Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Is the 21st Century Supply Chain 'Humanless'?

Can the supply chain be managed without humans?

We live in a digital age where IT is transforming the essence of doing business. As an essential part of the business model of  organizations, the supply chain is being profoundly affected by the digital transformation.However, there are numerous examples of technologies that are being perceived as disruptive by the traditional supply chain management and some fear that technology tools and processes will overtake humans in the process.

Warehouse Robotics
The increasing use of robotics in warehousing is certainly one of those novelty that is viewed with apprehension and excitement.  Robotics are promoted to present numerous advantages in terms of productivity, costs reduction and efficiency[1].  In his article 'Are Robots Taking Over the Warehouse?', Robert J. Bowman discusses with some companies about their take on the use of robotics in warehousing and most of them agree that it presents certain limitations in terms of adaptability, flexibility, customization and intuitive approach to delicate tasks. Per see the experts consulted, the idea is to find 'a balance between automation and flexibility'. For instance, Amazon used Kiva in its Shepherdsville, Ky., distribution facility but shifted back to manual  picking once they added clothing that required personalized and delicate handling[2].


Another disruptive technology is automation; most repetitive tasks in inventory handling, logistics, are being automated to save on labor cost and improve efficiency among other criteria. Nonetheless, the same challenge of finding a balance  is faced in the application of such innovations. Rice researchers in collaboration with a team at Sunchon National University in Korea came up in 2010 with a groundbreaking RFID that could automate the checkout and inventory update. [3] Though the use of RFID is becoming more and more popular, this technology has not been widely adopted yet and people still continue to check with the cashier and the cashiers continue to use bar codes to update inventory. Walmart and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are strong advocates of the use of RFIDs but they faced some challenges in the way when they tried to globalize the use of RFIDs. A complete automated supply chain is almost impossible to achieve actually but with the fast paced of technology, it might be a matter of years[4]. 


Automation in non occidental countries?

One barrier to a complete automation might be the difference of technology advancement between the developed, emerging and developing countries and the continuous globalization of supply chains. Although the emerging countries are filling this gap faster, countries such as India, China and Brazil cannot achieve the level of automation of the USA and in developing countries, the focus is certainly on having sustainable in healthcare, education, basic infrastructure and not on automating logistics and warehouse operations.

So can the future supply chain 'Humanless'? Will all tasks automated and robots replace Humans in doing the tasks that cannot be automated? 
In the Digital Transformation class with Professor Smith at Heinz College, we discussed how an ordinary computer operated by a human can beat both a powerful computer and a human expert in the chess game. This can be applied to any domain; we are leaning towards a world where we will use powerful computing processes and innovative technologies, but the benefit of using IT can be best harnessed if it is combined with human knowledge and intuition. Though many might disagree, I would argue that the supply chain of the future will still require human interaction.


1 - "Warehouse Robotics." Supply Chain Solutions & Reverse Logistics Leader: GENCO. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2013.  <>.
2 - Bowman, Robert J., SupplyChainBrain February 25, and 2013. "Are Robots Taking Over the Warehouse?."  Global Supply Chain, Logistics Management, Technology: SupplyChainBrain. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2013.  <>.
3 - "Nano-Based RFID Tags Could Replace Bar Codes." ScienceDaily. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2013. 
4 - "Automation Grows, But We Still Need People - Inbound Logistics." Logistics and Supply Chain Articles, News, Tools, and Resources - Inbound Logistics.  N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2013. <>

1 comment:

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