Supply Chain: The Rapid Innovation of AI & Humans

When the first airplane was launched into the air, it was at a time when mankind couldn’t comprehend the idea of people flying. Fast forward a thousand years, no one bats an eye when a giant machine soars the skies above our heads.  So, when Hollywood awed the world with The Terminator in 1984, not many people thought of the application of artificial intelligence to our everyday lives. Yet, here we are in 2018, with artificial intelligence rapidly being integrated into operation processes around the world.

From a supply chain management standpoint, automation (AI, Robotics, etc.) heavily reduces errors which humans tend to make, teach a robot to perform a task, and the task is carried out to near perfection. You don’t need to train a robot or retrain it to pick up new skills, you simply need to code a routine into the software. Robots work without sleep, without the need for food or water. Is the term “we are only human” hindering efficiency in the supply chain (or any other) industry? Could AI really render humans obsolete?

Automation is making steady strides in its implementation into the supply chain network, which is why it is becoming more visible in the modern supply chain. Routine tasks can easily be programmed to enable a robot to perform the task while liberating the human element from the job, the optimistic side of this is that the human will have more freedom to focus on innovation of the chain of command.

What kind of will go?

Now the question remains, what jobs will be replaced by AI, and what jobs will stay. As AI technology improves, we will need more people to keep these machines and processes up-to-date and running smoothly. When we walk into a warehouse of the future, the workforce without a doubt, will look different. As technology advances, certain people tasks will fall by the wayside. For example, tasks such as sorting can be easily automated and has already been implemented today in some supply chains. There are many simple jobs which don’t require very advanced skill sets, hence, entry-level warehouse operator jobs can be easily replaced. This leaves the positions of higher levels open, the best defense against this phenomenon is to equip yourself with higher level education or a skill-set of relevant proportions to outdo these intelligent automations.  Human-centric career paths, such as human resources, leadership roles, maintenance, and quality can't be so easily replicated by wires and solenoids.

History tells us technology and automation tend to create more jobs than they destroy, but we don't tend to know what those jobs are yet. Efficiency alone isn't enough these days, and managers must identify and create new positions to usher in both automation and the maintenance required to keep it running.

What kind of jobs will stay?

The kind of jobs that will stay involve positions that already rely on computers, such as oversight, sales, and lead generation will stay "safe" with automation steamrolling in. The human touch can pose a significant difference, particularly in B2B and B2C outreach and delivery. The other jobs which would be in high demand include system engineering and quality control to ensure consistent, high-level performance of the AI technology.

Things like shipment updates can be automated as well which presents the likelihood of removing a human customer service agent, however, don’t throw out these direct customer services yet. Instead, the scope of their job could widen, especially in the face of remote management and back-end capabilities from a home laptop or desktop. Again, this element of automation and high technology opens up a new space for network reliability and IT jobs.

How Automation Changes Procedures

In a business sense, picture the reputation of a supply chain when a self-driving truck is among their delivery methods. A company wouldn't have to wait for the next round of cargo pickups, and the truck could drive through the night without needing to stop for sleep or food. This doesn't mean the end of human truck drivers, however; human companions will likely have to tag along for liability reasons, ready to take the wheel if an automated engine were to falter in its duties or become compromised through hacking efforts.

To look back at history again, elevators once needed a person to operate them. Fast forward decades later, and elevators were fully automated despite the scepticism from the public on its safety concerns etc. A human would only be required whenever the elevator broke down or malfunctioned, similarly, this is the concept of the automated delivery truck-human relation.

How Does This All Relate to Quality?

You might ask yourself how to connect the dots to quality. Quality should be viewed holistically, knowing that each part of a company affects the other and putting in processes and improvements that streamline work across those parts. AI that prevents cyber-attacks that could cripple hardware in an automated truck is a part of the quality system, ensuring customers are receiving product quickly and safely. Removing human error from a picking and sorting process through AI is an improvement to quality. Quality is more than just documents and records, it’s a transformative mindset that is always seeking to add value to customers, and if quality is not as important as it should be in your company’s culture, you will be late to the game when it comes to AI technology.

A Timeline for Automation

These new implementations could come to realisation sooner than we think. The timeline primarily depends on the amount of investment top companies are willing to make into tech such as robots and programming. This will flower if all these companies adopted similar automation system so to standardize these systems for the adaptation of smaller companies in the later years.

The pressure from clients to move toward automation could affect supply chain partner behaviour, too. If we keep transparency on the forefront, automation could be within reach sooner rather than later. If, however, companies remain hesitant and cautious, preferring instead to lean on familiar practices over new ones, your road to automation may take the scenic route.

At the end of the day, it's important to keep an eye on the progression of AI technology: it will eventually directly affect your business and possibly put you in the forefront and ahead of your competitors.