Automation Technologies Are Transforming the Supply Chain

Written By: Alexandra Levit
September 19, 2017
4 min read

Automation Technologies Are Transforming the Supply Chain

New advances in robotics have the potential to exponentially improve supply chain efficiency.

Supply chains are complex operations. Inevitably, there are hundreds (or even thousands) of people involved in each one, and manual tasks that are prone to error often dominate the process. But because tasks are usually interdependent, one problem or mistake can throw the whole system into chaos.

Digital transformation, however, is playing a major role in supply chain management, changing the way organizations deliver products, fulfill orders, and conduct operations. To start, in a recent article for Supply and Demand Chain Executive, Ray Barratt explained the value of process robotics.

Backend Software Drives Process Robotics

“Process robotics works by automating the entire supply chain from end to end (not just individual tasks) – enabling all different sections to be managed in tandem. The adoption of software robotics allows professionals to focus less time on day-to-day processes and, instead, provides more time to drive value for the entire business,” he wrote.

Process robotics provides a centralized approach to procurement, shipping, warehousing, and inventory management. In essence, it involves teaching automation software how jobs are completed. Barratt called this embedded process know-how. “The tasks are completed on a job-by-job level, but coordinated as an entire unified process, allowing the interdependent sections to work in tandem,” he said. “For example, if the robotics solution detects that a warehouse is full due to a lack of inventory movement, it automatically alerts/halts procurement, or adjusts to a new storage location if one is available.”

Physical, Collaborative Robots Provide Flexible Automation

In an article for Supply Chain Digital, Mark Parsons, Chief Customer Officer of DHL Supply Chain, explored how DHL uses physical, collaborative robots equipped with high-resolution cameras, pressure sensors, and self-learning capabilities to assist workers with tasks such as picking, packing and sorting. “We have trialed the robot Effi-BOT in our warehouses, a fully automated trolley that follows pickers through the warehouse and takes care of most of the physical work,” he wrote. “The introduction of robotics like Effi-BOT makes moving from single to multi-order picking a more efficient and ergonomic process and helps track complex inventory movements.”

DHL uses the physical robot Sawyer to ensure better safety and quality. For instance, Sawyer stops working if it encounters an unexpected situation or material. The robot is currently deployed in picking and co-packing environments including pet food, confectionery, aerosols and canned drinks facilities. “With Sawyer able to undertake a range of repetitive tasks on a variety of products, its up-and-down scalable nature helps us fulfill e-commerce orders more efficiently,” said Parsons.

Intelligent Software + Collaborative Robots = Supply Chain Power

According to PwC analyst Rodger Howell in a piece for SupplyChainBrain, the supply chain industry is moving toward robotics process automation (RPA), which is the glue that integrates multiple systems dedicated to order taking and fulfillment. “RPA goes beyond physical systems to embrace the underlying software, with the help of artificial intelligence,” Howell told SupplyChainBrain writer Robert Bowman.

RPA’s most critical value proposition is productivity – above and beyond cost savings and efficiency gains. In particular, Howell cited the distribution center as the part of the supply chain where RPA can have the greatest impact. “The lights-out warehouse, where virtually every task is automated, has long been an option wherever labor costs are high, and speed of fulfillment is a priority,” he said. “The latest technology ensures that those tasks are tightly coordinated, so as to create a smooth transition from placement of the original order to fulfillment and delivery to the customer.”

RPA doesn’t replace humans, and implementing it isn’t simply a matter of purchasing one solution and letting it rip. Howell cautioned that putting the pieces together is still a challenge, because companies must tie their customer-relationship management systems back to order management and enterprise resource planning platforms, incorporating manual processes when needed. Multiple vendors need to be leveraged, as RPA involves integrators and different assets from the hardware and software sides coming together.

How has automation changed your supply chain operations in the last five years?

Alexandra Levit’s goal is to help people find meaningful jobs - quickly and simply - and to succeed beyond measure once they get there. Follow her @alevit.