Over time, companies can benefit from increased fleet efficiency, a faster return on investment, better use of the labor force, immediate and regular performance upgrades, and expanded applications for automation solutions.
For those executives responsible for managing their organizations’ supply chains, these are not easy times. Uncertainties abound, and there are no signs that the problems that have plagued supply chains for months will disappear any time soon.
That doesn’t mean companies have to live with unacceptable shortages and delays. There are steps they can take to address some of the challenges and make improvements. Automation is one of the keys to addressing the unpredictable state of today’s supply chains.
While automation won’t fix everything that's wrong with supply chains, it’s critical to support the flexibility needed to improve things. And over the long term, as automation solutions in material handling are mastered and deeply integrated with manual workflows, they will become a critical competitive differentiator that will help drive sustainable growth for years.
Craig Malloy is chief executive officer of Vecna Robotics.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.