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Technology Supports the Supply Chain Workforce

March 29, 2023
A look at how humans and robots can work side-by-side to help keep the world’s supply chains humming.

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Walking up and down the aisles of the Promat 2023 exhibition hall in Chicago last week, it was clear that we’re at a point where people are comfortable with the idea of robotics augmenting the human workforce. Vendors were displaying everything from autonomous picking robots for the warehouse, exoskeleton suits used to reduce wear-and-tear on the human body and humanoid robots that can work 24/7/365 without needing a lunch break or a day off (with the exception of any maintenance and repair time).

With the national unemployment rate hovering at 50-year lows and organizations encountering difficulties filling supply chain, warehousing and distribution positions, innovative companies are developing new ways to bring robotics into the workforce. Rather than “replacing” human labor, many of these innovations can work side-by-side with it, managing the repetitive motions, doing the heavier lifting and otherwise making people’s jobs a little easier.

For example, automation can change the supply chain job landscape by removing the need for humans to complete the menial, repetitive tasks that are less skill-based. “Instead of performing these tasks directly, roles have changed to managing these automation robots and systems that do it for them, with staff instead focusing the bulk of their time on non-automatable tasks instead,” Impact Networking points out.

When this happens, data entry, process tracking, picking, inventory management and document procurement can all be automated to some degree through software and hardware bots. “As far as software bots are concerned—which are the primary means through which organizations today automate their processes—virtually anything with a rigid flow of data can be automated,” the company adds.

Aligning Teams, Technology and Objectives

The blending of technology and humans is gaining ground not only in supply chain, but also across many other industries and job roles. "Digital transformation doesn’t consider technology in a vacuum; it factors in the personal element as well, and particularly the fact that human beings are involved in operating these systems,” says Casimir Saternos, senior software architect at Orbweaver.

Knowing this, Saternos says there must be a critical adoption of the proper technologies that are aligned with teams and their objectives. “In all of this, technology will never replace individuals, but it does augment the capabilities of those individuals,” he adds. For that to happen, corporate leaders must clearly communicate their digital transformation visions—and in this case, with an emphasis on any new robotics initiatives.

“The project needs to be structured and partitioned in such a way that motivations are aligned, requirements clearly understood, and systems placed in operation in a way that work toward an actual end goal—versus just building a system for technology’s sake,” Saternos adds.

Empowering the Workforce

In “How Technology Empowers the Supply Chain Workforce,” IronLink Logistics’ Robert Ferreras brings up an interesting point when he asks, “When it comes to technology and the employee, do we really need to separate the two?” Together, the duo can create a stronger workforce by combining the tech magic of artificial intelligence and the strength of human manpower, he points out.

“Hard workers, top-tier technology and company efficiency are a trifecta that will help your business grow in both company morale and profitability,” Ferreras writes. He also acknowledges that the introduction of any new technology can be confusing and even intimidating.

“Instead of causing anxiety, empower employees to become knowledgeable of new software, methods and opportunities to create more efficient processes through newly integrated technology,” he writes. “With proper training in place, technology becomes approachable for all employees and services become more streamlined.”

If you can establish an environment where your employees feel empowered to learn about and utilize the latest technologies available to them, then they’ll embrace the idea rather than reject it. As more technology, automation and robotics make their way into the supply chain workplace, this “acceptance” of new innovations will become increasingly more important.

“Take time to train employees on all new platforms and give them an opportunity to learn and grow among colleagues with the resources you provide,” Ferreras advises. “In doing so, you refrain from creating a divide between technology and employees, and instead establish a workforce that actively engages with new capabilities, finds new ways to team-build and increases company efficiency and profitability.”

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