The $26 trillion, fast-growing global supply chain is at the epicenter of the world's most fascinating technologies. The complex process of coordinating and transporting resources to facilities and goods to market is changing rapidly, due to a slew of revolutionary technologies which make processes more efficient and less expensive.
Below is an introduction to some of these technologies and how they are transforming and improving each of the key functions in the supply chain.
Industrial robots have been in use since 1962 in a GM automotive plant. Robotic technology has been on a continuous trajectory of improvement ever since, as digital technologies have enhanced the mechanical components. This has enabled today's sophisticated machines to function more intelligently, flexibly and delicately when necessary. In fact, the new generation of robots used in the supply chain is collaborative; they work alongside human counterparts and are smart enough to automate processes that, until recently, were not amenable to automation.
Amazon has pioneered the use of robotics in warehousing and fulfillment processes. After acquiring Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics) in 2012, Amazon has expanded its use to more than 80,000 robots across 25 distribution centers. In these facilities, fast-moving robots shuttle racks of inventory to picking stations, so humans can select the inventory to fulfill orders.
In other organizations, robotic pickers are replacing humans, dramatically shortening times for order assembly. Equipped with navigation systems, these machines are capable of choosing efficient routes around the warehouse. Free-moving robots are also replacing other machines including conveyors, sorters and tilt trays. These robots add new layers of value to the process, with smart-gripping "hands" that can move at multiple times the rate of human hands, and "minds" that can read labels to accumulate order data on customers.
Augmented Reality (AR)
AR is technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world. Arnold Schwarzenegger's cyborg Terminator character had this technology back in 1984. Today, DHL employees are functioning just like cyborgs, using AR technology to make the order picking process faster and nearly error-free. Their smart glasses show them picking lists, routes through the warehouse and exactly where items belong in the carts. AR also reduces training time for new employees, which is essential in this high-turnover niche, often filled by temporary and seasonal workers.
Virtual Reality (VR)
This technology allows remote management of warehouses and shipping facilities. If you can imagine a first-person video game, in which your character moves through a building, you can envision VR in the supply chain. A manager can take a real-time tour of any site to make sure that employees and robots are functioning as they should. This application is particularly useful if a natural disaster strikes a facility and causes disruptions to the normal workflow.
VR also empowers delivery drivers to be more efficient. For example, this technology can project information onto a driver's windshield, showing any traffic delays and alternate routes. If there are sensitive or temperature-controlled loads, a readout can also show the driver when there is an issue, eliminating the need for unnecessary checks.
Secured delivery and identity verification are also easier with VR technologies. A picture of the recipient can be scanned by a delivery company so that upon delivery, facial recognition technology can ensure that only the intended recipient can take the package.
Internet of Things (IoT)
Seventy percent of retail and manufacturing companies have begun a partial digital transformation of their supply chain and logistics operations, according to findings from a survey by GT Nexus and Capgemini. The Internet of Things -- or non-traditional computing devices that are interconnected online -- is the technology behind new asset-tracking solutions that reduce freight and shipping costs, while providing better inventory management and data collection.
Tools for monitoring inventory and accurately recording product movement are being improved through Radio Frequency Identification technology. This advanced tracking system eliminates the need for manual hand-scanning and reduces the operating costs of the supply chain. RFID tags are IoT devices, which provide continuously updated data on items to which they are attached.
Supply chain managers are now able to access data pertaining to their fleets through chipping and GPS tracking in order to maximize efficiency. The macro data that chipping provides enables better timing of routes, and cost savings through fuel efficiency and monitoring of vehicle mechanical components and breakdowns.
Amazon and Walmart are pioneering two different applications for these little flying devices. Amazon now uses drones to deliver packages in under 30 minutes with its Prime Air service. This expedites delivery to consumers and saves money over traditional vehicle deliveries. Walmart uses drones in its warehouses to conduct inventory checks in one day that would take humans a full month to complete -- and the results are more accurate!
Technology in an Online MBA Program
Many Boise State online MBA students find two courses: BUSMBA 550 (Operations and Supply Chain) and BUSMBA 535 (IT and Business Alignment) to be very complimentary to each other. Professors help students to realize that effective businesses utilize innovative supply chain technologies to achieve a competitive advantage. With the integrated and relevant curriculum of the online MBA, graduates can apply knowledge from across disciplines like these to solve business problems and increase efficiencies.
Supply chain management has been a dynamic industry for decades, and one that has attracted many of the brightest business school graduates. As technology continues to transform the industry, it is becoming even more fascinating to current and future waves of MBA students.
Learn more about Boise State's online MBA program.
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