How Automation Enables a More Resilient and Safer Supply Chain

Orchestration combined with robotics will drastically improve and automate workflows to help the global supply chain keep up with rapidly changing and emerging processes from the manufacturing floor to last-mile delivery.

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Imagine receiving a call from a large retailer who is running at capacity and did not have the planning, staffing or materials handling solutions to meet the unprecedented spike in demand generated by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The executive explained the company was grappling with varying shipping and receiving schedules and unprecedented safety measures. Not only that, but the retailer was also experiencing severe disruption with delays from overseas and local suppliers.

This conversation makes it abundantly clear--today’s supply chains are more globally interdependent than ever before. Disruption in one part of the world can trigger a cascade that impacts every part of the supply chain.

In fact, roughly 94% of the Fortune 1000 companies reported seeing Coronavirus-related supply chain disruptions as early as February. Facilities are working rapidly to adapt to the new normal and overcome these challenges, but are hampered without the tools needed to adjust to fluctuations in real-time.

From manufacturers to distributors, flexibility is required to respond to crises of this magnitude while maintaining an efficient and safe environment for workers.

Flexibility in automation – The key to resilience

As a result of stay-at-home orders, consumers have turned to e-commerce to purchase items they would typically buy in stores. Transaction volumes in most retail sectors have seen a 74% rise in March compared to the same period last year, according to ACI Worldwide. The large spikes in demand have put massive pressure on the supply chain to react to a rapidly changing landscape. And, while some distributors have fixed systems in place to streamline workflows, many are struggling with traditional methods that don’t offer the flexibility needed to keep pace.

Take non-conveyable items, for instance. As their name states, these items are too big to transport on conveyers and require manual assistance. Some companies have seen the proportion of non-conveyable goods increase from about 8-11% in the last few years, and continues to grow faster today.

To solve this problem, distribution and sortation facilities rely on staff to drive a trolley-type vehicle, called a tugger or tow-tractor, from dock door to dock door in a pre-determined loop. Between driving and waiting at load stations, manually operated equipment like tuggers take significant staff time and substantially eliminates the efficiencies gained by the conveyor system in the first place.

Autonomous tuggers, however, drive themselves. The robot does not replace a worker. Instead, the worker is reassigned to a station where they can help load and unload to handle the goods and manage exceptions or edge cases as they arise, focusing on a series of tasks that are higher value.  

Rigid physical infrastructure, like conveyors which can be extremely efficient when they address the current workflow, don’t provide much value when the workflow changes too much.  Fixed infrastructure lacks the ability to adapt in real-time, subsequently causing delays as the supply chain world changes at an unprecedented pace.

That’s why warehouses are increasingly using autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), which are not hardcoded to a specific task. Robots can readily adjust the job, route or situation they’re working on, while also providing the ability to scale as demand shifts. These solutions provide organizations with the flexibility they so desperately need, especially today or during peak seasons.

Robots and humans – Working together to increase safety

One of the most significant issues to arise from this pandemic is how a full warehouse can create health risks for workers and business continuity problems – both of which can drastically impact the broader supply chain. Warehouse managers are looking for solutions to help in adapting to social distancing mandates and keep their warehouses operational.

An orchestration solution can consider these new constraints in real-time. Given a parameter for maintaining minimum space between workers, orchestration software can determine the optimal approach to task allocation while adhering to workplace health and safety needs.

What does this look like in real life? Repetitive tasks that would previously require close contact, such as line side delivery and pick and put away, are assigned to AMRs to help eliminate non-value-added travel. And workers are assigned to stations that keep them physically distanced and help to keep the risk of infection low.

Orchestration is also critical to managing edge-cases in highly dynamic environments. With the amount of disruption on shipping times, if multiple deliveries show up at once unexpectedly, an orchestration engine can quickly make a plan based on current information, so the right resources get to the right place at the right time.

This keeps the supply chain running smoothly, ensures workflows become more efficient, reduces worker fatigue and eliminates crowded conditions. Having people and robots work together efficiently will be crucial to meeting challenges like this in the future and will keep staff safer.

What organizations can do today

The hardest part of any new technology initiative is getting started – and that’s without the added pressure of working through a global crisis. However, getting started today is the most important thing you can do for your organization. Successfully adopting modern solutions takes time, and it will be hard to catch up with your competitors if you wait too long.

The best way to accomplish this is to start small and scale your use of automation over time. Look for simple use cases. These are the easy-to-implement automated workflows like point-to-point delivery, line-side and just-in-time line-side replenishment, multi-area transport, and clearing staging areas. These types of solutions help streamline operations in the short-term and deliver the momentum and proof to revamp workflows that meet future challenges.

Interoperability and the future of the supply chain

COVID-19 has left supply chain forever changed. Orchestration combined with robotics will drastically improve and automate workflows to help the global supply chain keep up with rapidly changing and emerging processes from the manufacturing floor to last-mile delivery.

Beyond just orchestration and automation, though, real innovation in the supply chain will come when robots, humans, enterprise resource planning systems, warehouse management systems, and most importantly, AMRs of different makes and models work seamlessly together.

This future cohesion will make it easier for warehouses, manufacturers, and logistics providers to adapt to changes, scale, and work harmoniously with varied environments. Together, these solutions will enable more significant human problem solving, engagement, and well-being - all while keeping the global supply chain running.