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Artificial Intelligence Poised to Have Big Impact on Supply Chains

* By Nick Fortuna *

One machine looks like the world’s biggest Roomba vacuum cleaner, and the other is somewhat reminiscent of the classic claw-machine arcade games that let players try to grab a prize of their choosing, usually to no avail. But the self-driving vehicle and the bin-picking robot in question are much more powerful tools than that. They are examples of how artificial intelligence is being used to streamline supply chain operations and save companies money through increased efficiency and lower labor costs.

“I’m excited about the use of AI in supply chain because we’ll be able to use data sets and machine learning to determine the best method for doing anything,” said Ryan Wicklum, supply chain manager for Kitchener, a division of Clearpath Robotics, that makes self-driving vehicles. “It’s amazing what the future holds.”

The future has already arrived at some warehouses and distribution centers. There is a wide range of autonomous vehicles that use AI software to move pallets, racks and other large payloads through industrial settings.

MHI member OTTO Motors manufactures the OTTO 100 and OTTO 1500, self-driving vehicles that do not need guides or predefined paths. At MODEX 2018, MHI member J-tec Industries debuted its hands-free material movement system, CARRYMATiC, which can automatically off-load or on-load containers. Last year, MHI member Canvas Technology introduced its Canvas Autonomous Cart, which can transport materials within any production facility without the help of a human worker. MHI member Seegrid last year unveiled its GP8 Series 6 self-driving pallet truck, which can pick up and drop off palletized products. Also in the GP8 Series 6 is a self-driving forklift capable of autonomously navigating its way through warehouses, picking up heavy loads, taking them where they need to go and then unloading them.

“Our autonomous vehicles specialize in helping human workers haul extremely heavy loads of materials around the facility floor, making the whole system more efficient,” said Jeff Christensen, Seegrid’s vice president of products.

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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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