Robots on the rise in supply chains

5 May 2016

Robots and other forms of automation are playing an increasing role in supply chain technology, an annual survey by logistics group MHI and Deloitte has found.

This year 51% of respondents to the 2016 MHI Annual Industry Report said robotics and automation are a source of either disruption or of competitive advantage, a rise from 39% last year.

More than 900 supply chain professionals surveyed singled out these two fields as the most important of a range of technologies coming in to wider use today, such as inventory or network management tools, cloud computing, drones and sensors.

Among the other top technologies that respondents say can be a source of either disruption or competitive advantage are inventory and network optimisation tools (48%, up from 45% last year).

Sensors and automatic identification (47%, up from 42% last year) and predictive analytics (44 %, up from 38% last year) were also mentioned.

About 35% of respondents have already adopted robotics in their supply chains, and that figure is set to rise to 74% in the next six to 10 years, according to the report.

52% of respondents now plan to spend more than $1m on emerging technologies over the next two years, while 12% said they will spend more than $10m and 3% expected to spend more than $100m.

The major barrier to investment in supply chain innovation was considered by 43% (up from 36% last year) of respondents believe to be the lack of a clear business case. This was followed by lack of adequate talent to utilize technologies effectively (38%), and cultural aversion to risk (35%).

Access to a skilled workforce was cited as the biggest obstacle facing supply chain professionals wishing to implement these technologies, with 58% of respondents saying this was a significant challenge.

The report cited how a new generation of “collaborative robots” can be trained by human workers through physical demonstrations.

In the past, safety concerns prevented people from working too near the machines and created time-consuming problems if a worker noticed, for example, that a package was upside-down.

“We’ve developed technology that allows the robot to sense the proximity of the person working near it and act accordingly,” Scott Melton, regional manager of FANUC America West, was cited as saying in the survey.

“We’re going to see robots with vision,” he added. “3D vision for bin picking, for handling mixed products - a technology that allows you to sort product by size, allowing mixed products to come into the robot zone.”

“Whether it might be loading different metallic parts that need to be delivered, or working in a distribution warehouse where there are differently sized packages, boxes, or containers, 3D vision is going to be driving the technology and opening up a whole bunch of applications that didn’t exist in the past.”

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