Is automation the answer?

COVID-19 transformed the way we live our daily lives practically overnight.

While the UK might be welcoming the return of ‘normality’ to certain areas of daily life, Government guidelines still require businesses to adhere to two-meter social distancing practices. Even as non-essential retailers reopen, the level of automation has dramatically increased and the use of robotics has expanded not only within, but also beyond, the walls of warehouses and distribution centres (DCs).

Within the warehouse, the use of automation and robotics is also increasing to keep up with the increased ecommerce demand. But is there such a thing as too much automation? And will we see robotics and automation sweep successfully throughout the entire supply chain in the future?

Automation in supply chains

The use of robotics and automation technology in warehouses or DCs certainly isn’t new. Over time, retailers across the globe have been perfecting the right combination of man (and woman) and machine to drive efficiencies, minimise errors and make parts of the supply chain more fluid.

While robotics and automation has grown significantly over time, from its first introduction, now, a wide range of factories, laboratories, warehouses, energy plants, hospitals and other industries are reliant on robotics and automation to deliver more efficient results.

Today’s warehouses and DCs need to maintain flexibility and scalability and decrease their reliance on temporary or unreliable labour pools to meet operational requirements. Introducing automation and robotics into warehouses and DCs can support social distancing while at the same time ensuring that orders can be picked and packed efficiently, without errors, maintaining the productivity of the DC.

As a result, retailers can process eCommerce orders not only more quickly, but importantly much more safely too. By strategically implementing automation and robotics, supply chains can work continuously without having to delay deliveries and staying true to customer expectations.

However, robots cannot survive in a warehouse on their own, and it’s essential for supply chain managers to recognise that there are some jobs a cobot simply cannot do, making a combination of both man (and woman) and machine essential to achieving true efficiency.

Outside the warehouse

Move further along the supply chain to the delivery end and the use of robotics and automation is quite different, with last mile delivery undergoing a transformation in the last five years.

Recognising the benefits of robotics and automation technology within the warehouse, many retailers are now starting to consider how this technology can be used within other areas of the supply chain. For example, in recent months we’ve seen automated robots increasingly used as a completely contactless-free delivery method in the grocery sector, ensuring local communities and vulnerable people are still able to get goods delivered to their door.

Within a warehouse, it is still necessary to complement automation with human employees to perform certain tasks that robots are simply not yet able to do. As we look towards a post-COVID-19 world, it is exciting to see how these levels of automation and robotic developments will filter through to other areas of the supply chain.

Putting robotics in the spotlight

COVID-19 has accelerated the use of robotics and automation and shone a spotlight on existing business and retail models which may not have considered the use of these types of technologies technology before the pandemic

As technology becomes more sophisticated, consumer habits too will continue to change and businesses will need to aware of their requirement to constantly evolve: only time will tell how important robotics and automation will become beyond the warehouse and DC environment, but I’d certainly bet on it becoming more important that less in the extended supply chain.

Alex MacPherson, Director of Solution Consultancy & Account Management, Manhattan Associates

FeaturesOp-ed

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