10 Questions to Ask When Considering Supply Chain Robotics

Perhaps a recent global situation has affected your supply chain.

Perhaps you are looking for ways to improve your global operations.

Or perhaps you’re just interested in adding robots to your business.

But, how you know if robots are suitable for you?

Over the last few years, various reports and articles have been published that indicate that robots are the future of supply chain. They explain the benefits of adding robotics including the increased speed of fulfillment cycles, reduced operating costs, reduced labor turnover, and many more benefits besides.

However, even though the supply chain has been “ripe for disruption” for a long time now, some manufacturers and other companies have been slow on the uptake.

A reluctance to embrace robots is understandable.

When everything is working well in your supply chain, there’s little motivation to invest in new technology without knowing if the benefits will arise. On the other hand, when the supply chain becomes unstable and stops performing well, suddenly we need to look for new and efficient ways to improve our operations.

Now is a great time to start looking into how robotics could help you.

What is Supply Chain Robotics?

Supply chain robotics involves using autonomous robots to improve and innovate the chain of production and distribution. Robots can be used for a whole range of different tasks within the supply chain, including tracking, packaging, and pick-and-place. This helps to improve efficiency, production output, and worker safety.

From a practical perspective, there is no real difference between supply chain robotics and any other use of robotics in manufacturing or logistics. The difference is that you are using the robots to improve the operation of your supply chain as a whole.

10 Questions to Ask When Considering Supply Chain Robotics

How do you know if incorporating robotics into your supply chain is a good move or not?

Here are a set of questions you can ask to assess your situation, some of which come from a report by Deloitte into supply chain robotics:

1. What Are the Current Supply Chain Bottlenecks?

Look at the entire end-to-end of your supply chain and identify which steps are restricting growth in the throughput. These steps are a good candidate for further investigation as they are your bottlenecks. Adding robots to a bottleneck can improve the quality of the entire supply chain.

2. Which Operations Are Most Critical to the Success of the Chain?

Some operations in your supply chain have the potential to “make or break” the chain overall. These may be the same as your current bottlenecks, or they may be different. By adding robots at these stages, you have the potential to improve the robustness of the whole chain, making it less likely to be negatively affected by the changing global landscape.

3. Which Tasks Are Dull, Dirty, or Dangerous?

The most suitable tasks for robots are those which are repetitive, unpleasant, or hazardous for humans. Automation of these tasks is also much more likely to be accepted by your workforce. Such tasks tend to better suit the capabilities of robots, which are not very good at complex tasks that require a lot of thinking.

4. Which Tasks Can Be Automated With a Robot?

Within your operations, look at which tasks are possible with robotics. Many tasks are possible to automate with a robot, including packaging, painting, palletizing, machining, inspection, and welding… to name just a few!

5. How Can You Perform a Low-Cost Test?

According to Supply Chain Insights, one of the traits of the top-performing supply chains is that technology is “done right the first time.” Companies that have implemented new technologies unsuccessfully several times perform less well than those that made the effort to do it properly.

One great way to ensure that your robot application will be a success is to first simulate it using a good robot simulator to validate the application.

6. How Will Regulations Affect the Use of Robots?

Supply chains are notoriously tricky to manage as they often operate in multiple countries and under different jurisdictions. As a result, you will want to check if there are any relevant regulations that will affect your use of robots.

7. What Additional Infrastructure Might You Need?

You will likely need some extras to get your robots integrated seamlessly into your existing operations. Some applications can be integrated with very few extras whilst others are more complex.

When you build your robot application in your simulator first, you will have a good opportunity to check for any extras that might be needed.

8. How Might the Workforce Respond?

Supply chain robotics may affect many stakeholders, particularly those working around the robot. You should consider upfront how these people may react to having robots added to their workplace and train them in any impacts they might feel on their day-to-day activities.

9. Can You Use the Simulation to Demonstrate the Benefits?

Building a simulation of your chosen robotic task is more than just a good way to test the feasibility of the application. It is also a great way to demonstrate the benefits of the application to other stakeholders, including your workforce, management team, and partner companies.

10. How Can You Speed Up the Deployment?

You don’t want your robot deployment to take months and months. Once you’ve identified the most suitable tasks for automation, you probably want to get up and running as soon as possible.

You can reduce the deployment time by choosing the right tools in the first place. For example, you can reduce programming time if you can reuse your test simulation to program the robot itself. This removes the need to program the robot twice.

Assembly station
Assembly station

How to Get Started With Supply Chain Robotics

Supply chains are complex. There are many moving parts and a lot of operations that have the potential to be improved by automation.

A good strategy is to start small. Find one or two suitable tasks that have the potential to have a big effect on the supply chain as a whole and use them as pilot projects, ideally using a good simulator to test the application before you invest in the physical robot.

How could robots affect your supply chain? Tell us in the comments below or join the discussion on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or in the RoboDK Forum.

Alex Owen-Hill

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 CreateClarifyArticulate.com, 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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