Automation: The Next Lever for Supply Chain Success

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Intelligent use of automaton in the supply chain will help businesses work smarter and outperform. Put simply, process automation can and will transform the supply chain. Technology is showing some of its potential but there is still significant progress yet to come.

To work more intelligently in supply chain management, businesses need to re-emphasise clever manufacturing over cheap manufacturing. Applied sensibly, automation can handle high-frequency tasks (like planning and coordinating stock control) towards the end goal of enabling staff to focus on creating value for the business, free from time-consuming manual tasks.

Making it happen

Swift adaptors find that numerous technology and software solutions serve to slow things down and isolate parts of the business from each other. Integration possibilities help to make it easier and smoother for data flows to travel between people, resources, and the requisite goods and services. In turn, forecasting and planning capabilities are also improved including by embracing, as and when economically viable, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things solutions.

Taking a holistic view

Software can coordinate and provide holistic data on the end-to-end process in a continuous loop, rather than a specific task-by-task approach. For example, a warehouse in one location has not been moving stock as forecasted, the system can decide whether to halt production or procurement or to re-route new supply to a storage location that has capacity. Presented in a dashboard format, this allows managers to genuinely manage and see issues across the entire chain, from stock control to end delivery of the product.

Augmenting human resources

Consulting firms predict that, while about half of tasks can be automated, there could be labour disruption as low as 5%. That can be achieved by supplementing existing staff functions. That is, rather than replacing entire jobs or roles, there are numerous tasks within them that are likely to benefit from automation.

Integration between tasks and robotics is not novel, and the potential for device-related communications continues to grow. At the moment, around 17 billion devices are Internet capable; by 2025, the number will be approximately 80 billion devices. The associated increase in data and machine-learning provides a platform for support systems to learn to navigate matters like item handling, equipment failure and delays, and so on.

When will this take off?

Many emerging trends, from additive manufacturing to virtual reality to autonomous vehicles, individually and collectively contribute potential to transform and enhance existing supply chains.

But technology currently is too far behind where it needs to be to allow genuine, rapid, and widespread uptake in the supply chain. Existing trial examples include self-moving machines that support workers to select, pack and sort goods to enhance stock control. But public or wide-spread commercial applications of 3D printing currently remain limited to liquid polymers and virtual reality, in its infancy, primarily records data and undertakes some automatic identification.

The present technological development trajectory strongly suggests that it is a matter of when, rather than if. Robots and automatable machines are becoming cheaper, more adaptable to business operations (whether physical structures or ease of programming). Replacement parts could be printed in store after being customised and chosen by consumers in an immersive, tailored ordering experience in virtual or augmented reality.

Lead your business into the future by adapting to technology and data-capture methods as and when available. Being flexible and intelligent in taking advantage of new and viable innovations are the way forward.

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Melanie - Unleashed Software

Article by Melanie Chan in collaboration with our team of Unleashed Software inventory and business specialists. Melanie has been writing about inventory management for the past three years. When not writing about inventory management, you can find her eating her way through Auckland.

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