With fully autonomous warehouses unlikely in South African in the medium term, how can supply chains still benefit from such technologies?
Futurists have taken to predicting that in the next few years it is likely that warehousing will become a wholly automated function with supply chains. The much-referenced example is Amazon, who currently deploys more than 3000 robots within their various warehouses, either in fully automated processes or in the facilitation of goods-to-picker functions. The reality, however, is that within South Africa, as with the rest of the world, a long tradition of manual warehousing is firmly entrenched within the greater supply chain industry, driven amongst others by the relatively low cost of labour when compared to tech-heavy solutions.
Tyrone Rennie, Executive Solution Development and Marketing at supply chain specialist Barloworld Logistics says that despite the relatively low uptake of autonomous warehousing locally, technologies such as self-guided forklifts, automated storage and retrieval systems, robotic palletisers, and vision-guided robots can dramatically increase the efficiencies within a warehouse. Furthermore, the notion of warehouses operating with limited human resources can significantly impact overhead cost, as labour can account for as much as 50% of the total cost associated with a facility.
“The challenges lie in the gap between man and robot. The local landscape is highly reliant on labour, and dramatic changes would have a huge societal impact if not well managed,” states Rennie. “While automation can pay dividends in terms of efficiencies, a total technology overall would result in a headcount shrinkage that is unfeasible within the South African context”.
Although a robotic warehouse can perform to higher KPI levels, it remains challenging to recreate human intuition and problem-solving abilities which for the moment, remain firmly within the realms of the human brain. For example, a machine programmed to recognise and discard damaged packaging as waste would react as instructed 100% of the time, while an employee could identify a simple repair and reuse solution instead. Another touted benefit of automation is that such solutions increase the available working hours within a facility since robots are not governed by the same laws as labour and that furthermore, automation eradicates the risk of labour stoppages or unrest. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, the risk of downtime due to technological malfunction usually goes unrecognised, or calculated in real financial terms.
“Smart supply chains are taking a staggered approach to integrating autonomous solutions, implementing digitised solutions in zones to create technological competencies for certain tasks or creating processes that are enacted by both machine and employee”, says Rennie. ‘Such hybrid solutions are not only viable but highly useful in that they retain the best of both traditional and futuristic warehousing under one roof.”
As business moves into a digitised future, it is a reality that more and more autonomous techniques will augment warehouse functions; however, the smartest approach is to correctly understand the core needs of the entire supply chain first, and only then select solutions that make sense. Arguably, the future is not purely digital – the future belongs to those with enough insight to select and implement growth enabling solutions that best fit their unique business needs – regardless of whether these are human or robotic.
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