Robots are building autonomous supply chains that are more efficient, intelligent, less wasteful and safer for employees. The supply chain industry is in a period of exciting innovation. Technology is taking on many new roles and leveling up many aspects of the supply chain.
One of the biggest benefits of an autonomous supply chain is a boost in efficiency and productivity. By nature, robots are great at doing repetitive tasks. A robotic arm can move the same item into a cardboard box countless times without losing accuracy or speed.
In contrast, all humans inevitably struggle with tiredness and concentration slip-ups. This is especially true with tasks that are boring, repetitive and monotonous. Jobs like these aren’t engaging or rewarding, either. Most people would be much more motivated by designing a car rather than building one.
The International Trade Administration reported in 2020 that there is a nearly 1:1 ratio of industrial robot density to productivity gains. Robot density is the proportion of robots to humans in a given workplace. For every 1% increase in robot density, the businesses surveyed experienced an approximately equal increase in productivity. One percent may not sound like much, but over time or on a large scale, those one percent gains add up quickly.
By applying robots to repetitive tasks, humans can be redirected to more engaging and vital roles. Meanwhile, robots are able to complete monotonous but necessary tasks more efficiently than the average person could. Plus, robots can maintain fairly consistent performance over time. The result is an autonomous supply chain running as reliably and efficiently as possible.
One of the top benefits of an autonomous supply chain is reduced waste and expenses. Robots are helping supply chains become more efficient with time usage, resources and money. This is due to robots’ consistent accuracy and precision.
Human error is inevitable in any job. It’s normal for people to make mistakes from time to time. Unfortunately, errors can be costly in today’s strained, fast-paced supply chain. When manufacturers and shipping companies are already weeks or months behind schedule, every minute and product counts.
In an autonomous supply chain, human error becomes much less of an issue. Robots can perform the same task innumerable times without struggling to stay focused or forgetting something. Since robots make significantly fewer mistakes than humans, fewer products turn out defective. This results in fewer wasted resources and less money wasted on those resources.
Of course, malfunctions can happen. However, good maintenance practices can minimize a robot's mechanical failure risk. In fact, Internet of Things (IoT) technology has even made it possible to monitor mechanical health around the clock.
If IoT sensor data shows a robot’s performance is declining, technicians can give it a maintenance check-up. This is a predictive or preventive maintenance process, which involves doing minor repairs before a major breakdown can occur.
Additionally, robots and robotic algorithms can be used to improve inventory management. Large warehouses can contain millions of products. Managing all of this inventory is a complicated task. With so much to keep track of, products can sometimes get damaged or get spoiled before shipping. These products are then no longer sellable and become waste.
Robotic tools are helping to build an autonomous supply chain where inventory is utilizable, even during busy seasons. Technology is improving inventory management through greater visibility and automated monitoring. For example, warehouse products or crates can be tagged with IoT sensors.
These sensors can continuously report data on the condition of products to an AI inventory management system. The automated management program tracks expiration dates and inventory condition requirements, such as maximum tolerable humidity. If an item or crate of products is at risk of damage or expiration, the inventory management program can alert warehouse staff.
Plus, order-picking robots on the warehouse floor allow warehouses to process and ship more orders. This keeps inventory moving, helping prevent any products from getting stuck in warehouses for extended periods. Thanks to both types of robots, fewer products are going to waste at the warehouse stage of the supply chain.
Robots are helping autonomous supply chains improve quality control without sacrificing efficiency. Quality control can be a time-consuming process, whether it’s in manufacturing or packing boxes for shipment. It can also be a dull task for people, consisting of hours of looking at similar items and trying to spot defects.
This is precisely the kind of task robots are perfect for. Artificial intelligence (AI) allows robots to perform rapid quality control. First, an AI algorithm is trained using machine learning. This process involves showing the algorithm thousands of photos of the item it will inspect. For example, a computer chip manufacturer would need an AI algorithm to recognize a correctly made computer chip.
Eventually, the algorithm will learn to tell a defective computer chip apart from a properly assembled one. The algorithm then connects to a camera so it can analyze and sort the chips in real time. This is an AI technology known as computer vision, which essentially gives robots the ability to see.
The camera then hooks to a mount or a robotic arm. As completed computer chips pass underneath the camera along the assembly line, the algorithm inspects them for defects. If it recognizes a defective chip, the AI can flag it for human inspection. Robots can analyze chips much faster than humans and won’t get bored or lose focus over time.
Computer vision isn’t just valuable for quality control, either. In 2020, the top application for businesses’ robotics investments was order picking, packing and sorting. Computer vision can help robots more accurately sort warehouse orders and ensure they are packed correctly for shipment.
Finally, robots are leveling up the employee experience in supply chain jobs. The autonomous supply chain is changing jobs, but humans are still a crucial part of the picture. There is a common fear that robots will “steal” many manual jobs in fields like warehousing and manufacturing. However, studies are finding robots are actually improving many people’s experience at work.
For example, analyses of robot adoption do not show a connection between robots and job loss. If robots result in fewer available jobs in manufacturing — and other supply chain sectors — it may not actually hurt the people working in those industries. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates the sector will have 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030.
The result of labor shortages like this is a more stressful workplace for those who do have supply chain jobs. Robots are being used to fill in the gaps and help support supply chain employees despite staffing shortages. Many of the jobs robots are performing in the supply chain are supportive roles that reduce physical or mental strain on employees.
For example, robots often fetch items from around the warehouse. The robot brings products to employees, who stay at their order packing station rather than running miles around the warehouse floor. This is safer for workers, too, since they are out of the way of forklifts, cranes and other heavy equipment. Robots are also helping staff navigate warehouses safely.
Robots are a crucial piece of tomorrow’s autonomous supply chains. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 left many niches of the supply chain in disarray, struggling to keep up with demand. The industry has taken this as an opportunity to innovate and evolve. With the help of robots, the supply chain is becoming more efficient, less wasteful and safer for employees.