Fully Automated Supply Chains: Fact or Fiction?


Depending on your perspective, automation can be a positive thing or a looming threat to your livelihood. Innovations in manufacturing have passed on a significant number of tasks to robotic workers. However, the future for humans isn’t as dire as some may have you believe. Automation in the supply chain brought several massive improvements to manufacturing, but this was just the beginning.

Is it possible that one day we will have fully automated supply chains, with minimal human interaction? If so, where does that leave those who currently work in the industry? Let’s take a look at the facts and find out what the future may hold.

Automation in Today’s Supply Chains

Industrial automation and the rise of industry 4.0 is a net gain for manufacturing. Dangerous, repetitive, and low-skill jobs are now in the hands of robots. This leaves people to perform more significant and meaningful work. There are certainly growing pains in any major shift like this, but the results will ultimately benefit everyone involved.

Industry 4.0 is defined by increased connectivity, advanced robotics, and the inclusion of smart analytics to harness big data. All of this is powered by advancements in automation that tie everything together and maximize efficiency.

All of this fuels a digital transformation for the supply chain. This is absolutely necessary to meet customer expectations and ever-increasing demand. On the hardware side of things, robotics have continued to proliferate and will make even greater strides in 2019.

Here are a few examples of how robotics are transforming modern factories:

  • BMW uses 380 robots on their X5/X6 line in Spartanburg, Germany. This line was once run by people, but now it is fully automated.
  • Collaborative robots, also known as cobots, are making major strides in both capabilities and safety. An example in the pharmaceutical sector is the ability for a cobot to work on tray-stacking applications beside a human worker.
  • Phillips runs an electric razor manufacturing plant in the Netherlands where robots outnumber production workers by a factor of 14 to 1.

A combination of inventory and sourcing software, paired with robotics, is leading many organizations to pursue further automation as time goes on. Let’s see what the future holds.

What Do next Generation Supply Chains Look Like?

Automation is about more than just making things faster. It also opens up opportunities for more flexibility and quality in the manufacturing process. In the past, both software and hardware had rigid operating parameters with little flexibility. The introduction of new technologies allows for automation that adapts to changes in the supply chain.

Looking at the next generation of supply chains, there are several categories to consider before we can paint a full picture.

Advanced Robotics

Until recently, robots in manufacturing have been relatively simple. They could do one simple task very well. They typically didn’t have the ability to perform complex tasks or perceive the environment around them.

The next generation of robotics in manufacturing are smarter, lighter, and easier to program. With a combination of advanced vision systems and sensors, these robots are more capable than anything we’ve seen in the past.

Cobots will be a major part of future supply chains. The additional safety features they possess allow them to work next to a person. One example in the automobile industry is a robot that sits beside a human and tightens bolts to a specific tension each time.

Robotics in general are also becoming less expensive, which will fuel their growth in the supply chain. With open source solutions like Dexter, a project that won the 2018 Hackaday Prize, the cost barrier of entry is lower than ever.

Through a combination of collaboration solutions, lower costs, and enhanced capability, next generation robots will be a major boon to automation in future supply chains.

Internet of Things (IoT)

Connected devices radically changed our daily lives and manufacturing for the better, but this is only the beginning. Today there are roughly 15 billion connected devices in the world, but this is expected explode to 50 billion by 2020.

The primary use of IoT in the supply chain is data, and that data can fuel automation in several major ways. Detailed shipment tracking allows companies to view shipments in real time and anticipate delays.

Not only does IoT illuminate the shipping process, but it can also empower smarter inventory management. By tracking inventory movement, it’s far easier to understand demand and adjust accordingly.

There’s also an opportunity for mitigating loss and theft in the supply chain. A study by CargoNet found that there were 741 cargo theft events in the U.S. and Canada alone in 2017. The inclusion of IoT connected sensors allows for the kind of visibility that would help alleviate these type of losses or help with reclaiming stolen goods.

When you boil it down, IoT is an opportunity to achieve the kind of visibility that supply chain professionals have wanted for years.

Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are closer than many of us may realize. There are already tests happening in Phoenix, Arizona. Waymo, a company owned by Google’s parent Alphabet, are conducting tests with employees sitting in the backseat of the vehicle.

Widespread use of autonomous vehicles is still several years away, and there are plenty of obstacles to overcome in the meantime. Even so, there’s no denying the sheer amount of effort going into the production of this technology. Since this technology is a matter of “when” not “if,” it’s important to start thinking about it now.

Bringing this type of automation to shipping is a given, but cars are just the beginning. Flying vehicles, like the drones promised by Amazon, could also automate delivery in exciting new ways. Even the sea could become a place where automated ships deliver cargo without the need for a driver.

Norway has an autonomous cargo ship called the Yeara Birkeland, which is already in testing with short trips. it will be joined in 2020 by Rolls-Royce’s tug boats and ferries which also feature autonomous capabilities. As both technology and legislation fall into place, remember to look for opportunities to incorporate autonomous vehicles in the land, sea, and air elements of your shipping.

Digital Transformation

To embrace automation in the supply chain, you must start with your sourcing. If you have robots on your factory floor and IoT sensors on your shipments, but you’re still ordering components by hand, then you’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. Even those who keep track of BOMs on shared spreadsheets are woefully behind the curve.

Digital transformation in your sourcing starts with the right tools. In 2019, any organization can have access to real-time inventory, market analytics, and the ability to purchase items on your BOM in an instant. In a modern world ravaged by electronic shortages and a trade war, you need this kind of flexibility to mitigate risk and take action when opportunities arise.

With Findchips Pro, our robust software solution, all of these things, and more, are at your organization’s fingertips. A platform like this sits at the foundation of a strong digital transformation. Our industrial automation solutions page highlights all the ways that Findchips transforms your supply chain and offers a future-proof solution to your sourcing needs.

Are Fully Automated Supply Chains on The Horizon?

A fully automated supply chain is a tall order by any standard. Everything depends on the goals you’re trying to reach. For example, given the pace of technology, it could be possible to automate entire sections of manufacturing. Even so, humans will always have a place in the supply chain.

Tasks like air traffic controllers, maintenance crews, and customer service representatives are a few examples. As time goes on, things will most certainly move towards an automated future. It’s all in the name of productivity and optimization, but humans aren’t entirely outdated yet.

Bradley Ramsey
Bradley Ramsey
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