Robot Revolution: Smart Machines Available in Every Supply Chain Stage

Meagan Douglas
Wed, Feb 24, 2016
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Robots move from behind the scenes to facing the customers in supply chain logistics.

Common excuses for ignoring robots in supply chain logistics management grow ever thinner as technology becomes smarter. Skeptics may suggest there are some jobs that automated workers will never be able to accomplish, but data collection solutions, machine learning and mobile equipment continuously break down barriers to full implementation.

Fast Company detailed how a new innovation puts robots face to face with customers. A California store, Orchard Supply Hardware, deployed the OSHbot to answer shopper questions, display inventory options and walk customers over to the proper aisle. Human beings can ask any number of questions, so OSHbot is a smart machine that can handle one of the most difficult parts of the supply chain to automate: customer interactions.

As robots demonstrate their increasing flexibility and scalability, businesses of many shapes and sizes should recognize smart machine's potential for improving and streamlining warehouse management, inventory shipping and product replenishment.

Smart Machines Everywhere
Now that inventory robots can share product information like availability and location with customers, there isn't a phase in the supply chain electronic employees utilizing automated data collection solutions can't improve. If a machine is smart enough to navigate store aisles and communicate with people untrained in the technology, a business should be able to easily implement it in a more controlled environment like a warehouse.

In the past, one of the most common pieces of machinery found in an inventory warehouse was a centralized conveyor belt. Now, instead of forcing employees to bring products to a machine, businesses can send to robots where the action is. Supply Chain 24/7 described how more companies invest in mobile and flexible robots to perform tasks instead of giant pieces of equipment. The assets are versatile - the same robot that cuts steel can bend it and deliver it to the proper location - and work around human employees.

Modern robots can roll around on wheels, be carried from place to place and fly. Advanced machines are no longer locked in place, thus companies can use them anywhere. Robots help manufacturers construct products, pick the items from warehouse shelves, deliver merchandise to retailers and recommend goods to consumers.

Robots Doing What People Can't
A major fear of robotic asset implementation into any industry is machines will take the jobs of people. The Innovation Enterprise information resource shared examples of organizations that reduced their workforces after adopting smart machines. Robotic employees can perform tasks for longer periods of times, don't need breaks and do things people can't.

For example, OSHbot not only provides a visual display of available products and store maps, it speaks many different languages. It can be difficult for retail stores to find multilingual staff members and even harder to find one with such skills willing to work for reasonable retail rates. Robotic workers can provide talented and affordable labor. This is especially important in the supply chain industry, which is currently suffering from a skill shortage.

Partnering with Automated Co-Workers
Instead of replacing humans, many organizations look for robots that can do jobs impossible for people. Drones can reach shelves people can't without heavy pieces of machinery or dangerous procedures. Machine learning can perform automated data collection calculations much faster - and with fewer mistakes - than traditional managers and accountants. If businesses allocate complicated back office activities to smart machines, they can save tasks for employees that utilize particular human skills.

Now that smart machines and other data collections solutions are convenient enough for any phase of the supply chain, managers should carefully audit their current information processes to see where they fit. The RFgen white paper "8 Signs You Need an Automated Data Collection Solution" suggested manual inefficiencies are a common sign a business should investigate smart solutions or automated software systems. Companies can't let fear of innovation prevent them from exploring new answers that are readily available.

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