Robots and Humans Working Together in Supply Chain: Exploring the Possibilities

Robots and Humans together in supply chain

“There was a time when humanity faced the universe alone and without a friend. Now he has creatures to help him; stronger creatures than himself, more faithful, more useful, and absolutely devoted to him. Mankind is no longer alone.” Introduction.30. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.

Isaac Asimov’s fictional world where humans and robots coexist in harmony is becoming a reality. Right now, as you are reading this blog, there are parts of the world where humans are increasingly interacting with robots.

You may not meet and greet a robot when you are taking a stroll down the street. But, robot-human interactions are happening at a large scale at multiple places like assembly lines of car manufacturers, warehouses of e-commerce giants, and shipping docks of 3PLs to name a few.

Robotics has matured from fantasy to serious technology and is now delivering tangible results to businesses, especially to those who rely on the smooth functioning of supply chain systems. In fact, there is a new breed of robotics that is recognized for its close collaboration with human beings. It’s called a Cobot.

There are plenty of long, dull and jargon-filled definitions for a cobot. In simple terms, a cobot is a collaborative robot. It collaborates with humans on several functions that maximize productivity, reduce costs and minimize errors.

Key Developments Driving the Use of Robots in the Supply Chain:

#1. Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence imparts robots with problem-solving and quick learning abilities that enable them to respond to real-world environments like factory floors and warehouses.

#2. GPS navigation

GPS navigation guides robots from their real-time location to destinations where human workers could be waiting to take delivery of goods.

#3. Responsive sensors

Audio, visual, thermal and haptic sensors empower robots to perform sophisticated tasks that were earlier performed only by humans.

#4. Smart manufacturing

The digitization of manufacturing and its various functions has increased the scope of building robots that can work alongside humans.

How robotics can smooth the functioning of supply chain systems:

# Alleviate hiring bottlenecks during peak seasons

UPS, FedEx, and almost every other major logistic behemoth hires seasonal workers to meet the uncertain peaks and valleys of seasonal orders. Hiring seasonal workers has its own downsides – the most hurting one being the time taken to train and onboard new workers. Also, there is no assurance that these temporary workers will maintain high-quality standards.

Robots can pitch in as plug-and-play workers that do not need extensive training and onboarding. They can be programmed with rules and logic to perform repetitive jobs that are automated. This alleviates the bottlenecks experienced while trying to hire seasonal workers. Also, robots are long-term capital investments that can be used in the future when order volumes exceed available resources. From a cost-benefit angle, they do not require to be paid even while rested until the need arises.

# Automate repetitive and mechanical processes

The first image that comes to our minds when we think of the term ‘robot’ is a human-shaped metal being. Robots are not always metallic pieces of hardware that go about in measured movements. There is a new form of robotics that is sweeping across business functions. RPA a.k.a Robotic Process Automation is the next frontier of digitization of supply chains.

RPA is basically software that is written to automate repetitive and mechanical processes. RPA can be used to deal with simpler tasks in supply chain management that occur in large volumes. For example, reading the barcode of a product and moving it toward a specific conveyor belt. It spares human workers from the chore of manually scanning each product and then sorting it. RPA, with its precision, can avoid errors in identifying and sorting products.

# Speed sorting, picking and moving of orders

The warehouse floors of Ocado, a British online-only supermarket is not like any other warehouse. Perhaps, it is the biggest automated warehouse on the whole planet. Called “the hive,” or “the grid”, Ocado’s warehouse floors resemble a massive chessboard where robots move around – sorting, picking and transporting orders.

Each robot is approximately the size of a washing machine and is fitted with wheels. These automated robots are capable of processing 3.5 million items or approximately 65,000 orders every week. From sorting, picking and moving, these minion-like robots enable Ocado to run its supply chain operations with bull’s eye accuracy. Of course, there are human pickers who complete the last stage picking and moving of the goods to crates that will be delivered to customers. This detailed feature from Verge will give you an idea of what Ocado warehouse is like.

When robotic precision and endurance meets the logical reasoning of humans, there is a whole new level of productivity.

Why supply chain players should root for robot-human collaboration

A handful of benefits awaits those supply chain players who are ready to invest in robot-human collaboration. Some of the key benefits include:

  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced errors and reworks
  • Safe working conditions for human workers
  • Automation of low-value and mundane tasks
  • Cost reduction

We are slowly inching toward a future where robots can do as much work or more than humans. In fact, when well-programmed, robots can even outperform humans. As Isaac Asimov wrote in his fictional book I, Robot, “You just can't differentiate between a robot and the very best of humans.” The best of robots can accelerate the pace at which supply chain moves.

For more read: “Need it Now’ Consumer Demand Re-Shapes Supply Chain Strategies

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