Automation Is Not the Enemy: Systematizing Workflow in the Supply Chain

December 16, 2019

Automation Is Not the Enemy: Systematizing Workflow in the Supply Chain

Authors: QProducts & Services Team, Under the Direction of Paul Yadron, Sr. VP of Sales

Imagine a world where automation comes together with technology to deliver products without much human intervention, if any. Historically, automation has been applied to virtual processes, such as auditing or reporting. However, the trends in automation are changing to reflect actions that function more like artificial intelligence. According to Supply Chain Management Review, “the last 25 years was all about who could make things cheapest, and the next 25 years will be about who can make things smartest.”


What is Supply Chain Automation?

In essence, supply chain automation means utilizing technology to centrally manage a complex web of working parts. The goal in supply chain automation is to systematize part or all of a workflow in order to improve processes. Automating part or all of the supply chain has a number of benefits that can potentially reduce operating costs and increase revenue.

In traditional supply chain systems, the phases act as autonomous phases that have minimal visibility. According to BCI Supply Chain Resilience Report, 69% of companies don’t have complete visibility of their supply chain. On the other hand, supply chain visibility is among the top strategic priority of companies worldwide, according to GEODIS Supply Chain Worldwide Survey. With automation, the supply chain is streamlined from end-to-end, enabling all different phases and pieces of the supply chain to be managed in tandem.

robots in a warehouse

Automation is simply a piece of the “operational excellence” puzzle that so many organizations and supply chains strive for today. An extensive, 10-year study of 12,000 companies by The Harvard Business Review found that companies able to achieve a high standard of excellence delivered $15M in larger profits, 25% higher growth rate, and a 75% increase in productivity on average compared to other companies. In order to achieve this high standard of excellence, companies need to embrace automation. To achieve a high standard of excellence in the supply chain, there needs to be a clear definition of value. Supply chain excellence is a journey, not a project. The organizations driving success carefully define the supply chain strategy and the enabling technologies and processes. Technology should be implemented correctly, and the appropriate technology should be utilized. Other factors involved include having organizational alignment, consistent leadership, and strong capabilities in planning.

Historically, few of us would have included robots, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT) in the supply chain automation lineup, but we should now as automation is further along than many may realize. For example, Rochester Drug utilizes autonomous mobile robots to pick items directly from shelves using suction cups before placing them in a tote. These robots were designed by IAM Robotics, who was recently awarded a patent for mobile piece-picking robots.

Additionally, DHL is testing collaborative robots that work alongside people to fill e-commerce orders in Memphis, TN. Locus Robotics, who supplies the robots, also uses them at their sister company, Quiet Logistics, for apparel order fulfillment.

In general, McKinsey estimates that only 5 percent of all occupations are likely to be fully automated. However, the consulting firm also expects that nearly half of worker activities can be performed by automation, especially robots and AI. Using data and the IoT, maintenance departments are now able to anticipate difficulties with various types of equipment moving and handling individual items or full pallet loads. As a result, unscheduled (and costly) downtime due to unexpected equipment failure is replaced by conveniently scheduled downtime for preventative maintenance.

From a supply chain perspective, according to Harvard Business Review, only 7 percent of manufacturing and service companies are using artificial intelligence to automate production activities, and only 8 percent are using AI to allocate budgets across the company while just 6 percent are using AI in pricing. However, according to Forbes Insights, the top priorities among supply chain organizations in 2018 were improving service quality, focusing on performance management, and investing in data analytics. So, where can organizations find the low-hanging fruit – applications of AI that won’t completely kill jobs but could present big benefits?

At QProducts & Services, we continue to develop cost saving solutions for transporting temperature sensitive commodities every day, with a game-changing line of proprietary passive thermal protection products.

About three years ago, QProducts invested in automation with state-of-the-art sewing machines to boost efficiency. Automation can be a scary word to skilled laborers, but once QPS employees understood the need for automation, they quickly got on board.

automation in a warehouseBenefits of Supply Chain Automation

The global supply chain is constantly growing and changing. Organizations are utilizing and should be utilizing the power of technology to help streamline operations for a more efficient, cost-saving process. Below, we’ll look at some of the major benefits that organizations can reap by choosing to automate their supply chain processes.

