Competitive advantage through AI, IoT and robotics is increasingly within reach for more supply chain companies.
By Tom Gresham
Sophisticated technological solutions such as robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet ofThings have been available to supply chain operations for years, but some experts say they were somewhat impractical and ultimately inaccessible to many companies until recently because of challenging costs and the sometimes prohibitive complexity of integrating them into the rest of an organization’s existing processes. However, tech advocates say those tools are becoming increasingly less daunting to supply chain companies today because of lowered costs and increased flexibility in the technology. Consequently, the competitive advantages these technologies can offer are becoming more grounded and within reach in the real world to a broader spectrum of supply chain operations.
“It’s putting us into the very early stages of a revolution in the way in which we run the physical operations of the supply chain, whether that’s the manufacturing plant, over-the-road transportation, the warehouse, last-mile micro-fulfillment, everything across the board,” said Mark Wheeler, director of supply chain solutions at MHI member Zebra. “We’re poised to change the way that we do all of that.”
Robotics, AI and the IoT offer clear promise for the supply chain, particularly as they gain a foothold among industry leaders and are perceived less as speculative tools of the future and more as solutions whose time has arrived. These technologies can give savvy operators a competitive advantage as they push supply chain processes to become less costly, more accurate, more intelligent and faster.
However, Wheeler said these solutions represent a rapidly evolving area that requires study and investment from companies to adopt and integrate successfully.
“It’s still in the early phases of all of this,” Wheeler said. “It’s a time of learning, it’s a time of pilots, it’s a time of proof of concepts and figuring out where the big bang for the buck is.”
An array of challenges
Vince Martinelli, head of product and marketing at MHI member Righthand Robotics, said the pressures of e-commerce are leading companies to tech-based solutions, noting that “surging order volume spanning an assortment of millions of individual products is driving double-digit annualized growth in e-commerce revenues across all retail product categories and geographies.”
“A shrinking warehouse labor force, coupled with the fact that most e-commerce orders require extensive product handling to pick and pack one or two items, means there’s just not enough capacity to keep up with the growth,” Martinelli said.