How to Beat Supply Chain Disruption With Robots

Robots in Industries

Supply chain disruption has recently become a concern for many manufacturers.

Those supply chains that once seemed so strong are now revealed as fragile.

What steps can you take to improve the robustness of your supply chain?

Are supply chain disruptions accelerating robot adoption?

Many events can disrupt your supply chain. Natural disasters, machine breakdowns, unexpected spikes in demand, customs delays, and more.

Supply chains are made up of a complex set of interlocking systems and processes that are affected by many different global and local forces.

Recently, a lot of manufacturers have become concerned about their supply chains. As I write this, the latest major upheaval has come in the form of the COVID-19 global pandemic that has ground many supply chains to a halt. However, there has been a stream of global situations before this current crisis that has thrown supply chains into uncertainty, including Brexit (the United Kingdom leaving the European Union in 2020); USMCA (the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement in 2019); and the NAFTA renegotiation (North American Free Trade Agreement 2019).

Such events can throw our business into confusion.

Suddenly, our supposedly strong, reliable supply chains break. Everyone has to scramble to readjust. We start to question if our processes are even feasible any more.

Quick Ways to Respond to Supply Chain Disruption That Don’t Work

When our supply chains are heavily disrupted, we jump into action to try to reverse the damage.

We get on the phone to our suppliers and tell them to get their act together.

We frantically search for new suppliers of vital materials and products.

Finally, we cut expenditure and reduce production.

If new suppliers are available, we pay through the nose for more expensive supplies, slashing our profit margins just so that we can keep our operations going.

Or we just sit it out, hoping that the global situation will sort itself out soon.

Is this really the best way to respond to supply chain disruption?

The Missing Link for Improving Supply Chain Management

When a crisis hits, there is only so much we can do.

But, reacting quickly, decisively, and (ideally) proactively is necessary to weather the storm with grace.

Often, our instinctual reaction is not the best way forward. In our panic to “solve the problem,” we miss potentially good solutions.

Replacing our suppliers in a like-for-like fashion is only one option. Another option is to look for ways to improve the efficiency of our operation and the integrity of our supply chains. This can ease the strain on our business and improve the quality of our business even after the current global situation has sorted itself out.

As a report from the Aberdeen Group said: “Chief Supply Chain Officers (CSCO) know that there is no such thing as a perfect plan and disruptions will always occur.”

One way to improve the efficiency and robustness of our supply chains is with robotic automation. According to investing strategists GlobalX, the recent global disruptions will accelerate robot adoption in manufacturing as companies look for new ways to improve the integrity of their supply chain rather than relying on fragile trade routes.

How Robots Can Ease Supply Chain Problems

People have been saying for a long time that “the supply chain is ripe for disruption.” Over the last few years, companies have been gradually adopting robotics into their operations to help them to gain a competitive advantage. Even back in 2017, supply chain professionals ranked robotics and automation as the most disruptive technologies.

There is a benefit to this trend. In a crisis, not all suppliers are equal. In the past, you would have to rely on offshored manufacturing to stay competitive. However, for the last few years, many companies have been bringing their operations “back home” by using robotic automation, allowing them to strategically reduce the cost of production without relying so heavily on global supply lines.

By working with the right partners, you get the benefit of these forward-thinking people. Reducing the number of “moving parts” in your supply chain can allow you to keep operating profitably even when the global situation makes it difficult.

If you haven’t already started integrating robots into your own operation, now is certainly a good time to start thinking about it. A technological change that was once “just a competitive advantage” could become the one thing that keeps you afloat in a crisis.

3 Robotic Tasks That Could Improve Supply Chains

There are obviously a huge variety of tasks that can come under the heading of “supply chain.” Some are possible with a robot and some are not.

Here are 3 robot tasks that could improve supply chains:

1. Pick and place

One of the most popular and simplest robot tasks is pick and place. As the name suggests, it involves moving items around the workspace, e.g. from a conveyor to a CNC workstation. This task can help to reduce the number of workers doing non-value-added tasks and can improve the reliability and consistency of the movement of product.

2. Packaging

Packing has become more complex recently as businesses have tried to reduce inventory and moved to more mixed boxes and pallets. Robots can help to keep this type of packaging competitive as they are able to be easily reprogrammed (with the right software) to handle multiple product lines.

3. Tracking

Manual tracking of products is one of those tasks that can reduce the efficiency of a supply chain. Automation is necessary to achieve it. For huge logistics companies, this is often achieved with automatic product tracking machines. However, smaller manufacturers don’t necessarily have the resources or space for such machines. Robots can provide a more accessible way to automate tracking in a similar manner to robotic inspection.

Could Robotics Help Your Current Situation?

Every company’s situation is different, even when we are all affected by the same global situation.

Have a look at your own current situation and consider if you could incorporate robotics in some way.

You never know, a robot could provide the edge you need to succeed despite supply chain disruption.

How have you been affected by supply chain disruption? Tell us in the comments below or join the discussion on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or in the RoboDK Forum.

About Alex Owen-Hill

Alex Owen-Hill is a freelance writer and public speaker who blogs about a large range of topics, including science, presentation skills at, storytelling and (of course) robotics. He completed a PhD in Telerobotics from Universidad Politecnica de Madrid as part of the PURESAFE project, in collaboration with CERN. As a recovering academic, he maintains a firm foot in the robotics world by blogging about industrial robotics.

View all posts by Alex Owen-Hill

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