Automation and robotics: The supply chain of the future
We have long anticipated the introduction of robotics into the supply chain. We have predicted the potential of such technology to help businesses keep pace with distribution challenges and consumer demand for convenience and variety. However, while robotics technology has now arrived in many sectors of life, it is yet to truly revolutionise the logistics environment.
There have been a number of technological barriers which have resulted in the slow uptake of automation in the supply chain. Until recently, robots had been stationary, blind, and relatively unintelligent, lacking the complexity and agility that the logistics industry requires. However, next-generation robots are very different – they are lighter, more flexible, easier to program, and more affordable due to swift progress in grip and sensor technologies. Combined with the advent of micro-technology and the ability to create compact and collaborative robots, we are finally starting to see automation becoming a reality in the supply chain.
Despite the previously slow uptake, the benefits of robotics and automation technologies are well understood, with their ability to support zero-defect logistics processes and enable new levels of productivity. The new generation of collaborative robots and automated solutions with significantly improved performance and enhanced sensing capabilities, offers a genuine alternative to manual handling.
It seems clear that it is not a matter of “if” but “when” robots will be working in our parcel sorting hubs, distribution centres, and delivery vans. With an improved price/performance ratio, the adoption of robotic solutions is likely to intensify over the next five years. The business leaders of the future need to understand this technology, look on it as an opportunity rather than a threat, and start planning for the day when it provides a viable solution to ever-growing pressures on the supply chain.
At DHL, we are looking at a number of different ways to integrate robotics into the supply chain. While there is still a long way to go before we realize their full potential, we have already demonstrated that robots can work side-by-side with employees, supporting repetitive and physically demanding tasks in logistics operations. Companies can combine physical robots with support software, such as machine learning algorithms and possibly artificial intelligence, to maximize on the mountain of new data created by automated technologies.
We have already seen how flexible automation can be utilized in warehousing and fulfilment, with collaborative robots equipped with high-resolution cameras, pressure sensors, and self-learning capabilities to assist workers with tasks such as picking, packing and sorting. We have trialled the robot Effi-BOT in our warehouses, a fully automated trolley that follows pickers through the warehouse and takes care of most of the physical work. The introduction of robotics like Effi-BOT makes moving from single to multi-order picking a more efficient and ergonomic process and helps track complex inventory movements.
We have recently trialled Sawyer, a collaborative robot, to demonstrate how automation can be flexibly deployed to cover changing peak seasons. The robots have the ability to cease activity if they touch anything unexpected which has meant they can be safely used alongside our existing workforce, and are particularly well-suited for picking and co-packing environments. So far, Sawyer has been successfully deployed packing pet food, confectionery, aerosols and canned drinks. With Sawyer able to undertake a range of repetitive tasks on a variety of products, its up-and-down-scalable nature helps us fulfil e-commerce orders more efficiently. We have recently purchased and integrated four Sawyer robots into the supply chain as part of our robotics deployment programme.
We have also seen the potential for robotics to be utilised through self-driving vehicles, or automated guided vehicles (AGV) in warehouses, which offer the ability for product to be moved around facilities in an automated way, without using conveyors or large vehicles which aren’t practical.
Looking ahead, supply chain leaders should prepare their processes and infrastructure to embrace new technology and its ability to harness more data than ever before. While we have seen great progress in this area, the development of regulatory framework around robotics in the workplace and in ‘public’ spaces, rather than behind the scenes, will be the main factor to determine how quickly and to what degree robots and automation are incorporated into logistics.
The successful businesses of the future will be those which are able to adapt to the accelerated change in sourcing, production and distribution that we are seeing today, and are agile and flexible enough to take advantage of new technologies.
Upgrading RFID and Automated Track and Trace Solutions
During the COVID-19 pandemic, global supply chains faced the challenge of rapidly adjusting their business priorities to new customer preferences. Local supplier backlogs, winter storms, and the Suez Canal backup in March underscored the need for efficiency and visibility across the supply chain.
According to Christof Backhaus, Digital Lead Product Supply and Smart Label Project Lead at Bayer, companies must now place critical importance on tracking and tracing their products. “All large enterprises in the world dealing with finished goods,” he said, “seek functional and technical solutions to real-time channel inventory.”
Indeed, RFID’s real-time tracking data allows executives to make quick, well-informed decisions in moments of supply chain crisis - and rather than unfolding across days or weeks, it only takes a matter of minutes.
Why does RFID remain relevant despite digital disruption?
Essentially, RFID uses radio frequency waves to transfer data wirelessly between a scanner and a tag. In contrast to barcode technology, which requires a stationary scanner, RFID tags can be pinged from anywhere in the world, allowing companies to track real-time movement through the supply chain. RFID tags can also scan unique SKU numbers and distinguish between varying product sizes, colours, and styles: a critical feature for increasingly personalised end-user products.
