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Supply chain leaders have recently dealt with long-term materials shortages and complications from the COVID-19 crisis, among other challenges. Many decision-makers have started pursuing supply chain automation options. Here are some ways such technology has brought positive, industrywide changes.
Warehouse Workflow Enhancements
Many supply chain leaders have difficulties finding well-qualified workers and retaining them for the long term. Others can’t afford to grow their workforces as much as they’d like but still find they need some form of help. In such cases, supply chain automation in the form of robots can help fill the gaps.
A 2022 prediction from Gartner analysts is that 75% of large enterprises will use intralogistics smart robots in their warehouses by 2026. They believed a combination of factors, such as labour availability constraints and the still-present impacts of COVID-19, would increasingly encourage leaders to look at ways to combine human effort and advanced technologies.
Another survey from the first quarter of 2022 sought to find out what stage respondents were at in their deployment of intralogistics robots. One takeaway was that more supply chain professionals are planning to use robots than they are now. Less than 30% of respondents are doing this, while 52% of the surveyed group said they plan to or are using them.
Another finding is even more significant, though. It indicated that most people utilizing robots now intend to increase their fleet sizes and see how well the machines perform in different tasks.
That strongly suggests the robotic deployment paid off for them. It’s natural for leaders to hesitate to scale their technology usage until they see evidence that the initial investments worked at least as well as expected. However, most professionals agreed the investments were worthwhile, and they’re ready for more.
Super-Charge Order Fulfillment
We live in a world where customers want accessible and current updates about where their shipped goods are at any time. That’s one reason why many supply chain companies use logistics carrier integrations, which provide more control over orders after they leave warehouses. Carrier integrations simplify the steps needed to request shipping information, print labels and more.
Faster order fulfilment happens in other ways, too. Walmart has a custom-built solution to transport products through its warehouses, resulting in them getting to customers sooner. The technology picks and dispenses items by moving in three directions and across three temperature zones. Moreover, this happens without the use of lifts or conveyors. That setup provides better flexibility inside Walmart’s facilities and eliminates the need to pause an entire system for maintenance.
Pick-to-light systems are another supply chain automation option. They feature alphanumeric displays, usually comprised of LED lights. They use light to show the path and location of items to retrieve, and people also see the number of products to grab. Some pick-to-light systems display additional information or let the warehouse worker acknowledge the picking request and get a new one. One of the many advantages is that they cut training time down to about 30-45 minutes.
A 2022 industry executive survey found that 56% of supply chain and logistics professionals had increased their supply chain investments over the past year. When asked about what they purchased, 57% of that group said technology.
The survey results also confirmed that many respondents prioritized order fulfilment. About 41% focused on maintaining or optimizing their efforts in that area. The study did not go into detail about how many respondents specifically invested in automation. However, since automated technologies are gaining prominence and becoming increasingly accessible, it was likely a significant percentage.
Boost Reliability and Sustainability
Supply chain automation often pairs well with other kinds of advanced technologies. For example, many company leaders use artificial intelligence (AI) to improve their demand-planning capabilities and enhance overall visibility.
Recent research from IBM indicated that 47% of chief supply chain officers had introduced new automation technologies in the past two years. That approach can help them enjoy more predictability and reliability.
The study also segmented some respondents into certain groups. About 20% of respondents, categorized as The Innovators, stood out for how they moved ahead with data-based innovations. They also outperformed peers in many ways, including by seeing 11% higher revenue growth than users in other categories. The Innovators were 95% more likely to integrate automated workflows across their organizations and with industry partners than other chief supply chain officers.
Another takeaway from the study was that 52% of respondents put sustainability at or near the top of their priorities. The good news is that supply chain automation can make businesses more sustainable, too.
Some experts assert companies can save an average of 75% on energy bills by operating automation-driven dark warehouses and using robotic picking solutions. One company’s robots are so energy-efficient that 10 of them only consume the same watts as one household vacuum cleaner.
Supply chain leaders may go even further by installing rooftop solar panels on their warehouses and other facilities. That way, the energy-efficient machinery integral to automated supply chain solutions can get its power from renewable sources.
Successful Supply Chain Automation Requires an Individualized Approach
These are some of the fascinating ways companies have gotten returns on investments by pursuing warehouse automation. People are most likely to have similar results if they carefully consider the most apparent weak links in their supply chains. From there, they can research technologies on the market or consider having something custom-built to meet their needs.
Supply chain leaders should also consider the sizes of their budgets and initial investments. Understandably, many don’t want to allocate a lot of money upfront for new automated options. However, they’ll be more open to expanding their budgets for automation’s sake when it becomes clear the technology brings meaningful gains.
There’s no universally best way to deploy automation throughout the supply chain. However, decision-makers who assess individual needs and set specific goals typically have promising outcomes.