Robotics in the Supply Chain

Joe Tillman's picture

With delivery drones, autonomous trucks, and crewless cargo ships dominating the news, much has been discussed about transforming the delivery—more specifically, the last mile—of retail in the supply chain. But for supply chain professionals, much of the focus right now is on the immediate impact of robotics further up the supply chain. Because safety barriers and technology such as sensors are improving (and costs are decreasing), robotics is playing a role in every part of the supply chain, starting with the extraction of raw materials.

The potential applications for robotics is significant well beyond the auto plant and material handling. The Wall Street Journal reported that one-third of organizations already have robotics in their supply chains and that number will expand to three-fourths within five to ten years. Robots can handle multiple tasks and integrate with other automation systems to greatly streamline supply chain functions. Early adopters are looking for ways to incorporate robotics such as drones, automated pallet carts, and autonomous vehicles; but more extensively, supply chain executives are interested in the available applications that allow employees to configure robots to collaborate and process data—robot as a service (RaaS).

Mobile robots such as drones and autonomous vehicles are the easiest to visualize.

Moving beyond small package delivery, drones are getting cheaper and can be augmented with any number of sensors. Drones could replace $127 billion worth of business services and labor. With applications in material retrieval, security, maintenance, and compliance, drones will be prevalent in fulfillment and manufacturing centers.

Driverless trucks are being tested on the road and have the potential to be safer and cheaper while more fully utilizing the equipment 24/7. Other driverless vehicles and AVGs can assist in autonomous order picking/loading, pallet moving, and delivery. Remember Kiva Systems was bought by Amazon and is now Amazon Robotics.

But the supply chain still has an interdependent web of slow, manual tasks to automate. Robotic process automation (RPA) can automate—and thus centralize—end-to-end supply chain processes involving sourcing, coordinating, forecasting, supply, planning, warehousing, procurement, production, fulfillment, and monitoring. Every element can be integrated into one managed process so that a detection in a fulfillment center can immediately affect manufacturing. For example, warehouse robots can have sensors for product quality that communicate to planning systems and ultimately provide actionable insights to supply chain managers.

For organizations that map out their processes, robot process automation has a great potential to lower costs and truly revolutionize efficiency. It also provides a means for supply chain professionals to process the mountain of data revealed through automation. Robotic process automation would allow the integration of systems and machine learning algorithms revealing patterns and anomalies by combining physical robots with supporting software (and possibly artificial intelligence).

The applications extend beyond the “lights out” warehouse. Supply chain managers can begin now to map out and simplify the structure of processes, leverage every op to automate, and dig into the available RPAs and RaaS support to begin not only automating individual supply chain tasks but also integrating them into a seamless automated system.

Photo by Benjamin Child

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