How Humans and Robots Will Work Together in the Supply Chain

humans and robotsHumans and robots can work in harmony to create a safer, more efficient working world. Here’s what that might look like.

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.”

Some companies are deploying robots to perform repetitive, simple job tasks and allowing human laborers to focus on tasks that require deeper thinking and strategizing. The new term for this collaboration, “cobot,” allows each type of worker to focus on the tasks they do best. For example, bots 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.

Today’s customers expect same-day and next-day delivery guarantees. When they don’t get what they want, they can find another source with just a couple of screen taps or mouse clicks. For this reason, good inventory management—accompanied by the ability to drive goods through the supply chain at a high velocity—has become a must-have in today’s business world.

“Drone tech is growing so advanced that some are artificially intelligent, requiring very little oversight,” Kate Patrick writes in Drones can improve inventory accuracy, fill turnover gap. “Because warehouses are such an integral part of the supply chain in a growing e-commerce-centered commercial world, and because the warehouse worker turnover rate is so high…now is the perfect time for companies to start using drones.”

Patrick adds that inventory management is still a very people-intensive activity, which is a problem when there’s a 40% turnover rate. “Inventory accuracy is very important, because it affects velocity,” she writes. “Companies can’t afford inventory inaccuracy, which is why drones are so attractive.”

As robotics technology continues to advance, and as more companies deploy semi- and fully-autonomous robots in their operations, the human-robot relationship will be become even more closely integrated. “The future success of many companies will depend on how well they organize and manage human-robot interactions,” Appalachian State University’s Richard E. Crandall writes in APICS Magazine.

“Corporate leaders should encourage workers to embrace their robot counterparts and make room in their facilities and processes for new types of automation,” Crandall continues. “Together, humans and robots can create a safer, more efficient working world.”

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.

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