How robots are changing logistics operations

After their greatest trial in a long time, global supply chains are steadily restoring their strength and resuming operations. After a hellish pandemic and its accompanying difficulties, ranging from inventory problems to staff shortages, logistics managers are searching for new ways of coping.

In an attempt to improvise whilst still moving forward, facilities have looked to automation to keep themselves on track.  This solution is more than a temporary fix, as automation presents a chance to reimagine many aspects of the logistics sector.

The Scenario

Supply chains are working with fewer staff whilst facing greater demand than before. Labour shortages wear out staff more quickly, especially as waves of panic-driven over-ordering have washed over the sector. In light of this, managers have looked to immediate solutions to the crisis.

Technology in the form of autonomous robots has come to the rescue of  overburdened teams. Whilst robots existed in facilities before the pandemic, the need for greater productivity and cleanliness spurred automation growth exponentially.

This uptake has influenced leaders, who plan to automate more in the near future. According to Statista in 2021, 31.52% of Retail Supply Chain Executives aimed to invest in production and distribution automation. This growth will be supported by what robots have to offer beleaguered supply chains, and their potential to drive change in the sector.

How Robots are Transforming Supply Chains

Modern artificial intelligence-powered robots are designed around the needs of facilities. Capable of acting as dependable assistants, they allow workers to be more efficient at what they do, while also being suited to more dynamic and dangerous environments.

Since the onset of the pandemic, workers need help to meet the standards that were once a given, especially during a global health threat such as COVID-19, with new emerging variants placing facilities on constant alert.

Warehouses and logistics centres will always need human employees working within their operations. But with robots holding down various tasks such as, in our case, cleaning, inventory scanning and auto-delivery, staff are freed up to give greater focus to higher-value responsibilities, while allowing robots to take on mundane, routine and more arduous tasks. Moreover, this gives teams hours back in their day, which consequently makes operations more efficient.

Human workers remain at the core of logistics, as they are needed to control machines. Autonomous cleaning robots, for example, require a human user to “teach” it routes, and assist if a machine is not able to continue its operations. Thanks to usable interfaces, setting up and deploying the machines is straightforward, able to be undertaken by non-specialist staff, who can quickly mobilize devices without the need for additional infrastructure requirements or training. This, in turn,  means that the role of staff in logistics is undergoing a profound transformation.

The Role of AI

The increased use of AI has the potential to radically alter the relationship between managers and their work.

Thanks to improved cloud technology, operators are kept informed by live notifications sent to their mobile devices: staff can be notified when a cleaning route has been completed, or when a machine needs help. Plus, interactive learning centres ensure operators can learn how best to use AI-powered devices.

Unlike traditional workforces, modern autonomous machines generate performance data, which can then be analysed by leaders looking to optimise their performance. Managers can analyse data created by machines whilst at work, see where the gaps are, and then decide how to configure future operations.

Backed by real-time data, AI can give a top-down perspective of logistics operations. Managers can access sensitive information about their machines, such as their status or possible software updates, as well as data and trends over time, which allows managers to adjust their systems accordingly.

This trend is not limited to how facilities deploy their machinery. For instance, US retailer Sam’s Club has rolled out inventory-scanning robots which collects inventory details such as pricing accuracy, stock levels and whether items are properly located.

Future Logistics

The pandemic has demonstrated the potential offered by automation to hard-pressed sectors. Business leaders are improving their systems by combining the data-enhanced sophistication of automated robots with human workforces, an advancement which will help the sector recover.

Disruption is followed by recovery, and the chance to make existing processes stronger and smarter. When viewed in this light, robots can be seen not only as an improvement on what came before, but an opportunity to reimagine facility operations and make them truly innovative and sustainable in the face of unseen challenges.

By Michel Spruijt, Senior Vice President of International Business and General Manager, Brain Corp Europe

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