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How robotics and IoT are impacting the supply chain

The chain gang

The importance of efficient, effective supply chains has been thrown into particularly sharp relief over the past year or so, through the double whammy of the Covid-19 pandemic and the UK’s adjustments to a post-Brexit world. From the scale of an individual SME ensuring that it can import all the components for its products – and then export those products to wherever its customers may be, up to the scale of an entire government organising the flow of medical equipment, PPE and now vaccines, supply chain logistics touch every part of our world.

The drive to improve and enhance those supply chains means that this has long been an area rich in digitisation and technological innovation. Now, a combination of advanced robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT) is driving a new wave of enhancements.

From the production line outwards

Industrial and manufacturing organisations have, of course, harnessed robotics on the production line for many decades now. They were also early adopters of IoT technology in the same settings, quickly taking advantage of connected sensors’ abilities to achieve predictive maintenance of physical assets and drive more intelligent factory floors.

However, move from the production line out into the warehouse and beyond and there are still myriad opportunities for these business to derive benefits from both robotics and IoT deployments. Moreover, as demand for superfast delivery services goes up, coupled with the inexorable rise of ecommerce traffic, so businesses need to search for more and more ways to speed up and enhance their ability to get products to customers.

What does this look like in practice? At the simplest end of the spectrum, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are rapidly being rolled out in supply chain warehouses, driven by IoT-enabled sensors and navigating the space far faster than any human worker. Coupled with robotics for picking items from throughout the warehouse, they offer a truly 24/7/365 means for businesses to speed up and streamline their warehouse functions – drastically reducing incidences of human error in the process.

Outside of the warehouse, similar technologies can enhance processes throughout the shipping and logistics chain. IoT-enabled sensors in vehicles can be part of smarter navigation systems, proactive approaches to vehicle maintenance and even strategies for ensuring better occupational health among drivers. Meanwhile, robotics can work in harmony with these vehicles to select the right items at the right place, and streamline the processes of dropping off or picking up components.

An integrated approach

However, one-off or siloed approaches to robotics and IoT deployments in the supply chain do not have truly longevity. In order to drive the greatest return on investment from these technologies, the businesses deploying them must optimist robotics and IoT as part of an overarching supply chain strategy.

In turn, this means connecting all supply chain robotics to a single centralised supply chain management system, via a connected IoT ecosystem. This should provide a single pane of glass view of the entire supply chain for stakeholders from all over the business. Every single connected endpoint – whether a piece of equipment on the factory slow, an automated picking system in the warehouse, or a vehicle out on the road – should be channelling its data insights into the same centralised engine.

In short, the IoT can provide the real-time visibility and data extraction needed to truly harness the power of robotics and automation – throughout the entire supply chain. From there, informed decisions can be made as to where to deploy new robotics and how to optimise those already in operation, as well as proactively avoiding outages and bottlenecks, and reducing overhead costs.

Robotics offer huge potential for efficiency and optimisation throughout the supply chain – but it the IoT which enables their holistic management. A collaborative, integrated approach can unlock tremendous value in this already dynamic sector.

“One-off or siloed approaches to robotics and IoT deployments in the supply chain do not have truly longevity”