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Robotics and Automation in the Supply Chain

In an IDC survey, respondents across multiple industries were asked the deployment of robotics within their company — were they already using them, where in the organization did they expect to deploy them and did they add value. 

Capacity increases were the top improvement brought by robots, followed by productivity and efficiency. But the results that particularly stood out for John Santagate, IDC researcher and robotics expert, was just how much these areas improved with robots. Nearly one-fifth of the respondents already deploying robots said they’ve seen said productivity and other key business metrics improve by 20 percent or more.

Autonomous mobile robots are the key

Clearly, robots are making an impact. “There are different degrees of integration required for different strategies and approaches,” said Santagate, “but the message is you are going to get a very fast ROI with the technology.”

However, not all robots are alike, and choosing the right type of robot for the needs of the business will be the difference maker. In terms of adoption, Santagate sees the most growth of adoption with autonomous mobile robots. Companies are adopting this type of robot at a fairly rapid pace. Santagate said some vendors are planning to deploy one new robot a week through the end of the year. This steady deployment can signal new growth: new facilities, increasing customer base or expanding existing space. Autonomous mobile robots can take on the tasks needed to accommodate rapid growth.

Other types of robots like piece-picking robots or robotic arms are also entering the workforce, but their use cases are more nuanced. These robots are designed for very specific projects, such as in hospitals or used for security. It all depends on the application. However, as technologies improve, new use cases continue to emerge. In general, these robots are built for a purpose and certain tasks.

Robots in the supply chain

Expect robotics to play a large role in the future of warehouse and supply chain technologies in the near future, along with IoT analytics.  

“The way I see it,” Santagate explained, “the robots deployed today are task-oriented, especially in e-commerce fulfillment, whether they’re swarm robots or follow-me style robots or the more versatile ones that can be configured to do different things. The one thing every one of those robots has in common is movement, and the movement is related to the process of fulfilling orders.”

Once these devices — or more to the point, the business application providers — create a platform mature enough to take the movement data being generated and draw the connected tissue between disconnect and business processes, that’s when we will see a more dramatic impact of robotics and automation within the supply chain and warehouse.

Santagate sees the technologies as an elimination of waste. Most of the movements in a warehouse are repetitive and wasteful in terms of business processes. Robots managed through IoT analytics will give warehouses greater insight into the end-to-end processes that occur in their warehouse, which is hard to achieve when those processes are manually executed.

“I’m obviously very bullish on the use of robotics in those types of environments,” said Santagate, “and I see in the future a data aggregation platform that might sit between the warehouse management system and the robotics application to better understand the movement of material in a facility.”

Finally, Santagate believes robotics and automation will create new job opportunities.

“The job landscape and job descriptions will change, but it just creates different types of opportunities as the job landscape repositions and matures.”

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