Robots and Advanced Technology: Building digitally resilient warehouses

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The confluence of several advanced technologies like Robotics and Automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and Blockchain has seen an incredible upsurge, ever since the COVID-19 has hit the logistics and warehousing industry. The pandemic has literally, in a way, bolstered the usage of autonomous solutions taking on dull, dirty, and dangerous work, thereby rejuvenating and transforming entire business operations.

Ritika Arora Bhola

Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered robot pickers are said to bring the next big revolution in Indian warehouses.

Before the pandemic, automation was significantly viewed as a means to innovate, reduce cost and gain a competitive edge, but now the purpose has shifted to survival and damage limitation.

Looking at the current market scenario, even global experts say that warehouse automation is the new urgency in current supply chain operations. According to Prakrut Mehta, Director Leasing, ESR India, “Traditional business processes and flows that are repetitive and require manual intervention can also be streamlined with the help of automated using Robotics Process Automation (RPA) and AI, therefore, increasing the scope of potential of automation in the warehousing industry.”

Considering the current environment, Mehta says, “In the supply chain industry, the usage of AI-powered robot pickers is enabling warehouses to streamline their operations with greater speed and efficiency making the process agile, flexible and scalable. With automated robots in place, warehouses are increasing productivity with less human contact and faster turnaround time.”

“In the past few months, COVID-19 has presented a slew of serious challenges on both human and business says,” Manjunath S R, Senior Director, Head of Supply Chain & Logistics Solutions – India, JLL. Supply chains will go through huge transformations in the next few years in India as the impact of COVID-19 continues to challenge demand and supply frameworks.

Global logistics companies are actually building their business continuity plans and re-inventing new warehouse and logistics models and exploring automation possibilities to reduce the impact of disruptions in the future.

“Building technologies that will protect and provide workers and consumers a safe environment will be the focal point in this drive to automate,” ascertains Manjunath.

In fact, many e-commerce categories are expected to boom, as people make a behavioural shift from buying offline to shopping online, AI-powered robot pickers might just as well become the most cost-effective solution in the current situation to fulfil maximum number of orders driven by the pent-up demand, raising concerns of excess supplies.

With social distancing becoming the new norm, shortage of labour, and given fears that the virus may not go away any time soon, the warehouse execution will likely include digitisation and new technologies in much larger scale than what it is now.

Are we moving towards a digital future?

Understanding the urgency of the situation, Indian logistics industry is significantly perceiving the digital future and quickly transforming their thinking, IT infrastructures, doctrines and business strategies.

Bigger enterprises, MNCs do not face difficulties as such, since they already had adopted digital solutions much before. But MSMEs literally had to struggle to survive in this difficult hour. They are not able to cope with difficulties that are forced on them.  They are experiencing difficulties integrating new technologies to keep up with this new kind of ‘always-connected’ customer. This is because of their size, scale of operation, limited financial managerial resources.

In a way, digital technologies would be very important for most industries to not just survive, but to thrive. The government’s recent financial packages and allowances are expected to help the MSME sector in a faster recovery and enabling them to prepare for unforeseen circumstances and build digital resiliency.

Experts say digitalisation has been proving a big enabler in improving the servicing part of supply chain and is likely to improve warehouse efficiency up to 60 per cent. Warehouses are moving from traditional excel spreadsheets to automated scripts and systems, which help save on time, resource efforts and accuracy while maximising efficiency. Most importantly, in warehouse operations, digitisation makes it easier to meet customer demand by tracking inventory in real-time, and minimising the potential for human error.

“Technology-enabled warehouses are the need of the hour. Our logistics parks are enabled with advanced visitor management systems to avoid human contact, making the premises safer and enabling pre-registered visitors, guiding vehicles to a particular dock, reducing time for vehicular movements, traffic thereby, increasing efficiency. Such digitally managed space with contactless technology helps in providing quick scaling options as well as improved visibility and analysis for better decision making,” explains Mehta.

“The future of logistics is likely to involve AI and other new technologies, but this is debatable as manual work will still be there, we are still far away from automating end-to-end warehouse automation. In the current form, the technology is very limited and far from the fully automated workstation that we would need where AI-powered machines will be doing majority of the work. As with any new warehouse equipment, the employees will need to be adequately trained to safely handle new AS/RS systems and get the most out of the technology,” stresses Mehta.

This is an exciting time for supply chain professionals in India, even Manjunath feels. “It is anticipated that the increasing use of digital technologies like AI and Blockchain will further revolutionise the warehouse operations. But, as we move towards more sophisticated warehousing solutions, majority of the warehousing activities may be automated. We will need skilled people to operate these sophisticated warehouses, and the manual part will be eliminated to a certain extent.”

“Whether a part of a larger supply chain or in itself, technology will continue to grow undoubtedly, but the benefits of these tools are principally dependent on its adaptation and optimisation,” says Manjunath.

Conclusion

Resilience needs to be permanently architected into the supply network topology so that collaborative networks can react as a team when disruptions occur, especially those that impact human life. Businesses must focus on building up the muscles of a strong supply chain by using strategies that give them more options, while employing technology to provide extra insight and guidance. The overarching objective is to reshape for the future by building greater responsibility, agility, responsiveness, and resilience right across the supply chain.

The coronavirus outbreak will force companies that have been slow to adopt digital tools to reconsider the benefits. The crisis demonstrates the need for accurate, real-time information that can help businesses make better-informed decisions. While many disruptions can be beyond a manager’s control, companies can still prepare for them. Reconfiguring supply chains doesn’t always improve the flow of information if silos still exist.

In India, given the current situation, organisations across sectors are re-looking at customer engagement with a new lens; companies are setting the groundwork for the future. Automation in logistics and warehousing Industry is the road ahead for India if it has to prevent shutdowns. Warehouse automation is employed to make gains upon existing processes by improving efficiency, speed, reliability, accuracy and cost savings. However, the financial position of the companies is a crucial factor in this shift as the investment in new technologies is going to be huge.

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