How Automation Is Transforming the Supply Chain Process

They say life is a journey, not a destination. That’s also true when it comes to achieving a truly digitized supply chain.

Mnet 176783 Manufacturing Automation

They say life is a journey, not a destination. That’s also true when it comes to achieving a truly digitized supply chain.

While many businesses view a fully digital supply chain as a pipe dream, they can start their journey through a small and non-intimidating step: implementing workflow automation. Starting small with workflow automation allows organizations to streamline simple manual process like contract signatures and work all the way up to more complex tasks, such as supplier performance management.

Those who take the first step see the organizational payoff quickly. For example, IBM and Maersk have automated inefficient processes to the point of using blockchain technology to reduce documentation errors. Shippers used to spend countless hours sending documentation back and forth across the supply chain, creating a complicated paper trail ridden with errors and miscommunication. In turning to automation and the blockchain, their supply chain friction is significantly eased.

It’s not just giant enterprises like IBM and Maersk. The potential for supply chain automation continues to expand to meet increased demands for transparency, speed and compliance from across the business world. With automation, companies have the ability to support zero-defect logistics processes and enable new levels of productivity.

Challenges Within the Supply Chain Process

Supply chain management ties together many siloed processes and departments. However, managing the supply chain is fraught with challenges in bringing together so many interconnected entities and processes.

Enterprises get overwhelmed by massive amounts of information coming from suppliers and customers in varying locations, from pricing to labor agreements to tax documents and more. There are simply not enough hours or people to complete carry out the processes quickly and error-free.

With so much time dedicated to marrying countless processes together into one supply chain, customer interactions don’t get nearly as much attention and time as they should. Customers expect to receive their packages when they want them. They also have the option to buy through numerous channels at any time on any device. Companies also have to extend or maintain fast delivery lead times to customers who want to receive their products on schedule despite the increased complexity in the manufacturer’s supply chains. So where is the happy medium? How can a company meet all deadlines while also give customers service matter the attention they demand? They do so through starting their process automation journey.

Supply Chain Automation Empowers Shippers to Meet Increasing Demands

Automated technology can work continuously to fulfill orders, helping shippers meet heavy customer demands and reducing operational costs in the long run. For instance, a warehouse worker loading a truck for delivery can scan a package barcode. This triggers a workflow starting with a notification in that shipper’s order management system. That then spurs an email to the customer alerting them their package has shipped. In a similar vein, UPS has implemented warehouse automation technologies to identify the fastest route for delivery vans as it works to lower the cost of home deliveries and keep up with record demand.

But your supply chain doesn’t have to operate at UPS’s advanced level to reap the benefits of automated processes. Mitchells & Butlers, for example, operates managed pubs and restaurants in the U.K. Previously, it used paper-based forms for just about all of its processes — pre-opening and closing checks, health and safety checks, cleaning schedules, the general manager responsibilities, and beyond. All in all, their manual processes yielded 3 million pieces of paper per year — that’s a lot of room for error and wasted time. In turning to a process automation, the business was able to save over 20,000 hours of employee labor per year and enable much earlier awareness of errors in the process.

Finding an Optimal Automated Workflow Tool

Small to mid-sized shipping operations can’t expect to keep pace with industry giants like Amazon. But by leveraging supply chain automation solutions, they can take a critical step toward lowering operational costs and bolstering bottom-line efficiency. However, that ultimate success depends on finding an effective supply chain automation solution. Here are some of the factors shippers should prioritize when looking for an optimal solution:

Incremental deployment: Implementing automated workflow tools can be a big shift for shippers, and it’s important for people and processes to keep pace. For this reason, shippers should look to solutions that can be rolled out incrementally and on an as-needed basis.

Integration with existing solutions: Adopting a cloud-based workflow automation tool shouldn’t come at the expense of jettisoning existing processes that don’t need fixing. In order to facilitate the most seamless adoption possible, shippers should identify solution providers that easily integrate within the company’s existing infrastructure, rather than requiring total overhaul.

Navigable interface: Finally, shippers need to ensure that whatever supply chain automation solution they settle on, it features a user-friendly and highly navigable interface. Shippers out in the field can’t constantly rely on IT teams alone to manage the solution long-term. That means settling on a solution that’s built with line-of-business workers and intuitive functionality in mind.

Workflow automation has the power to stitch together disparate sub-processes into one cohesive end-to-end journey. It can also automate the myriad interactions that happen in between the separate enterprise systems. After all, the errors happen in manual spaces at process hand-off points in between steps.

Finally, workflow automation provides unambiguous, hi-fidelity documentation of the full end-to-end process and encoded corporate policies. Anyone with authority can peek in to see exactly the process progresses and, if needed, easily make changes that are reliably enforced and executed.

Moving to a digital platform for supply chain processes should provide an agile solution to change processes, tactics and strategy as you navigate the transformation journey. The replacement of manual processes with a fully digital workflow starts small by addressing the most critical areas at a time. From there, workflow automation allows for the streamlining of processes spanning the whole supply chain, freeing logistics pros to count on a seamless shipping journey while they focus on the human elements of their jobs.

Ryan DuguidRyan Duguid
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