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How Technology will Impact the Supply Chain of the Future

How robotics, drones, and driverless vehicles will be integrated into the supply chain by (or before) 2022

The number of supply chain-related challenges that procurement professionals face on any given day continues to grow and expand as companies’ global supply networks get larger and more geographically diverse. The question is, which of those challenges can actually be overcome—or avoided altogether—with technology?

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Supply Chain Institute, dug down into this question and came up with five advanced technologies that will impact the supply chain in the next five years. The Institute’s report (which is available for download here), examined the current and potential use of these technologies, plus the advantages and barriers to using them.

In New Supply Chain Technologies - Best Practices, the university points to robotics as the top “game changer” for supply chains over the next five years. “Robotics have been around for more than 50 years, but they have become dramatically more dynamic in the last five,” Paul Dittmann, executive director of the Global Supply Chain Institute and the report’s author, told SupplyChain247. “They are no longer stationary, blind, expensive, and unintelligent but can work alongside people and learn as jobs change.”

4 Trends to Watch
Here are four more technology breakthroughs that could change the face of the supply chain by 2022:

  1. Unmanned Drones:  “Drones can be operated commercially in a growing number of countries, and start-up projects exist around the world,” Dittmann writes. For example, Amazon started Prime Air residential delivery for a few customers in December 2016 in Cambridge, UK. Other drone delivery concepts in the planning or pilot stages are: Drone delivery from a truck, with both UPS and FedEx considering a program that would find a drone flying from a UPS/FedEx truck to deliver the last few miles. “Many believe that drones will become a major supply chain tool that goes well beyond residential delivery,” Dittmann writes. “In the near term, drones will likely be used increasingly for supply chain visibility.”
  2. Additive Manufacturing/3D Printing:  Starting with an object represented in digital form, the 3D printing process applies material in layers in an additive manner, unlike the old CNC technology that removed material. “Some supply chain professionals predict 3-D will eventually rival the impact of Henry Ford’s assembly line,” Dittmann points out. “It will be fascinating to see how this technology evolves, and its evolution will be highly dependent on the speed of operation in the 3-D process, the materials that can be used, and the overall cost.”
  3. Driverless Vehicles:  Using short and longer-range radar and a camera for detecting lanes and marking, driverless vehicles are already being used to make supply chains more efficient. As the technology continues to evolve, and as the associated regulatory hurdles are minimized, more autonomous vehicles will be used in the delivery supply chain. For example, the UT report highlights how Amazon has been granted a patent for a roadway management system capable of communicating with autonomous vehicles for driving assistance.
  4. Wearable Technology/Smart Glasses: A wearable can be on your wrist, in your ear, over your eye, or embedded in clothing, Dittmann explains, noting that “wearables range from smart glasses to personal sensors that can detect fatigue or abnormal changes in vital signs.” In assessing the impact of wearables on the supply chain of the future, Dittmann sees the warehouse as a hotbed for such technology. “Smart glasses have the potential to positively impact the warehouse of the future in a number of ways,” he writes. “The technology will need to have multiuse capability, and make performance of repetitive tasks more efficient and accurate. Smart glasses must be able to visually separate the right products in a complex picking process.”



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