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FULFILLMENT UPDATE: Safety, Workforce Concerns Drive Further Testing with Autonomous Vehicles

*  By Katie Kuehner-Hebert *

As the automobile industry ramps up testing of self-driving vehicles at facilities like University of Michigan’s Mcity and the American Center for Mobility, next generation autonomous vehicles are already being deployed across the retail fulfillment chain—and one day, up to consumers’ doors. They are not being embraced without going through “boot camps,” though, at all different kinds of material handling and supply chain companies. These testing stages are imperative for safety, for workforce decisions, for financial reports and to determine exactly how they could be incorporated into the process at these companies.

In the future, autonomous vehicles “definitely” will be ubiquitous—the question is how rapidly they will be adopted, said Bryan Jensen, chairman of MHI member St. Onge Co.

“They will most likely be ubiquitous sooner in the warehouse than in the world outside the warehouse, because warehouses are controlled environments where human access can be restricted much more directly than on open public roads,” Jensen said. “Areas of buildings that rely on such technology can be railed off to protect workers.”

Truly driverless vehicles can go anywhere within the facility, and they have “virtual eyes” enabling them to better react to the environment, he said. Also, depending on the technology, they can be much more flexible when the layouts of warehouses are changed.

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According to the recently released 2018 MHI Annual Industry Report, “Overcoming Barriers to NextGen Supply Chain Adoption,” eight out of ten survey respondents believe these supply chains will be the predominant model within just five years. However, the report found that the adoption of some of these technologies was slower than originally reported when MHI started the annual report in 2014. The report cites three top barriers to adoption of these technologies: 1. Making the business case for NextGen supply chain investments. 2. Tackling the supply chain skills gap and workforce shortage. 3. Building trust and security in digital, always-on supply chains. This issue of MHI Solutions focuses on the adoption of these digital solutions, from best practices in robotics and artificial intelligence to blockchain and innovations in last mile delivery.

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