Technology in the supply chain - does it threaten jobs?
Globally, things are changing fast, and so isthe way we do things.
We cannot ignore the technological evolution of work across business.
Globally, things are changing fast, and so is the way we do things.
The emergence of concepts influenced by technology such as ‘drop and collect’, digital logistics that facilitates paperless, high-speed, and secure dispatch/delivery of parcels through a widespread parcel shop network are today’s reality. Ten years ago, much of this progress was only a dream.
These innovative concepts enable us to serve our clients better, faster and more efficient. They improve the level at which we produce and meet demand. They have an incredible impact on the quality of our product and the speed at which we produce.
Technology has also helped us manage the distribution of our goods and to have access to important insights into our markets and sectors, which helps in staying competitive. The truth is, technology is here, and if you’re not going to adapt you’re slowly dying.
But what kind of impact does technology have on the labour market?
While businesses are actively using technology tools to optimise their supply chain with integrated and sustainable solutions – bottom line is, this process needs to be cost-effective to make sense. To invest in technology in a cost-effective manner, businesses tend to think the solution is in cutting down on the labour force while still producing at optimum levels.
In the past, business was obsessed with cyborgs and automation systems. Artificial intelligence (AI) was once a mirage. Today, robotics and AI are normal and none of us have the liberty to ignore them. Today I can ask Alexa to order a book on Amazon and have it delivered to my address.
When you look at supply chain management, automation (AI, robotics, bots etc.) handle potential errors far much better than humans – and require less training. This is because when you build a robot to perform a certain task, you do it once and it will do the job. Basically, you teach it once through coding and it will continuously perform a task effectively without any retraining required. Just updates to do more tasks.
But is automation our all-in-one solution? Not really. In fact, human labour remains very important to supply chain management. It really doesn’t matter how advanced the automation is or may be in the future… there will always be a need for human judgement. For example, customers may appreciate fast and efficient service, but will never smile at wrong orders no matter how fast the order arrived.
Think about it this way, a machine is more than able to place an order of an item in a box and direct it to a destination, but might not be able to identify sizes, colours (or any other complex specifications of an order as per individual consumer order). Here, a human judgement is key.
So, how do we automate and keep humans? We equally invest in the machine and human beings. Train humans in new skills, especially those we identify as skills machines are not yet capable to perform. There will always be something machines will not be able to do. While AI and bots can be used to automate process and productivity, human labour remain important in ensuring precision in customer satisfaction and a more ‘human’ interaction. This way, automation can create more jobs than it can get rid of. As AI becomes part of our lives, we need to rethink how we educate people and how we prepare them to work alongside an incredibly automated workplace. The more efficient our industries are the more opportunity to create support and leadership skills to automation for people.
By Lebo Letsoalo, CEO and Founder of SincPoint & African Women in Supply Chain Association (AWISCA).
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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.”