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An Autonomous Supply Chain: Is It Possible?

Autonomous Supply ChainA growing question in today’s automated society is whether an autonomous supply chain is possible – and if so, when will it become a reality. While the transportation industry is spending billions of dollars in developing autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles, the concept of a completely automated supply chain seems to be more science fiction than fact. However, the question put forth is whether it’s possible – to which the obvious answer is – maybe.

Noted below are a few of the hurdles that the supply chain must overcome to permit autonomous operation, and a few reasons why logistics operations might want to stop it in its tracks.

How Do We Define the Autonomous Supply Chain?

In theory, an autonomous operation is self-efficient, requiring no input or support from humans to be fully automated. An autonomous supply chain needs to have the ability and capacity to process an order request, gather the commodity from the location, and deliver the unit to the desired delivery point – without a single human intervention.

Specifically, the supply chain automation process must complete several individual steps:

• Interpret the order request and have the capacity to recall information in real-time.
• Locate the components location within a warehouse.
• Maintain the inventory by receiving, storing, and monitoring inventory control.
• Pick components from a storage area and pack the component for specific shipping.
• Load the component onto the individual transportation system.
• Transport the commodity via multiple platforms including trucking, air freight, trains, and boats.
• Offload the part and transfer to specific delivery systems.
• Deliver the component to a customer.

If each of the steps above can be completed, without requiring any human involvement – then it could truly be stated that the supply chain is fully autonomous.

Is an Autonomous Supply Chain Practical?

In the items listed above, you’ll notice a few things missing that are support items but very much needed in a supply chain. For example, for air cargo, a fully-autonomous network would remove human air traffic controllers, safety and emergency response teams, cargo and warehouse personnel, customer service and sales specialists, and even supply chain management. When you look at it in this way – it simply isn’t practical for the entire supply chain to be fully autonomous.

A real-world fully autonomous supply chain also needs to process thousands of individual requests in a quick period of time (which modern computers are more than capable of completing). However, they would need to physically complete the manual labor tasks that humans can complete quicker and more accurately than today’s machines.

Additionally, a fully automated supply chain would remove the human element for maintaining equipment, completing software and hardware changes, or other vital maintenance functions that technology requires to maintain efficiency. Another question that must be asked is whether or not autonomous equipment can ship commodities in all weather conditions – and in smaller, closed space locations (like a grocery store for example).

Current Autonomous Technology Used in the Supply Chain

Shippers, carriers, suppliers, and others within the supply chain have been integrating autonomous technology for several years to improve efficiency and safety records. Some systems like ERP and MRP are used to control manufacturing by identifying parts required to assemble a product. In fact, many of today’s modern cars, trucks and SUV’s are fully autonomously assembled. There are other organizations like Amazon.com and other large retailers who use autonomous technology to pick parts or commodities from smaller containers, package them, and prepare for shipping.

Some of the specific components and equipment that is being automated to improve efficiency include:

• Parts picking equipment. These machines read sensors and barcodes to identify components needed for assembly or shipping.
• Robotic picking: There are several automated forklifts and other autonomous equipment already in use to pick products from steel and other storage.
• Transportation equipment: There are some autonomous vehicles (typically in warehouses) that are used to transport equipment and supplies throughout the warehouse.

That’s pretty much the extent of our current autonomous capacity.

As you can see – we’ve got a long way to go until a fully autonomous supply chain is practical and worthy of discussion. However, a question that supply chain network members should ask is whether we want a fully autonomous supply chain. The United States Supply Chain employs 44 million people – or 37 percent of our workforce. A fully automated supply chain would remove employment for a large percentage of these individuals – and possibly catapult our economy into chaos.

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