Rise Of The Machines — Autonomous Robots And The Supply Chain Of The Future

To transform the supply chain and meet the compounding demands of buyers and consumers, industry professionals should update systems across manufacturing facilities and consider rethinking traditional supply chain controls or risk falling behind.

When considering the future of the supply chain, organizations are often confronted with apprehension and uncertainty about how to implement disruptive technologies or pursue new operating models in manufacturing and distribution. However, as cost reduction and capability advancements of emerging technology, such as autonomous robots and automated material handling, become more pervasive within the industry, supply chain managers must begin exploring new strategic approaches to capitalize on technology and develop competitive advantages. Consistent visibility, faster decisions, real-time responses, heightened agility and more precise and predictive forecasting will become the benchmarks of a high-performing supply chain. While introducing new processes and operational systems and restructuring the role of human workers may seem arduous, the opportunities and benefits presented by innovative technologies, such as autonomous robots, stand to revolutionize the supply chain.  

The spectrum of autonomous robots ranges from sophisticated machinery executing physical procedures to logic or AI-based software and data analytics. In either case, autonomous robots — if implemented in the right places — have the potential to greatly improve operations and vastly increase the productivity of supply chains. In addition to bolstering an organization’s bottom line and securing industry advantages, robots can also help streamline decision making processes by generating real-time data and insights, while simultaneously optimizing the strategic roles and experiences of human employees. This close collaboration between robots and humans will become the new industry standard in tackling supply chain challenges. Armed with deep insights from autonomous robots (physical or software-based), human employees can quickly and deliberately remedy issues or handle increasing volumes at the same or lower-unit cost.

To transform the supply chain and meet the compounding demands of buyers and consumers, industry professionals should update systems across manufacturing facilities and consider rethinking traditional supply chain controls or risk falling behind. Organizations that develop comprehensive plans and execute a methodical approach toward introducing these technologies can reap the economic benefits of being pioneers or early adopters in the supply chain of the future.

Improving Operations and Increasing Productivity

Automated robots have been around since the 1980s, but the products available today greatly exceed the capabilities of yesterday’s technology and are becoming more widely available across industries. While perceptions of automated robots often conjure visions of machines gliding quickly along factory floors, the most transformative operational impacts are derived from robotic process automation (RPA) or robots powered by rules-based software.

Enabled by logical algorithms, these software-driven tools can apply judgements and execute decisions to facilitate more streamlined processes. By collecting and analyzing larger quantities of data to benefit end-to-end supply network needs much faster and more efficiently than humans — RPA can empower manufacturers and distributors to engage more targeted and productive courses of action. From this vantage point, routine and often time-consuming tasks related to purchasing and inquires can be managed by robots, allowing human workers to focus on more upskilled capabilities.    

What’s more, due to advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, modern RPA tools can go beyond discrete analytics or coded rules-based actions and exceed the constraints of predetermined computations. For example, these technologies can inform planning and forecasting by analyzing sales histories and identifying concrete trends, illustrating a more accurate interpretation of the future. By interpreting an increasingly holistic picture of an organization’s data, RPA is positioned to deliver more valuable insights to guide manufacturing and distribution decisions.

These technologies can also play a pivotal role in maintaining quality through real-time data collection — identifying acute trends that anticipate faults in quality standards before they endanger productivity or product reliability. While the demands on supply chains increase, the ability to isolate issues and correct errors near-instantaneously will be crucial to reinforcing buyer and consumer confidence. Speed and consistency in these areas can position supply chains to meet the challenges of an increasingly on-demand market.

Reducing Risk and Optimizing Employee Experience

Stretching beyond software and data analytics, physical robots can also minimize potentially hazardous work for employees. Camera technology, as well as more deft motor controls, position physical robots to excel in autonomous materials handling and distribution processes. Capable of operating in a range of structured environments, these new innovations allow humans to work side-by-side with robots, training machines to complete robust, labor-intensive tasks. Beyond reducing the cost of labor, the deployment of physical robots also encourages employees to further refine complex skillsets and heighten strategic capabilities — ultimately lending greater value to the organization.   

For instance, automated machines have become markedly beneficial to the automotive industry, where multiple vehicle components must be welded and constructed in rapid succession with precision accuracy. Within the automotive industry, robots can act in near-exclusive autonomy, switching from one task to the next on the assembly line. However, as robots adopt more physical roles in labor-oriented tasks, human guidance in completing more refined responsibilities still serves as a cornerstone of manufacturing.

Core Considerations for Moving Forward

The race to innovate the supply chain of the future and shift toward new technologies is already underway. To harness the benefits of RPA and robotic machinery, organizations should engage their leaders to focus on developing and activating strategic plans.

The first step in constructing a strong integration strategy is to consider the challenges and needs of an operation. As every organization is different, each supply chain produces a unique set of demands. An effective strategy works to recognize challenges and determine opportunities where automated robotics can benefit the supply chain network.

Integrating robotics, whether software-based or physical, is an investment. As such, organizations often undergo a trial period to determine if scaled investment in certain areas meets or exceeds the demands of the supply chain. With any capital investment, the organization strives for — and expects — a strong return. By introducing RPA or robotic machinery in planned phases, business leaders can avoid any unforeseen obstacles and more accurately determine strategic advantages.

Finally, structuring a strong team to support this technology is critical for success. Cultivating a group with deep knowledge of automated robots ensures a supply chain’s continued productivity and an organization’s increased profitability. As the supply chain of the future transforms the industry through robotics, people remain a pillar of strategic importance.

Adam Mussomeli is a Digital Supply Networks Practice Leader and Principal in the Supply Chain & Manufacturing Operations Practice at Deloitte Consulting LLP.  Joseph Fitzgerald is also a Principal in the Supply Chain & Manufacturing Operations Practice at Deloitte Consulting LLP.

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