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Supply Chain Automation Technology: New Tools

Robotic Process Automation in the Supply Chain

Posted on 06-01-2017 by Lucia Garza

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Supply Chain Automation – Global Complexity

The global supply chain (and the need for supply chain automation) grows more complex by the day. Goods and information flow at unprecedented rates; shippers, third-party logistics providers, and major freight companies all expend tremendous amounts of energy on new technology and processes to streamline their supply chain operations.

Automate or Fail

This new paradigm is driving a massive push to partially or fully automate key aspects of the supply chain. Humans won’t be able to take their hands off the wheel anytime soon — not that the millions of workers who depend on the global logistics industry for their livelihoods want to anyway. But automation is certain to improve the supply chain’s efficiency in the years ahead, allowing human workers to focus on more creative, higher-level tasks.

Rather than focus on a litany of incremental supply chain automation innovations, let’s focus on one specific development with tremendous potential: robotic process automation (RPA), also known as enterprise process robotics.

Robotic Process Automation: A Potential Game-Changer for Supply Chain Managers

Robert J. Bowman of Supply Chain Brain describes robotic process automation as a major shift from previous supply chain automation initiatives, which focus largely on “repetitive, transactional processes in warehouses as well as on the production line.”

In contrast, he says, “RPA goes beyond physical systems to embrace the underlying software, with the help of artificial intelligence.”

RPA goes beyond physical systems to embrace the underlying software, with the help of artificial intelligence

RPA is a software-based framework that easily layers on top of other promising warehouse automation technologies, such as mobile picking carts, pick-to-light systems, and voice picking systems. (Supply Chain 24/7 has a nice roundup of those technologies here.) Basically, RPA integrates and syncs warehouse processes, removing the human element from supply chain execution without looping out human employees entirely — workers are still required to approve orders and coordinate with vendors, for instance.

More About Robotic Process Automation

RPA doesn’t use armies of autonomous robots. It’s entirely virtual, even if its results are felt in the real-world environment of the warehouse — often dramatically.

According to Ray Barratt of SDC Executive, RPA leverages “embedded process know-how,” a teaching tool made possibly by recent advances in machine learning. RPA software programs learn how to execute key supply chain processes, such as monitoring levels of key SKUs and submitting order requests to human supervisors when levels fall below pre-set thresholds. RPAs can also detect more complex supply chain issues (such as suspension of delivery from a weather-affected supplier) and resolve those issues intelligently — perhaps by submitting larger-than-usual order requests to redundant suppliers or temporarily halting shipments.

Over time, RPA systems learn more about the environments in which they operate. That may give supply chain managers enough confidence to offload even more responsibility, perhaps by eliminating approval requirements for new orders or supplier changes. Though consequential, these tasks are tedious, and every minute supply chain professionals don’t spend completing them is a minute they can devote to higher-ROI work (that robots can’t do).

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