‘On-the-ground’ supply chain employees most impacted by AI, say industry leaders

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The majority of supply chain and logistics leaders appear optimistic that AI will unlock new benefits. However, over two thirds (67%) believe it may have the greatest impact on those doing administrative roles.

Last week, over 150 senior supply chain and logistics professionals, along with industry leaders from the likes of Sainsbury’s and Nestle, came together to discuss where AI will make the most impact at the 21st annual supply chain debate hosted by SCALA.

Live polling on the day saw a large proportion (67%) of respondents say that colleagues delivering ‘shop floor’ operations – as opposed to others such as those in managerial or senior leadership positions – will be most impacted by AI.

A staggering 84% agreed that ‘people and enthusiasm’ was the most important factor in the speedy adoption of AI. Meanwhile, ‘people’ were also cited as the most likely factor when it comes to making large-scale transformation difficult (57%) – highlighting the critical role that ‘selling’ AI to staff plays in its ultimate success.

Surprisingly, on-the-day polling also indicated that nearly a quarter (24%) of organisations are already using AI for planning purposes. Comparatively, 38% of respondents said they are not currently using AI-powered tools. However, the debate saw a series of expert industry speakers present their cases for increased use of AI, with many underlining its capacity to catalyse future business growth.

Meinir Childs, director of supply chain at Sainsbury’s, championed AI as a way to reimagine the supply chain and redefine the industry, better-anticipating customer needs, reducing waste, mitigating risks and developing more creative roles that don’t involve data handling. However, she noted that it will take time to improve trust in AI and identified the need for a cultural shift to upskill colleagues.

Mike Bernon, visiting fellow from Cranfield University, argued that the real benefit of AI lies in its connections to other technologies. Looking at digital twins specifically, he outlined how we could move towards having a virtual, living, sensing environment which replicates the supply chain. He explored how this could support environmental sustainably, identify where inventory is across the entire supplier-to-customer ecosystem, and eventually make decisions on humans’ behalf.

Patrick Pando, vice president of international sales at Aptean, explored why most AI projects fail, and underlined how taking a ‘bottom-up’ approach to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of employees – especially the incoming Gen Z workforce – will be critical to its success.

David Walker, logistics transformation project manager at Nestle, focused on AI in physical logistics, exploring how ‘computer vision’ can enhance practical operations. He shared examples such as fitting AI-enabled cameras to machinery to help identify and resolve problems quicker and using CCTV to understand when and why non-compliant operations, such as vehicles speeding or workers not wearing high vis, occur, informing strategic risk mitigation plans.

Roy Bridgland, senior industry strategies director at supply chain management company, Blue Yonder, looked at how AI can support inventory optimisation, helping planners to improve and overcome challenges. He discussed how AI can help businesses to better understand factors affecting sales, where products are being sold, and profitability – informing decisions like how much stock to hold. He also pinpointed how end-to-end supply chain visibility can help identify disruption, predict impact, and find ways to mitigate it.

The final speaker, Lesley O’Brien OBE, managing director at Freightlink Europe, honed in on AI in transport, considering its potential to improve or jeopardise road safety. She discussed the legal implications and who would be to blame if accidents were to happen while questioning its potential to widen the skills gap by deterring workers from the industry.

Chris Clowes, who is an associate director at SCALA and hosted the debate, said:

“It was great to see such a fantastic turnout at this year’s event, underlining that AI is a pertinent issue – and significant opportunity – for today’s supply chain and logistics industry.

“We had a series of lively discussions and asked some of the difficult questions. Are we going to have tools ‘forced’ upon us that we don’t want to use? Will AI overcome, or create a skills gap? Are we moving forward at such a pace that we’re not taking the time to ask questions? Are we facing a reduction in the workforce and an increase in leisure time? Will data tax become the norm? While AI can be a sensitive topic, exploring these types of issues now will be critical in supporting our future supply chains and the people who operate them.

“At the end of the debate, we asked the big-ticket question at the heart of it all: ‘Where will AI have the greatest impact on the supply chain?’. Over half (55%) of respondents identified large-scale supply chain transformation as the answer. Ultimately, AI’s impact on the supply chain will be huge, but it will be in the gift of individual organisations to sink or swim in the face of the technological evolution.”

This year’s event took place at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry on 6 June. The debate was delivered in association with the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and supported by Aptean, Culina Group, GXO, and Hormann Transdek.