There is growing interest in Supply Chain 4.0 technology, especially as logistics professionals face stockouts, port delays and other challenges. Advanced technology can increase productivity in warehouses and at all other points along a product’s journey to its destination. Here’s a closer look at what supply chain management can do for those who invest in it.
Facilitate productivity and reduce worker stress
Heavy physical labor is a common practice for people who have many jobs in the supply chain. Getting the right training on how to bend, lift and avoid the strain of repetitive tasks can pay off in helping them stay injury free and able to perform at peak performance. However, some companies are also investing in bots to help even more.
In one case, an adult incontinence product distributor pursued robotic palletization to streamline its receiving process. An associate begins by scanning a label on a box to indicate to the robot that a product is on the way and that it must be unloaded soon. The robot then refers to 20 models stored in its memory to decide how to build a pallet based on the incoming items. Once the robot has created the pallet, the goods are transported to a picking point or a storage area.
There are also many other opportunities to integrate robots into Supply Chain 4.0. Some autonomous mobile robots bring goods to warehouse workers so those workers don’t have to leave their workstations and take the extra time and energy to replenish what they need.
Other robots work alongside supply chain workers, saving them some of the most laborious or error-prone tasks. Robotic machines excel at tasks that require them to do the same movements for hours. They do not get tired and, therefore, can prevent fatigue in humans.
Minimize packaging waste
Supply chain management technology can ensure that every product shipped out of a warehouse has just enough packaging to protect it for the rest of its journey. The packaging has seen many user-friendly improvements over time. Creating perforations in the materials allows people to tear pieces of cardboard or bubble wrap without the use of scissors.
Often times, these perforations create a clean opening, helping people use the packaging for other reasons rather than throwing it away. Additionally, many food wrappers have built-in blades that allow users to cut foil or parchment to desired length. These examples show how smart packaging decisions can reduce waste, thereby appealing to consumers and helping manufacturers conserve resources.
However, there is still room for improvement. Most people remember times when they ordered a small item online and received it in a gigantic amount of packaging. This is an undesirable outcome for everyone involved. However, Supply Chain 4.0 could make such situations less frequent.
Amazon has developed a system that uses computer vision and machine learning to determine what type of packaging a particular item needs. The model can detect the size of an object, as well as packaging details, such as whether an item is inside a plastic bag or glass bottle. It also recognizes the perforated parts of the packaging.
When the model has enough confidence in the ideal packaging for a given item, they can automatically select it, increasing efficiency. However, when the trust level is lower, the system can report this instance. In such cases, a human examines the details and makes a judgment. This approach helps Amazon meet its goals of reducing packaging used. However, this also means that the items should arrive well protected, but not too much.
Obtain better visibility with supply chain 4.0
Supply chain management can become tricky because it often involves forecasting demand based on known factors and making educated guesses about unknowns. What makes a certain product highly desirable around the world when seemingly similar items don’t sell as well? What steps should supply chain professionals take to avoid long-term outages? Technology can help answer these critical questions.
A study found that artificial intelligence-based demand planning caused a 50% drop in the volume of products affected by extreme forecast errors. Then the overall forecasting errors fell by a third. These findings likely happened because artificial intelligence can efficiently process large amounts of data and recover things humans would miss without technological help.
Policymakers at the IT brand Dell have created a digital model of the company’s supply chain to help it cope with the current semiconductor shortage. This tool allows you to run various simulations so that managers can plan how best to handle the most likely scenarios.
In particular, Dell uses the simulated situations to determine which products are likely to become increasingly difficult to find. The company compensates by designing many items with interchangeable or reusable parts as a practical strategy to deal with current and future conditions.
In another case, Unilever unveiled a digital twin that found the optimal batch time by calculating how long it took to produce the necessary amounts of shampoo. Having this data enables consistent production and helps managers spot bottlenecks within a factory or elsewhere that could lead to stress in the supply chain if left unresolved.
Measure results with data and metrics
Supply Chain 4.0 technologies generally do not deliver optimized results immediately after implementation. Instead, those in authority should examine the available data and make the necessary adjustments accordingly.
Fortunately, this becomes easier to do with data analysis tools and sensors that automatically collect data for later review. Perhaps a factory manager hoped to increase weekly production by at least 25% after installing several logistics robots. A platform that collects and analyzes data in real time could show how close the facility is to achieving that goal.
Alternatively, a business may face a persistent problem of unexpected machine failures, which significantly impedes the workflow. Connecting smart sensors to problematic equipment could make it easier for maintenance workers to identify problems before they cause plant shutdowns.
Many decision makers are naturally hesitant to invest in much of Supply Chain 4.0 technology at a time. They would prefer to see evidence of the positive effects of such spending first. Fortunately, it is getting easier and easier to obtain.
A manager might start by calculating the money lost due to equipment failures. They could then measure the savings from smart sensors by alerting people to problems before those machines become unusable. Since so many connected technologies can collect data, it proves whether certain investments have yielded the efficiency gains initially hoped for.
Supply chain management technology is undoubtedly valuable
These examples show how moving forward with Supply Chain 4.0 plans could generate impressive results. However, this does not mean that people will enjoy these benefits in all cases. They can dramatically increase their chances of success by considering the main supply chain obstacles affecting a business and how advanced technology could help solve them.
Emily Newton is an industrial journalist. As Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, she regularly discusses how technology is changing the industry.