Picture this: a factory creates a product, which is loaded onto the back of a truck. The truck, in turn, delivers the product to a quay, from where it is loaded onto a ship. After several days at the sea, the product, along with thousands of others, is unloaded, collected by another truck, and delivered to a warehouse. From there it is shipped to the end customer.
It’s all fairly normal, a process that happens thousands of times a day, every day of the year, across the world.
Except in this scenario, no human is physically present at any point. People are monitoring the whole process, but everything involved, from factory to truck to ship to truck, is run autonomously. Even the last-mile delivery is done by drone.
It might seem farfetched, but the history of the supply chain is one of constant automation, stretching right back to the introduction of the steam engine. Even now, in that supposedly futuristic vision, much of the technology that would be required to realise it are available now – artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, Internet of Things, 5G. Some, such as advanced robotics in warehouses, are moving from pilot stage to selective use as we speak, while artificial intelligence is more than ten years away from reaching Gartner’s plateau of productivity in the analyst’s supply chain strategy hype cycle.
So, the technical ability is there, albeit in various stages of development. But is the organisational structure, process and appetite? Given that, according to Gartner, the top barrier to a digital supply chain is culture, followed by legacy tech, usable data and legacy processes, the answer is probably not yet.
Yet it is something they have to overcome. Supply chains were already struggling pre-2020, and the events of the last year have simply served to accelerate many of the trends putting pressure on stretched networks. Supply chains that just work, that can cope with whatever the world throws at them, and that run on data autonomously, are critical if businesses are going to be able to operate effectively in an increasingly disrupted environment.
But with some technologies several years from mainstream adoption and maturity, do businesses need to be worrying about them now? Yes. A ‘people less’ supply chain is not going to happen overnight – every step of the way needs to be thought out and coordinated, drawing on a vast number of variables and influences. For instance, simply automating a current, linear supply chain would be complex enough. But will supply chains stay linear? The growing interest in the circular economy is going to have a huge impact on what shape these networks need to take.
This is just one example of how automating the supply chain is not a case of replacing what people used to do with robots, IoT sensors or AI. It is about breaking down what a company’s supply chain needs to be, then rebuilding it in such a way that meets the demands of the business and deploying technology where appropriate (and when it is ready).
What it comes back to is a need to redesign networks, processes and systems. The supply chain of the future will be data hungry – data is the fuel that autonomous, automated and intelligent people-less supply chains will need. That is why the planning for this robotic reality needs to start now – the data needed has to be gathered today, with insights and learnings captured now, so that they can inform the planning and design of future supply chains.
It’s an approach that has multiple benefits – a smarter way to plan not only identifies what is needed in the future but can also be used to help shape ongoing decisions and actions when that future becomes a reality.
Gartner was talking about digital supply chains and highlighted legacy tech, immature processes and real-time data as barriers, and while that is not exactly the same thing as an autonomous one, the latter will not be a reality without the former. To be able to realise that vision of a supply chain unencumbered by continual human presence requires a complete rebuild of what businesses know. As technology becomes ever more prevalent in logistics and supply networks, being able to integrate into existing set ups while planning for a brave new future is going to be critical to the ongoing success of any business with a supply chain.