Released in April, the 2018 MHI Annual Industry Report, “Overcoming Barriers to NextGen Supply Chain Innovation,” noted that—in alignment with the four reports that preceded it—workforce shortages in two critical areas continue to stymie its survey respondents’ supply chain operations across every industry.
First, to remain competitive, companies need an increasingly digital supply chain workforce with skills in strategic problem solving (49%), analytics/modeling/visualization (43%) and general business acumen and cross-functional knowledge (38%). Second, they continue to struggle with front-line labor shortages at the warehousing and distribution levels—where workers are scarce and in high demand. For both of those reasons, survey respondents anticipate increasingly adopting technologies that directly address workforce challenges over the next five years, specifically Robotics and Automation (73%), Artificial Intelligence (AI) (47%) and Driverless Vehicles and Drones (50%).
In the third-quarter 2018 issue of MHI Solutions magazine, three experts on the supply chain front lines discussed the findings and shared insights into how the adoption of these specific technologies (and others) might play out in the near future.
Kevin Vliet, Target’s vice president of supply chain engineering, automation and design, agrees that adopting robotics and automation will significantly impact current labor shortages, as well as the demands of customers for fast, flexible and flawless delivery of general merchandise in a same-day or next-day timeframe—particularly for retailers whose margins are consistently low. He cites advances in AI capabilities as the reason behind his prediction.
“AI techniques like machine learning now make it practical and feasible to teach many robots across an enterprise how to deal with a wide variety of products. This is particularly useful in general merchandise retail where the product mix continually changes with seasonality,” he notes. “One of the biggest impacts of AI will be its ability to enable greater automation and robotic flexibility, allowing those systems to be used in supply chains over time in ways that haven’t yet been envisioned.”
The increasing affordability of automation and robotics technologies is making their application within supply chains more realistic for staff-strapped operations, adds Annette Danek-Akey, senior vice president of fulfillment at publisher Penguin Random House. “If you have labor shortages and your labor rates are going up, it’s now easier to justify an investment.”
Some of the latest developments in aerial drone technologies and their potential usage for yard management, maintenance and security in hard-to-see places (such as on a roof), and cycle counting are particularly intriguing, she continues.
“They replace humans to perform a needed, but not necessarily customer-focused, task,” explains Danek-Akey. “They can be used off-shift, overnight, on the weekends, or at the end of the day so as not to impede regular work or obstruct a forklift in the aisle as an associate might.”
Also expanding in implementation thanks to increasing affordability are wearable, augmented reality (AR) smart glasses, notes Jay Kim, chief strategy officer at Upskill, a provider of such solutions for industrial workforces.
“Payback periods are now measured in months as operations are experiencing double-digit percentages in productivity gains with wearables,” he notes. “Not only do they enable people to tackle high-variability tasks faster and more accurately—like picking or equipment repair—they also allow seasonal and temporary workers to get up to speed faster, which further addresses the workforce shortage.”
To read the full article, “Plan to be Disrupted,” click here.