Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in supply chain and operations, is this real in 2016?

Many innovation channels are referring to the number of artificial intelligence or robotics solutions which are available to transition towards machine learning, reduced manual labour, smarter decision-making, etc.

Although we know robotics and artificial intelligence through movies, advertisements, etc., over the last years there are many “proof of concepts” in the FMCG, Retail, Food & Beverage and Pharmaceutical industries that show these developments are continuing.  However, for many organisations and their employees these initiatives have not materialised yet.  So, how real are these developments and when can we expect them?

Working with some of the industry-leading organisations, it’s interesting to see the number of senior executives who are exploring these new concepts and are clearly looking for ways, methods and improvements that can continuously evolve with the operational demands.

Additionally, there is a clear requirement to adopt technologies that are able to easily adjust from the current environment towards a desired state, e.g. solutions that can work in a food commodity environment, but are able to evolve into high-end food environments.  CFO’s, COO’s, CIO’s and Supply Chain Executives know that their strategies can and will change due to internal re-prioritisation, external market influences, new technologies or new competitors, and require to be open-minded to adopt innovative solutions that are able to easily change and adopt, without complications and/ or high re-development costs.

You can see that there are many solutions have transitioned through an iterative innovative solution development process that doesn’t directly provide the final solution, e.g. in the transportation environment, companies have been testing driverless trucks for years, starting with hands-free cruise-control, towards on-board hands-off technicians towards a fully driverless truck for transport.  Even today, the final will not be in place, further innovative solution development will take place to continue to perfect it…

This same approach of iterative innovative solution development is used in consumer products and services (e.g. Uber driverless taxis, electronic assistance, like Siri, Google Now, Cortana,, Viv, etc.).  Now you see that these same approaches are used within organisations. Instead of a big-bang approach, small iterative innovative steps are taken to transition from a human-controlled process towards a machine-learning controlled process. Examples of this can be seen in finance & accounting through solutions like BlackLine, that allows organisations to transition towards continuous accounting, delivering immediate insight in the financials at any time during the month. Other examples are in manufacturing and warehouses, where standard robotics that “deliver” SKU-based pallets for transport delivery, transition towards customer order-based pallets for transport delivery, reducing the need for double-handling or re-work.

With driverless forklift tucks and eventually driverless road transport, you can see how the (financial) supply chain effectiveness continuously evolves towards a true value chain in which humans are able to add value through using financial data and supply chain data to deliver increased customer engagement.

So, when can we expect these innovative solutions? And how do we introduce these in our organisation?

Most of these solutions are already available, and I have seen them work effectively, but the challenge is not to introduce these solutions, it’s how do you ensure that these various innovative solutions fully integrate with each other. Only through end-to-end integration these solutions will add considerable value towards the end-to-end operational effectiveness.

Currently, most of these innovative solutions are stand-alone solutions and are developed and improved within their own eco-system. To become really innovative across your operations, the focus should be places on INTEGRATION, which will further increase operational innovation across in our supply chain.


Unique Excellence works with blue-chip organisations across EMEA, US, Australia and Asia-Pacific to deliver operational innovative solutions and true value add.  If you’re looking to transition from continuous improvements towards operational innovation, please get in touch.

Read more by Micha Veen, here


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