Supply chain: where Stone Age meets Space Age


Industry 4.0 has led us to believe that robots are the ultimate driver of business success. The mere mention of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can fill a room with tremendous excitement, conjuring ideas of driverless cars and robot-filled warehouses. Now, with innovations once only imaginable in science fiction films flooding the workforce, expectations of business output are fast increasing.

Scenes of futuristic robot claws lifting, moving, and sorting products are now seen as the norm, and the supply chain is under increased pressure to transform from Stone Age to Space Age in the blink of an eye. The worry, though, is that every organisation believes it needs to make a ‘great leap’ to a fully-automated supply chain and ignore the fact that, at the technology’s current state of development, it’s actually more effective when paired with human workers.

Ocado presents a great example of this. The online supermarket’s hive-grid-machine warehouse model has fast become the poster child for supply chain innovation, boasting eye-watering levels of efficiency by achieving 50 item orders in just five minutes. But while Ocado is paving the way to the Space Age, it still hasn’t achieved the ultimate goal of robot-only teams because humans are still needed for the finer-detailed jobs. And it’s hardly surprising.

If you’ve ever been exposed to malfunctioning artificial intelligence or witnessed the infamous moment Facebook had to shut down its own robots after they went spectacularly off-message, you will appreciate the ever-increasing need for human intervention. Indeed, as advanced as disruptive technology is – cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and cognitive computing are all missing one important element – the human touch.

Where humans meet machines

While machines are more than capable of simple, mundane tasks such as lifting and moving objects in bulk, if you were to ask them to handle delicate items such as bag of oranges, they fall short. Further to that, driving a forklift, repairing other robots, and making decisions are all jobs that still require human assistance. The truth is that you’ll never fully automate the supply chain because human intervention will always be needed to interact with the physical product, provide insight and interpretation to dynamic plans and to conduct the face to face conversations. To put it simply, we’re at a crossroad where technology meets humans to achieve the ultimate goal of future innovation. But that’s not to say that exciting advancements aren’t being made.

Now, through artificial intelligence and machine learning, technologies can learn from the past through complex analytical algorithms. As a result, technologies in the form of robots can conduct the heavy lifting, the repetitive and time-consuming activities, leaving the human experts to focus on the creative solutions that shift the supply chain into a new gear. Furthermore, learning from past algorithms teaches the machines to plan accordingly. For instance, the digital input into the supply chain enables a smarter way of predicting demand a lot more accurately than humans can – AI and machine learning are able to accurately remember previous orders to predict future output. This process frees up time for human workers to concentrate on making services as efficient as possible and propelling the supply chain even further into the Fourth industrial revolution.


The future supply chain

 Business leaders are fast acknowledging that there are two ends to the automation spectrum in supply chain; the Stone Age – where physical interaction and input will always be needed; and the Space Age, where the function will cease to exist with fully automated planning, ordering, production and delivery. Instead of attempting to leap from one age to the next, supply chain experts are taking an alternate route, combining a mixture of human and technology to achieve optimal results. This is where humans meet machines to deliver maximum efficiency. The prime position for the supply chain industry will be to sit somewhere in between these two vastly-different technological ages, utilising both human and robot workers to deliver the best results. In fact, new studies reveal that robot input can have a significant impact on work efficiency – potentially reducing the working week to just four days.

Of course, these levels of success are all dependent on the bravery and commitment of companies to adopt emerging tech and work out of their current comfort zone. But making that great leap into the unknown doesn’t have to happen all at once. It’s the same with the supply chain. True value will come when business leaders find the ideal middle ground to sit human staff alongside robots – creating true harmony within the workplace and achieving optimum success as a result.