Take a calculated approach to robotics procurement and you’ll stand the best chance of successfully aligning it with your company’s mission, values, and future plans. In Robots in the Supply Chain: The Perfect Employee? Merril Douglas paints a picture of a time in the near future when robots and humans will work side-by-side to help companies gain speed, increase accuracy, cut costs, and handle the grunt work.
“We’re sitting in the middle of a perfect storm for robots in the supply chain. E-commerce sales continue to climb, forcing retailers to pick up the pace in their fulfillment and distribution centers,” Douglas writes. “But these days, it’s hard to find workers to keep product moving in any kind of warehouse—e-commerce or otherwise.”
We’re already seeing examples of robots being designed to take over the supply chain’s least attractive tasks. “In some cases, robotic systems do this work entirely on their own, freeing humans for more complex functions,” Douglas points out. “In other instances, bots collaborate with humans. Whatever the scenario, proponents say that these automated solutions provide a big productivity boost.”
For example, robots can be used to deliver products from place-to-place in the warehouse, DC, or yard; autonomous drones can perform mundane and repetitive inventory management tasks (as well as tasks that are dangerous for humans, such as flying up to view inventory on high shelves); and robots can lift shelving units from densely-packed storage areas and then transport those goods to a picking station.
At this point, we all agree that Intelligent machines capable of performing tasks in the world by themselves, and without explicit human control, have made their way into the world’s supply chains. But before you go out and purchase the first option that’s pitched to you—or, that another company is using successfully—it pays to put some time and effort into the autonomous robot selection process.
In Using autonomous robots to drive supply chain innovation, the consulting firm Deloitte lays out an interesting framework for decision making that all companies should consider before buying the equipment and launching an integration strategy. “As with any new strategy,” the firm points out, “your goals for incorporating autonomous robots and automation into your supply chain should match your organization’s overall vision, goals, and strategy.” Additionally, depending on the application in question, autonomous robots can be deployed either as a service provided by manufacturers (or third parties), or as a direct product for companies to implement in their operations. “Flexible leasing options could provide a service model appealing to growing companies with limited funds for initial acquisition,” Deloitte notes. “Autonomous robots as a service may also be a good option for organizations with minimal operator experience in their user base.” If you don’t have the resources to build and maintain those machines yourself, connect with technology vendors that have expertise in the supply chain and logistics industry to expedite the time-to-benefit of your deployment.
As you develop your autonomous robot procurement approach, be sure to factor in your company’s future needs and how ever-evolving robotic technology can play a role in its end-to-end supply chain. “As autonomous robots become more sophisticated, the setup times are decreasing,” Deloitte notes, “they require less supervision, and they are able to work side by side with their human counterparts.”
Matt Yearling is CEO of PINC Solutions. He joined PINC as chief executive officer in March 2013 and is responsible for the overall strategic and operational management of the company. Matt’s past roles include vice president and general manager of Encryption Products at Symantec Corporation, senior vice president of Global CRM Product Development at Sage Inc., Chief Technology Officer for Embarcadero Systems Corp (a Ports America company). As vice president of Oracle On Demand, Matt played a pivotal role in making it Oracle’s fastest growing line-of-business.