  1. Decrease operating costs
    1. Supply chain automation helps in the reduction of labor costs, inventory, warehousing, and overhead costs associated with inventory storage, including rent, labor, and energy costs. By maximizing production, labor costs and overhead costs are reduced.
  2. Increase productivity
    1. Optimizing the current resources with automation in the supply chain can enable “around the clock” work, allowing companies to gain more productivity. According to Altivate, companies can gain up to 20 percent more productivity in areas that have been automated.
  3. Increase volume
    1. For manufacturers, automation can increase the volume of product that can be produced. Automated technology combines the skills of trained workers with the accuracy of automated equipment, in turn increasing productivity.
  4. Improve accuracy
    1. Automation can reduce errors associated with manual processes such as data input, as well as help plan cost control by providing accurate, real-time information on inventory levels.
  5. Enhance time savings
    1. Through streamlining business processes, supply chain automation boosts time savings by reducing the time associated with implementing labor intensive tasks such as accounting, which saves manufacturers time and money.
  6. Refine compliance
    1. Automation can improve organization’s compliance with industry standards as it can standardize operations for employees and vendors, schedule routine asset maintenance, and track and trace the flow of products for full warehouse visibility.
  7. Advance data accuracy
    1. Automation can reduce errors associated with manual data entry and can also provide real-time visibility into warehouse management systems. In addition, paperwork can be eliminated, allowing organizations to make informed decisions about inventory, assets, and workforce with accurate and readily available data.

automation in beverage supply chain

Automation in the Food and Beverage Industry

Along the food and beverage supply chain, there are so many involved processes, workers, and touchpoints that it can be difficult to not only keep track of food, but also to monitor its quality. Automation can change that completely. For one, it provides end-to-end traceability. If a company has a contaminated shipment that was discovered too late, modern analytics and automation tools can be used to find exactly where the product is being shipped or where it originated from. This way, a massive health problem can be avoided before it even starts.

Secondarily, automation provides better quality control within the food and beverage industry. As we know, quality is of utmost importance in this industry. With the appropriate automation systems, defects and issues can be noticed much earlier in the supply chain. By detecting problems during packaging or processing, companies can cut down on the total number of problematic products that enter the market. If something along the supply chain is the culprit, automation can help detect it.

Although the food and beverage industry traditionally lacks behind in the adoption of new technologies and automated systems, the rapid advancement in technology and expectations of consumers and regulatory bodies has increased the demand for improved food quality and safety. According to Meticulous Research, the food automation industry is expected to be worth $14.3 billion by 2025.


internet of things in pharmaceutical industryAutomation in the Pharmaceutical & Chemical Industry


According to The Engineer, the pharmaceutical industry produces millions of tablets each week, all of which must be carefully reviewed before being packaged and shipped to distributors. Most pharmaceutical packaging systems use automation to manage bottle orientation, capping, and labeling. Automation of packaging also requires a system that monitors the operation on a supervisory level, checking for fallen bottles and low-level supplies. Overall, this helps pharmaceutical companies increase their productivity levels.

Operating in an intensely regulated market, pharmaceutical drug companies are increasingly making use of robotics to automate specific processes in drug development. Today, processes such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) can have sample preparation carried out by robotic arms. Today, automated technology can be a great investment for the pharmaceutical and chemical industry. Return on investment often comes in the form of energy savings, flexibility, high-speed production, and increased quality.

Ian Webster, former Pharmaceutical Segment Manager for Burket Fluid Control Systems, stresses that “automated processes by their nature require less human intervention and, therefore, have less potential for errors. There is also a reduction in labor costs, leading to a more cost-effective manufacturing process.”

robots in a warehouseFinal Thoughts

Advancements in automation including artificial intelligence (AI), robots, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are changing the game across many industries, including the supply chain. Today, computers are far better at managing other computers and, in general, inanimate objects or digital information than they are at managing human interactions. However, automation alone isn’t going to help one organization dominate the entire market. Automation should not be viewed as our enemy, but rather a tool that can help organizations scale their business without scaling the associated chaos.

It seems clear that it is not a matter of “if” but “when” robots and other automated technology will be working in our distribution centers, warehouses, and manufacturing centers. Looking ahead, supply chain leaders should prepare their processes and infrastructure to embrace new technology and its ability to harness more data than ever before.

As automation continues to evolve and become part of the supply chain, I hope this information was helpful in answering some of your questions.