How AI And Robots Boost Supply Chain Automation Despite The Pandemic

How AI and Robots Boost Supply Chain Automation despite the Pandemic

by Andrew Zola — 4 years ago in Artificial Intelligence 4 min. read

A crisis can sometimes be a sort of catalyst that accelerates change and boosts innovation. So it’s no surprise that in the supply chain and logistics industry, COVID-19 has led to the rapid development and adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation technologies.

The pandemic disrupted global supply chains, and demand patterns changed almost overnight. In response, businesses had to adapt and inject agility into traditional systems and processes.

While there’s a persistent lay view that companies are hesitant to invest in technology during a crisis, the opposite has proved to be true. For example, research suggests that AI in the supply chain and logistics market is expected to reach $21.8 billion by 2027 (growing at a CAGR of 45.3%).

These tools can also help organizations optimize resources, rapidly adjust processes, and collaborate seamlessly and more efficiently with all supply chain stakeholders.

Survival depends on who adapts quickly in an unpredictable environment. So those who embrace technologies like AI, robotic management, and digital process automation, and more will be better placed to lead the industry once we get past these unprecedented times.

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Robotics and Automation in Shipping and Logistics

Regardless of the pandemic, engaging in digital transformation and leveraging robotics and automation is challenging. However, in the longterm, it’s an enormous advantage and sets the foundation for what’s to come.

The data continuously generated by smart sensors help enterprises use their resources effectively and for maximum benefit. AI can select and collect large quantities of data from logistics and supply chain sources, analyze it, and initiate complex processes and functions based on the findings.

But we can’t talk about AI without also mentioning big data, computer vision, and robotics. AI-powered visual inspection, for example, can identify the damage, make corrections using photos of the cargo, and leverage intelligent robotic sorting to sort palletized packages, letters, and other shipments.

This approach provides accuracy, repeatability, and speed at a lower cost. As a result, in a post-pandemic world, we can expect an elimination of error-prone cost-intensive manual inspections.

At present, companies that already embraced virtual workflows continue to attract new clients. The popular question during these surreal days is, “how can robots enable us to continue manufacturing while practicing social distancing?”

In a pre-pandemic world, robots played a significant role in physically strenuous and repetitive tasks like trailer and container unloading. But now, we can leverage robotic arms with powerful sensors and grippers to locate even the smallest parcels, analyze its size and shape, and determine the optimal unloading sequence.

Robotics and Automation in Warehousing

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), including drones, are already common in warehouses. In this scenario, they help warehouse workers fulfill orders quickly and efficiently.

However, to maintain social distancing protocols, we can expect to see more machines taking on the workload that was usually assigned to humans. These AI-powered robots are also programmed to complete tasks with little to no human interaction or intervention.

They can vary from those that engage in robotic process automation to AI-powered drones equipped with powerful image and data capturing capabilities.

For the most part, there are two types of AMRs in a warehouse setting. Firstly, fleet management and systems that depend on picking optimization. Secondly, fleet management solutions that route the robots from an origin to a destination, typically with large payloads.

AI and robots in warehouses are well-placed to:

  • Boost efficiency by working alongside humans

  • Boost revenue through enhanced productivity and customer satisfaction

  • Increase safety

  • Increase speed

  • Improve access to difficult or dangerous areas

  • Improve the accuracy of routine operations

  • Minimize error, re-work, and risk rates

  • Minimize the risk of injury

  • Perform mundane low-value repetitive tasks

  • Optimize picking, sorting, and storing times

  • Reduce costs

Robotics and Automation in Delivery

The pandemic taught us the benefit of no-contact delivery services. Going forward, you can expect to see a rising demand for robot delivery of anything from medicines to groceries.

California-based drone delivery startup Zipline, for example, already makes hundreds of deliveries every week to clinics and hospitals in countries like Ghana and Rwanda. Its aerial vehicles that are catapulted from six distribution centers deliver blood, medicine, and other supplies across 8,000 square miles.

The company was already making plans to launch in the United States before the pandemic. However, with significant strain on medical supply chains, the company is hoping to deploy much sooner and at a broader scale.

Beyond the essentials, the demand of customers is also moving towards more customized and individualized products. To meet this need, businesses will need to make a move towards micro-segmentation quickly.

With the help of big data and AI, enterprises can manage their target market in granular clusters encompassing a broad spectrum of highly suitable products. Furthermore, drone delivery will enable better management of the last mile efficiently for single and high-value dense packages.

In recent years, the testing of autonomous trucks is also ramped up across North America. Uber’s self-driving truck subsidiary Otto, for example, delivered 2,000 cases of beer from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs (a 120-mile trip) almost four years ago. So it’s safe to say that we are getting ready to take the next step.

Other companies testing autonomous trucks include Embark, Daimler/Mercedes, Volvo, and Tesla. With so much activity within this space, it’s not difficult to foresee autonomous deliveries from an urban warehouse to customer locations in different metropolitan areas.

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The Bottom Line

It’s time for businesses to assess and reimagine their supply chains and enhance them with the power of AI, robots, and process automation. While there may have been concerns surrounding capital investment, the current situation (and the future needs of the market) demands it.

To successfully deploy AI and autonomous robots across the supply chain, companies need to get creative to access top tech talent. As remote working has become the norm, it presents a unique opportunity to leverage staff augmentation and build a robust dedicated team to help businesses achieve supply chain transformation goals quickly.

Andrew Zola

Andrew is a freelance technology journalist and a regular contributor to publications like Business2Community, Hackernoon, Security Boulevard, and more. While he’s not obsessing over cybersecurity, you can find him traveling around the world with his dogs and trusty Lumix camera.

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