Though the first patent for RFID tags appeared in 1973, higher accuracy rates, lower costs, and advances in sensor and data technology have made it newly accessible to a wide range of companies. Today, the technology is used in logistics networks, manufacturing and delivery networks in the pharmaceutical industry, and any business where efficiently tracking and monitoring product location is critical: raw materials, consumer products, cars, electronics, retail, and agriculture.
What are the key benefits?
Overall, automated track and trace solutions keep labour costs low, optimise operating costs, mitigate security risks, use capital effectively, and assist companies in adhering to regulatory requirements.
Below are three in-depth dives into how RFID benefits major industries:
- Pharmaceuticals: RFID tags help manufacturers safeguard sensitive products such as vaccines, tracking where they are and when they will arrive in real-time. Sensors closely monitor temperatures to ensure regulatory compliance. If anyone tampers with a shipment, the sensors alert the company.
- Logistics: RFID identifies process gaps and frequent anomalies by monitoring a product’s lifecycle from shipment to delivery. This data helps decision-makers predict the most efficient routes and therefore optimise their distribution schedules.
- Retail: Sensors help guard shipments against theft and provide critical intelligence when shipments go missing. Before adopting RFID technology in 2203, UK retailer Marks and Spencer relied on barcodes to scan inventory. When they made the switch, their productivity increased from a maximum of 400-600 items scanned per hour to up to 15,000 items scanned per hour. Building on their initial success, the retailer expanded the use of the technology and is still using it today.
Regardless of the industry, RFID promotes accuracy, immediacy, and efficiency. Companies reduce human error by automatically scanning products, keep track of inventory even in geographic locations with poor connectivity, and help streamline warehouse operations by identifying exact product locations.
Which recent innovations have changed the game?
With recent developments in cloud technology and IoT, a multitude of cloud-based alternatives have emerged to challenge traditional RFID technology. One of these cutting-edge solutions is Sony’s Smart Label - an intelligent shipping label that runs on AT&T’s global cellular network.
As with any good innovation, Sony’s proprietary technology started with a customer need ready to be solved: the Bayer Crop Science Division lacked an international IoT solution that could track seed products from start to finish throughout its distribution channel. Millions of dollars of revenue stood at stake, so Bayer turned to Sony to develop a smart label that would set the organisation up to manage its supply chain with end-to-end visibility.
Sony’s printable and disposable adhesive label allows companies to track the condition and location of their products worldwide and act upon the vast amounts of data it collects. The process is simple: the label activates when attached to the package, connects to AT&T’s secure LTE-M network, and sends data to the Smart Label Cloud in real time.
In sharp contrast to other smart label solutions that place trust in a patchwork combination of Wi-Fi, radio-frequency identification, and other limited coverage connections, the Sony Smart Label connects solely through a secure and universally-available cellular network. “Working with Sony,” says Robert Boyanovsky, the vice president of Mobility, IoT and 5G at AT&T, “we provide full visibility of every item shipped.”
Most importantly for companies on the edge, the Smart Label integrates with existing enterprise systems to achieve full visibility, thus adding value without disrupting supply chain process flow.
Why is this important now?
Companies that previously delayed introducing RFID and other automated track-and-trace technologies can capitalise on recent developments that lower costs, improve accuracy, and supercharge traceability.
Clearly the technology has value in today’s uncertain global marketplace, and can help decrease the costs of tracking goods. To quote Christof Backhaus, the Project Lead at Bayer, “the Smart Label indicates how much product is in the market, from the packaging line to the end customer.” Companies no longer have to spend a small fortune to take advantage of recent IoT developments. “Due to the technical composition [of the label],” Backhaus explains, “we don’t require additional infrastructure, manual scanning, or other expensive tools.”
Over the decades since RFID was first introduced, support for introducing it to company supply chains has also improved. AT&T’s IoT Professional Services Organisation, for example, supports companies through the end-to-end design and integration process--from installation to deployment and project management.
Companies that invest in traceable and visible supply chain solutions stand the best chance of survival, adjusting in real-time to natural disasters, shipping backups, and slowed-down supplier turnarounds as a result of the global pandemic. “Smart Label promises to help businesses like Bayer realise the full potential of the IoT,” says AT&T’s Boyanovsky. “[We can] deliver improvements in revenue and cost savings and make supply chains more efficient.”
Certainly, company executives will be hard-pressed to ignore recent innovations. In an age of uncertainty, RFID and its challengers herald a welcome sense of supply chain security. The next step? “Our sales team,” Boyanovsky adds, “is prepared to engage with prospective customers now.”