Digitalizing Supply Chains in a Post-COVID World
In the months since Covid-19 reared its head, it is an understatement to say that changes have been far-reaching. The reality from more than 12 months ago does not appear to be coming back any time soon – if ever – as companies adjust to new work modes, intermittent disruptions, and demand changes.
In the meantime, more so than ever, supply chains need to deliver as they always have. The first article in this series identified five key factors for supply chain success, in this article, we’re going to deep dive into how digitalizing supply chains can help businesses unlock their full potential and navigate the new normal.
1. Adapting to a disruptive new normal with digitalization
Part of the solution may lie in how companies approach and utilize digitalization.
The pandemic has shown how rapidly behaviors can change in response to disruptions – and the agile response required from companies to manage this dynamism. Alongside the direct impact of the pandemic, lifestyle changes have allowed e-commerce to grow at a tremendous rate. This switch in consumption behaviors from brick-and-mortar stores to online is likely to have a long-lasting impact as new habits are forged.
These new consumption habits, coupled with a new normal of social distancing practices, a mask-up culture, and unpredictable lockdowns still on the horizon, mean that the digitalization of supply chain operations could be the distinguishing factor between ‘business as usual’ and ‘business unusual.’
Product profiles can vary significantly for most companies, from small screws to large mechanical components, socks to winter coats, and pens to storage cabinets. Complete end-to-end logistics automation is therefore not feasible at such a scale since it would involve engineering a large number of parallel processes to meet the many handling requirements. Instead, companies can compromise and opt for a working model where robots work alongside humans to support supply chain operations.
2. Visualizing digitalized operations
What would such a set-up look like? Robotic arms may help workers palletize or de-palletize products while their human co-workers look on and ensure that the quantities are correct. Cleaning robots might circle the aisles during off-peak periods, while workers equipped with ring scanners make quick work of the day’s picks. Products may be grouped by order onto goods-to-person robots, while AGVs (Autonomous Guided Vehicles) help transport bulky loads across the warehouse floor. Packing robots may also assist human workers in placing items into cartons while humans run regular resource optimizations of operations.
As the technology matures, we might even more commonly see inventory robots replacing the labor-intensive task of stock-takes. On the greener side of things, motion sensor lighting, energy-efficient equipment, or even smart packaging solutions can also be explored.
3. Work towards clear priorities when digitalizing supply chains
Such efforts are about staying ahead during the current pandemic and ensuring that companies improve performance and find scaleable solutions to create future-proof operations in times of accelerating technological advancements, well beyond the pandemic years.
The priority? To automate or simplify strenuous and repetitive tasks, and enjoy the associated benefits that come if not from cost, then from productivity improvements, a reduction in error rates, and the ability to remain HSE-compliant – and fully operational – while the world remains in pandemic-mode and beyond.
4. Putting in place the right enablers
In fact, all these and more are already happening to varying extents in warehouses across the globe, and efforts are ongoing to make such adoptions all the more feasible. For example, DHL Supply Chain has teamed up with Microsoft and Blue Yonder to develop a “plug-and-play” robotics platform that reduces time and efforts to onboard automation solutions into warehouses. This simplifies the process for the adoption of robotics solutions and lays the foundation for the adoption of analytics solutions in the future.
5. Key considerations in the case for digitalizing supply chains
Of course, the solutions need to make sense given the context of each site and each organization. Sites with more homogeneous operations and a high volume of products with similar handling requirements would provide a greater breadth of application for the same solution. A company’s overall data landscape would drive the feasibility of analytics or software-based solutions, while the ability for new solutions to integrate with existing IT systems would boost the level of intelligence in how we work. How one manages legacy systems and processes could then emerge as a critical differentiator in the automation journey. Stringent local policies on how employees work in a pandemic would also drive a stronger need for robot co-workers.
Beyond this, companies would need to review the balance between the cost of purchase, training, implementation, and disruptions with the long-term benefits on productivity, error rates, compliance, and reliability.
Are your warehouse operations ready to deliver excellence?
At the end of the day, digitalizing supply chains is not and cannot be the “be-all and end-all” to today’s challenges. But, what it offers is the unique opportunity for supply chains to continue to deliver excellence in a ceaselessly evolving environment – in pandemic mode and beyond. We are always looking to collaborate with forward-thinking organizations to build the Supply Chain of the Future and would love to hear where you are on this journey. So, please get in touch with us!
Keep a lookout for our upcoming content as we continue to deep dive into each of these elements and their supply chain implications for the New Normal.