Automation and Robotics: The Supply Chain of the Future

Sally Miller, CIO North America, DHL Supply Chain
Sally Miller, CIO North America, DHL Supply Chain

Sally Miller, CIO North America, DHL Supply Chain

What are some of the recent trends set to transform the supply chain landscape?

One of the biggest trendscurrently affecting the supply chain industry is digitalization. There are numerous technologies under the digitalization umbrellathat we are evaluating and deploying, such as robotics, data lakes, and big data.We believe utilizing these technologies positively impacts our operations and ability to serve our customers,which ultimately helps us retain our market leadership. We are also looking at end-to-end visibility tools, which will help us improve the transparency of our operations to assist our customers and better theirability to handleany disruptions happening in the supply chain.

There are many venture capitalists and other companies that are generating flexible solutions in a much faster way than we have seen in the past. We are focused on evaluating those technologies and working with those companies (many of them are startups) to figure out if the technologies can be deployed throughout our operations. In addition, we cannot just adopt those solutions as they are; they need to be tweaked to be used indifferent business cases. There is a lot of hype in the market around solution providers,and some are living up to the hype by enabling automation of certain functions that decrease labor needs. A significant portion of our expenditure goes into hourly labor, and roughly 70 percent of their time is spent traveling from different locations, warehouses, or even by truck. If we are able to reduce that travel time through deploying technology, we can reduce our costs and improve service.

Develop a use case and then go looking for the solution instead of doing it the other way around

What are some of the widely prevalent challenges you notice in the supply chain landscape?

Historically in the software industry,most supply chain IT organizations have deployed warehouse management systems, transport management systems, and other software solutions that have been commercially available on the market. Many of the solutions available are built by startups, which have only been around for a couple years. The challenge for startups becomesgetting their solutions to a product stage so they can be deployed to several sites.

Could you elaborate on some interesting and impactful projects/initiatives that you are currently overseeing?

We are working on several robotics projects and have approximately 150 bots. This has decreased our need for adding labor during seasonal peaks and has decreased our employees’ travel time in the warehouse. Also, we have had a couple of pilots using drones for inventory cycle counting within the warehouse. We are rolling out our end-to-end visibility solution called MySupplyChain, which has a lot of functionality around visibility and analytics. The ability to drill down indecisive data, track and trace, and to share files has beena large initiative. We also have initiated a GoGreen program where we are looking to reduce the amount of paper generated in our facilities by using an electronic billing solution. We are doing a lot around RPA and are using bots to perform a lot of manual back-office functions in our transportation operations, like going onto a customer system to make an appointment or going onto a carrier website to download proof of deliveries. As a result, we are automating a lot of manual and repetitive tasks with RPA.

How would you see the evolution a few years from now with regard to disruptions and transformations within the arena?

Automated vehicles are driving the change in warehouse work and are helping define the supply chain of the future. This warehouse automation has been implemented in the form of various autonomous driving vehicles such as automated stackers, forklifts, pallet trucks, and so on. Moving forward, self-driving vehicles will have an immense impact on logistics and supply chain management.

What would be the single piece of advice that you could impart to your colleagues to excel in this space?

I would encourage them to develop a usecase and then go looking for the solution instead of doing it the other way around. If you know in your business you have a truck that travels‘x’ millionmiles a year, there may be an opportunity to look for a solution utilizing autonomous vehicles. Pick your use case for the problem you are going to solve first before looking for technology. That would be my advice in staying and having a business partner’s sponsorship for the project; use case is crucial for a successful outcome.

How can budding and evolving companies reach you for suggestions to streamline their business?

There are so many opportunities for companies to take a look at operations and identify opportunities for efficiency. Resources to support and advise those evolving companies are numerous. Often people reach out to me on LinkedIn for insight and I try to connect with them as much as possible.

I also encourage you to explore this interactive version of the Logistics Trend Radar, to understand the 28 key trends and innovations that could impact logistics in the next five to 10years.

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