The supply chain is teeming with exciting new technological advancements, from autonomous robots and drones, to remotely operated MHE, autonomous trucks and more.
Autonomous technology can reap a number of benefits for companies’ supply chain in terms of productivity, cost, risk mitigation and more. As the country faces labor shortages and space constraints, these technologies provide us with innovative solutions to augment human labor and maximize space within distribution centers. Kenco’s 2020 State of Supply Chain Innovation Survey found that nearly a third (31%) of respondents were willing to invest 20% more in innovative technologies, and 21% of respondents ranked robotics, automation and emerging solutions as a top priority.
Introducing these new technologies is not without its challenges, however. Because they’re relatively new, these technologies can leave employees feeling confused, frustrated or interrupted in their normal workflow if not implemented correctly.
Can autonomous technology deliver as promised from a productivity increase perspective? Absolutely. But far too many companies that have implemented tech automation in their distribution centers have not considered the upstream and downstream impacts on the humans inside the building.
At the end of the day, customer-centric and human-centric solutions will win out. That doesn’t negate the value and innovation of automation, but it reminds us that in order to succeed, those solutions must work well with humans. When introducing autonomous technology into a warehouse, we must always consider the interpersonal relationships within—with partners, leadership and employees.
Below are three best practices for organizations interested in using autonomous technology in their own warehouses:
- Ask: What do we have today? Where do we want to go? Who are the vendors that best match our culture and future vision?
It’s vital to assess your current assets and future goals before integrating new technology. What are the specific problems new technology could solve? By what percentage do you need to boost productivity or lower costs to meet your goals?
There are a number of great partners on the market right now, and autonomous technologies are not one-size-fits-all. Some system integrators are small, family-owned integrators that work best with other small companies, while others work with some of the largest 3PLs in the industry.
For some companies, it will make sense to partner with a true system integrator that has their own warehouse management system (WMS) platform. That way, when the company brings any automation to the table, the partner will already have experience with both big automation and flexible automation, plus software that makes the connection in between.
Ultimately, research and assessments are critical in ensuring your choice of partners is calculated and strategic. It’s all about understanding where you are, where you’re going, and finding the right partners to achieve your goals within your timeframe and budget.
- Understand the path to productivity and set expectations early
Once you’ve decided on the right partner to bring autonomous technology into your supply chain, you should be crafting a roadmap. It’s important to have the path to productivity as part of that roadmap.
For example, the introduction of a robot into a given process might be able to boost productivity from 40 lines an hour to 140 lines an hour—but that change won’t happen immediately.
Be clear with all stakeholders about when full productivity potential can be achieved so that senior leadership doesn’t feel misled or frustrated if they’re expecting a certain percentage of return on automation components to happen right away. As you phase in your automation components, understand and communicate that the impact they will have on your financials and KPIs will not be instantaneous.
- Have a strong change management communication program in place
Remember: humans are your priority. The industry is already facing a labor shortage, so it’s important to mitigate employee churn by integrating human labor with autonomous labor as seamlessly as possible. That means reducing employee confusion and frustration with clear communication and documented plans. People need to understand that technology is augmenting their work, not replacing it.
Put some thought into ways to roll out new technologies in a human-centric way. There’s not a distribution center in the world that you can walk into and introduce 10 different types of automation at once without causing chaos and lowered employee morale.
It’s critical to remember the value of change management communication when implementing new technologies into the supply chain. If your change management program and phased approach are half-baked, it will be extremely difficult for automation to succeed within the warehouse.
Autonomous technology is paving the future of the supply chain. The trick to success moving forward will be to strike a harmonious balance between human and automated labor. To learn more about how Kenco can help bring innovative new technologies to your supply chain, visit our Supply Chain Innovation page.