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How Far Away is a Fully Automated Supply Chain?

Fully Automated Supply ChainDid you know that the United States commercial supply chain employs slightly less than 40 percent of the total workforce? From warehousing operations to transportation and selling of consumer goods, the supply chain in the United States is incredibly people heavy. However, as with any other industry, those who manage supply chain operations are always looking for ways to automate in order to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and provide superior customer service. While the supply chain is starting to see more automated machines and software solutions, the question many consumers often ask is how far away is a fully automated supply chain?

It’s well understood that the transportation industry is working hard to integrate automated driving vehicles in order to reduce operational costs, improve on-road safety, and reduce transportation delivery times. But what is not commonly known is that another supply chain function including warehousing, inventory control, and even packaging is starting to see more automated solutions.

To determine whether a fully automated supply chain is practical within our lifetime, it’s important to first describe how this term is defined, which automated systems are currently active, and what hurdles exist to achieve full automation.

What is an Autonomous Supply Chain?

The logistics industry defines an autonomous operation as requiring no support or input from humans to operate. Specifically, for the supply chain, each step needs to have the capability to process order requests, collect and package the products that are purchased, and deliver the product to the consumer. A fully-automated supply chain would be completely self-efficient and would not need humans to assist in any way.

To be completely honest, a fully automated supply chain under this definition is simply not practical with today’s technology. Humans are needed to operate machines that can complete many of these steps currently. But, for the sake of argument, if an automated supply chain were to occur, several steps would need to be completed by a machine or computer system.

• Receive an order request, review inventory levels, and process the order.
• Identify the location of ordered products, select them, package them, and load onto vehicles for transportation.
• Transport the package to the desired point of delivery. This would also include transferring the product through multiple modes, such as from a truck to a plane, off a plane to a truck, and to the last mile carrier.
• Deliver the product to the customer.

To be honest, as it’s defined above, the fully-automated supply chain does not appear to be that far off from being a reality. However, as we’ll discuss below, there are several hurdles that exist to make this a reality.

How is Autonomous Technology Used in Today’s Supply Chain?

You might be surprised to learn that the four items listed above, all four have automated technology infused in each step. Carriers, warehouse operators, and other logistics partners are using autonomous systems to help expedite their operations. In the manufacturing segment, automated systems including MRP and ERP help to control manufacturing by identifying the location of parts, picking them, and sending them through the assembly chain. Most of today’s modern cars, SUV’s and light trucks are made using this automated technology.

Amazon and other large eCommerce retailers utilize autonomous technology to pick orders, package them, and even help with off-loading and putting away inventory. It’s not uncommon for transportation companies to use automated computer software solutions to route deliveries while notifying shippers and customers about each point of transit – until it’s finally been delivered.

We use automation across the entire supply chain. However, there are several hurdles that must be climbed in order for a fully autonomous supply chain to become a reality.

What Holes Exist in the Fully Autonomous Supply Chain

There are several tasks within the supply chain that still require a human-element. Air traffic controllers, transportation operators, mechanics, and customer service associates are all needed for the supply chain to function. Arguably the biggest hurdle that stands in the way of full automation is autonomous driving vehicles. However, this is also the one that is closest to reality. Current regulations, legal issues, and fine-tuning safety systems must be revised first, but the self-driving vehicle currently exists.

Automation significantly improves efficiency with today’s supply chain operations. If you’re a supply chain participant, it might be worth your time to speak with an experienced 3PL who stays on top of the latest trends in automated solutions, to determine how your organization can integrate autonomous equipment, software, or technology.

Did you know that the United States commercial supply chain employs slightly less than 40 percent of the total workforce? From warehousing operations to transportation and selling of consumer goods, the supply chain in the United States is incredibly people heavy. However, as with any other industry, those who manage supply chain operations are always looking for ways to automate in order to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and provide superior customer service. While the supply chain is starting to see more automated machines and software solutions, the question many consumers often ask is how far away is a fully automated supply chain?

It’s well understood that the transportation industry is working hard to integrate automated driving vehicles in order to reduce operational costs, improve on-road safety, and reduce transportation delivery times. But what is not commonly known is that other supply chain functions including warehousing, inventory control, and even packaging are starting to see more automated solutions.

To determine whether a fully automated supply chain is practical within our lifetime, it’s important to first describe how this term is defined, which automated systems are currently active, and what hurdles exist to achieve full automation.

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