The Progression of Automation: Moving the Supply Chain from the Past to the Future

Supply chains are at an inflection point where keeping up with or staying ahead of your competitors and adapting to an ever-changing world is critical.

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A cherished memory as a kid was waking up to freshly made pancakes and watching Saturday morning cartoons. Classic cartoons such as the Smurfs, Flintstones, Jetsons and the Snorks transported me to imaginary worlds one episode at a time. Some like the Jetsons painted a future world with flying cars and automated gadgets (and as a child of the ‘80s this was mind boggling) and others like the Flintstones made me wish I had a dinosaur as a pet.   

According to the Smithsonian article, “50 Years of the Jetsons: Why the Show Still Matters”, five decades after its debut, “The Jetsons” is still one of the most iconic cartoons that is often quoted when talking about fantastic technological advancements. Technologically speaking, the cartoon has everything our hearts could desire from jetpacks and flying cars to robot helpers and endless automated gadgets to make life easier.

While we’re still waiting for flying cars, we do have, to some degree, many automated gadgets in our personal lives. So, why then, with all the technological advances the world has seen in the last several decades, are so many companies still stuck in the Flintstones era using outdated technology to operate their supply chains? We should be flying around in a futuristic Jetson-like world!

The Rise of Intelligent Automation

According to Ray Kurzweil, an American computer scientist and futurist, a serious assessment of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common sense “intuitive linear” view. So, we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).   

The exponential evolution of technology in supply chain can be felt today as advanced technologies become more ubiquitous. Advanced analytics and AI techniques including simulations, machine learning, deep learning and neural networks are becoming more common elements in supply chain planning and are helping drive greater maturity across the market. 

According to research and advisory firm IDC, one-third of companies have automation initiatives, but these automation initiatives are still in their infancy – reliant on siloed automation, reactive and discrete interactions between humans and machines. The stark reality is that while many companies may have some degree of automation, these initiatives are disjointed and do not support a fully automated, closed loop end-to-end supply chain planning environment. Many companies may feel like they are in an episode of “The Flintstones” living in large wooden and rock structures drowning in a sea of data from disjointed systems and data sources, unsure how to interpret the new data streams. 

Supply chains are highly complex ecosystems where decisions are made with real-world information to link people, places, entities and time across all layers of the supply chain. These are decisions such as “what am I going to sell?”, “what should I make?”, “how much raw material do I purchase” and so on. With a lot more disruptions and even more data sources and data being generated (volume and variety) this has multiplied the complexity of the supply chain. This means companies will need to simplify and accelerate a lot more decisions at speed, and with more confidence.

This requires intelligent automation as the connective tissue to bind and align end-to-end decisions and help companies increase decision velocity.  

Accelerate Decision Velocity   

Everyone’s automation journey is different. And we can all agree that automation is critical for the future of supply chain to power complex ecosystems to connect data, decisions and operations and increase decision velocity. As supply chains look at their end-to-end ecosystem and are now able to better connect the multiple touchpoints of the network, from supplier to customer, and make decisions across strategic and execution time horizons; they can begin to further unlock value, gain rich knowledge and accelerate their decision velocity.

Let’s look at four key areas to help you move from the “stone age to the space age” and accelerate decision velocity.

1-  Right Tool for the Right Job.

Like a well-equipped toolbox with screwdriver, a hammer, a tape measure and so on, you should approach your automation journey by having a segmented approach with a “toolkit” that enables you to have all the right tools for the job. Some supply chain planning decisions will require augmentation, others automation and others will be ripe for full autonomous, or “lights-out planning”, planning. The ability to segment and identify different types of decisions and the types of automation will enable you to deploy the right “tool” and over time progress and move to more advanced forms of automation.

2-   360 Degrees of Visibility

The value of automation is to power a 360-degree view of the supply chain and to move away from a focus on individual functions. Singular focus on functions just reinforces partial visibility of the supply chain and leads to a lack of end-to-end decision making. To automate decisions and truly enable decision velocity and intelligence means your processes and activities need to be connected across the end-to-end supply chain ecosystem. For many, this will require a shift away from static and siloed decision-making approaches.   

3-   Emphasize Predictive and Prescriptive Analytics  

Far too often companies will only focus on traditional techniques such as visualization and what-if analysis. While these are strong techniques to support a view of the supply chain, they often fail to answer the question “what might happen in the future” and “what should I do” which are supported by predictive and prescriptive analytics. These analytic techniques are more proactive and actionable which will enable you to take action on future opportunities and mitigate risks and reduce uncertainty. By placing more emphasis on advanced techniques, you can continue to advance in your automation journey and accelerate decision velocity.      

4-   Decision Alignment Requires a Digital Supply Chain Twin  

A digital supply chain twin is a dynamic and real-time virtual representation of your physical supply chain. You can think of the digital twin as a virtual replica of the various relationships and interdependencies of your physical supply chain. The digital twin helps capture all the elements that drive end-to-end decision alignment, orchestration, and coordination. The sheer volume of information presented requires automation to help make sense of the data and improve the quality of planning decisions. As you automate the capture and translation of the data and generate greater insights, you will accelerate decision making and do so with a significantly higher degree of confidence.      

So, Where’s My Robot?

Regardless of where you are in your automation journey today from working your way out of the Flintstones’ era, zooming around in the Jetsons’ world or beyond or what your automation aspirations may be; supply chains are at an inflection point where keeping up with or staying ahead of your competitors and adapting to an ever-changing world is critical. This requires intelligent automation as the connective tissue to bind and align end-to-end decisions and help companies increase decision velocity.  

I am excited to see where the future of supply chain is headed. The Jetsons are a bold prediction of the future… and maybe, just maybe, Rosie the Robot is somewhere in our future.