While leading a panel “Building Resiliency in the Supply Chain” with gurus from Georgia Tech, the leading experts in global logistics and associated research, several intriguing concepts arose. Additionally, my Association for Supply Chain Management group led a series of webinars on “Navigating through Volatility” including discussions with several logistics experts from distribution, the ports, transportation, technology and more. Many strategies for success arose during these sessions. Last but not least, my top-notch trusted advisor network, ProVisors and clients have brought strategies to light. Thus, it seemed prudent to share a few highlights.

Automation vs. Autonomy

Automation is definitely on the rise as organization determine how to thrive post COVID-19. Statistics show that the automation market is expected to almost double in the next 5 years, and experts show that plans to automate are being accelerated. For example, the automation expected in the Inland Empire in the next 10-15 years will likely be compressed into the next five. On the other hand, automation isn’t all its cracked up to be! For example, when one part of the production line breaks down, you could end up with a pile up of product and waste at the bottleneck. On the other hand, will you be the last person typing on a typewriter? What are your automation plans?

The Georgia Tech experts made the case that automation is analogous to the typewriter in essence. The new concept is autonomous so that machines and vehicles can operate independently of human control or supervision. Could these autonomous vehicles take on roles not previously possible, practical or cost effective? Almost all modes of transportation are candidates for autonomous vehicles. We typically think about trucking convoys, cars, drones and sometimes aircraft but are you also considering the impact of autonomous fork lifts, container ships, high speed trains, cranes, last mile delivery, cargo resupply, and more? With the dramatic rise in e-commerce, autonomous drone resupply could be quite the win.

What are the Impacts?

Client examples abound. A small aerospace manufacturer automated a critical production process. Prior to automating this process, the area was a constant bottleneck. Work-in-process was stockpiled in front of the work station as high-skilled workers tried to keep up with the incoming flow of material. They ran as much overtime as feasible to try to keep product flowing to the next process step so that they could meet the customers’ ship date, but it was a never-ending battle with no end in sight. After automating the manufacturing process, the high-skilled resources set up the machines to run throughout the night autonomously. Suddenly, our client was running a three shift operation with the same resources, and customers didn’t experience delays. There was a bit of upfront investment in machinery and equipment as well as setup and education; however, it paid back almost immediately with increased output and sales.

From a logistics point-of-view, WMS systems are gaining traction in the current environment. there are countless options for automation as well as autonomous capabilities within the warehouse. For example, clients have installed conveyor systems which connect directly to the WMS systems and shipping systems which connects to ERP systems to manage order fulfillment processes. With the rise in e-commerce (and the number of small packages and associated labor requirements), automation can be even more relevant to the bottom line. In fact, there are several options to replace pickers with automated processes. The future will look to automation and autonomy. Will a drone resupply trucks that delivering e-commerce orders?

What Should We Do?

Get up to speed on the possibilities and potential of automation as well as autonomous machinery and vehicles. As you hear about additional examples, think through the concepts, look for additional applications, and brainstorm with colleagues on how these concepts could help your company and/or industry. The best ideas come from those who are willing to voice their ideas, test them under controlled conditions and move forward no matter the obstacles. Create this type of environment at your company, and soon suggestions for automation and autonomous processes will rise to the surface.

We discuss these types of strategies in our eBook on Future-Proofing Manufacturing & Supply Chain Post COVID-19. Additionally, follow the IEEP, APICS Inland Empire and LMA Consulting as we communicate progress on the consortium for logistics and advanced manufacturing success Check out our articles and webinars, and contact us if you’d like to brainstorm these concepts further.