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How Autonomous Technology is Changing the Supply Chain

Picture a warehouse in which a robotic arm lifts up a package, giving it to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). That UAV flies the package to the right truck, and that truck drives itself to where the group of packages must be delivered. The supply chain is complete with no human interaction.

While a supply chain without human employees may be far off, organizations are looking for more ways to pair technology with humans to create the most efficient processes possible while serving customers.

Autonomous technology is expanding quickly, and here are a few ways companies are using it to decrease waste and increase revenue.

Improving Production and Processes with Robotics

According to Deloitte, autonomous robots may provide a big competitive advantage over the next decade. They are reaching new capabilities, like becoming more dexterous and working with humans through collaboration.

In the past, robots were used for more repetitive tasks to free up time for humans. As their level of sophistication increases, however, they can take on more and they require less supervision. Moving roles with more risk to robots can also help to decrease workplace accidents, and may also help reduce stress and anxiety.

Deloitte suggests that an organization considering the use of robots should “develop a productivity and asset procurement strategy” based on needs of the business, and adds that businesses should consider five attributes in their plans before adopting robotics:

  1. Company and facility profile
  2. Functional efforts and expertise
  3. Regulations
  4. Investment
  5. Operating environments and perception

Using Autonomous Technology to Change Delivery Systems

According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), trucks are responsible for transporting 70% of goods shipped across the U.S. However, we are experiencing a trucker shortage – the ATA states that there is a deficit of almost 50,000 drivers, and by 2024 that deficit could reach 175,000. Trucks present other issues as well, including automobile accidents and the fact that drivers have a limited amount of time per day they can be on the road.

To combat these issues, some companies are working to develop autonomous trucks. Drivers would still sit in the trucks to monitor them for now, but the truck would operate on an autopilot program. Embark, a startup company, builds the trucks that currently travel a route on I-10 from El Paso to Palm Springs, delivering Frigidaire refrigerators. Volvo, Daimler and Tesla also have self-driving technology in the works, and Uber has an autonomous truck as well.

“It showcases the way that we see self-driving playing into the logistics industry,” said Embark CEO Alex Rodrigues in an interview with Wired.

The ATA has also thrown its backing behind the technology, even testifying before Congress in September 2017 to ask them to support its development, according to a press release on their website. They made sure to outline how the technology would benefit the industry and not eliminate jobs.

“Just as pilots play a key role in our airline industry, truck drivers will do the same on the ground by leveraging the benefits of automated technology while navigating the cityscapes and handling the customer pickups and deliveries,” ATA’s president and CEO Chris Spear told Congress.

In another attempt to use automated technology, companies like Amazon have started using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to deliver packages. Their service, called Prime Air, is meant to deliver packages weighing up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using UAVs. The company plans to use the UAVs widely only once they’ve done extensive testing and worked to ensure safety regulations are met.

According to Deloitte, UAVs offer other potential benefits as well. They can help with other warehouse operations, assist those in the telecom and media industries by providing aerial views and can bring supplies to rural areas in crisis situations. The UAV industry is projected to grow to $10 billion by 2021.

The Cons of Autonomous Technology

UAVs and autonomous trucks have many innovative perks to bring to the table, but the technology isn’t completely unopposed.

Labor unions are working against autonomous trucks, pointing out that they bring issues to be considered. The concerns are that the trucks may not be as safe as others think: their cybersecurity could be compromised as well. Labor unions are also worried that jobs will ultimately be taken over by autonomous trucks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, truckers made around $41,430 as of May 2016. It’s a job that pays well and doesn’t require a college diploma. It’s the most popular occupation in 20 states, according to Wired.

Regulations and laws also vary by state, so adopting the technology could have some extra steps for organizations to undertake. For UAVs, it requires mapping out a path that doesn’t interfere with commercial or military airspace, operating during the correct times and making sure they don’t travel beyond 100 mph, according to Deloitte.

In the future, as companies continue to experiment with how to implement these technologies, more concerns could surface. With all the testing and regulation adherence required for these, it may be a while before these become widespread across the country.

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