If the vision of Industry 4.0 is to be realized, most enterprise processes must become more digitized. A critical element will be the evolution of traditional supply chains toward a connected, smart, and highly efficient supply chain ecosystem. The supply chain today is a series of largely discrete, siloed steps taken through marketing, product development, manufacturing, and distribution, and finally into the hands of the customer. Digitization brings down those walls, and the chain becomes a completely integrated ecosystem that is fully transparent to all the players involved -- from the suppliers of raw materials, components, and parts, to the transporters of those supplies and finished goods, and finally to the customers demanding fulfillment. This network will depend on a number of key technologies: integrated planning and execution systems, logistics visibility, autonomous logistics, smart procurement and warehousing, spare parts management, and advanced analytics. The result will enable companies to react to disruptions in the supply chain, and even anticipate them, by fully modeling the network, creating "what-if" scenarios, and adjusting the supply chain in real time as conditions change. Once built -- and the components are starting to be developed today -- the digital supply "network" will offer a new degree of resiliency and responsiveness enabling companies that get there first to beat the competition in the effort to provide customers with the most efficient and transparent service delivery. At most companies, products are delivered to customers through a very standardized process. Marketing analyzes customer demand and tries to predict sales for the coming period. With that information, manufacturing orders raw materials, components, and parts for the anticipated capacity.
This is where robots come in. Resembling oversize Roombas topped with Ikea shelving, these Kiva robots can carry up to 750 pounds of goods in their 40-odd cubbies. After a customer places an order, a robot carrying the desired item scoots over to a worker, who reads on a screen what item to pick and what cubby it's located in, scans a bar code and places the item in a bright-yellow bin that travels by conveyor belt to a packing station. AI suggests an appropriate box size; a worker places the item in the box, which a robot tapes shut and, after applying a shipping label, sends on its way. Humans are needed mostly for grasping and placing, tasks that robots haven't mastered yet.
Autonomous technology continues to make an impact on the supply chain. The autonomous supply chain, applies to moving goods without human intervention (to some degree at least) or aiding in achieving inventory accuracy. One of the more interesting examples is the Belgian brewery De Halve Maan, which in an effort to reduce congestion on the city streets, built a beer pipeline under the streets. The pipeline is capable of carrying 1,500 gallons of beer an hour at 12 mph to a bottling facility two miles away. Autonomous technology is seen in warehouses and stores, on highways and in mines, and in last mile deliveries.
One of the most important components of the factory of the future is a connected, smart and highly efficient supply chain. Because there are so many players involved in the supply chain -- including suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and customers -- there are ample business processes that can be optimized using artificial intelligence (AI). Insights garnered from advanced analytics can enable companies to anticipate and react to changes in demand, available inventory, environmental conditions, transportation costs, supplier capabilities and customer requirements, ensuring improved productivity and the timely delivery of products and services. In fact, IDC estimates that half of all mature supply chains will incorporate advanced analytics and AI by 2020. Chatbots can be used to respond to internal and external inquiries regarding invoices and payment requests.
The robot uprising is coming to a store near you. And no, I'm not talking about Skynet building T-1000 Terminators to take over the world (or store in this case). I am talking about how the retail store is drastically changing to become more automated, using artificial intelligence, and relying on non-human assistance for check-outs, price checks, and inventory management. Robots and drones are in stores now and retailers are looking to build upon their capabilities for the foreseeable future. Robots in the warehouse are certainly nothing new.