We’re seeing lots of focus on technology and innovation in the supply chain and logistics business, and rightly so. Some powerful changes are happening.
But thus far, much of the attention has focused on data, packaging, and automation—with little focus on the people implementing and managing the changes. It’s important not to lose sight of the human component necessary to drive today’s improvements across the supply chain.
Whether we’re upgrading a sortation system, adding sensors to inventory, or evaluating the viability of drone-based deliveries, we should remember that people are behind those operations. Supply chain professionals play a major role in the success of adopting new technology and meeting the continuous service enhancements customers are demanding.
It’s not much good shipping product faster if you get the order wrong.
Some of the best technical innovation is designed to help make workers’ jobs easier and more efficient—increasing productivity and reducing costs. Here are just two of many examples:
• Bluetooth ring scanners: A lightweight barcode reader that fits on a worker’s finger, freeing their hands to perform other tasks, while carrying one less piece of equipment. The scanners are very reliable and durable. If they drop one, it’s not going to break.
• Packsize custom box makers: These machines build custom corrugated boxes for any product, reducing packing material and enabling handlers to fit more goods into distribution centers and on trucks. They can also trim volume-based shipping fees, and make life easier for employees.
In addition to productivity improvements, we can expect to see enhancements that make work more enjoyable and meaningful in the years ahead. For example, several companies, including UPS, PepsiCo, Walmart, and J.B. Hunt have collectively pre-ordered hundreds of Tesla Semi electric trucks, which come with an autopilot that reduces the strain on long-haul drivers. With new regulations limiting driver hours, self-driving trucks could prove to be a real game-changer for supply chain and fulfillment companies.
Quality-of-life improvements are necessary to attract and retain more qualified employees, who are in short supply across the board. Part of the shortage stems from the rapid growth of our industry. But logistics has also become much more complex. Today’s tools, technology, and data require more sophisticated training. It’s much more than jumping on a forklift and unloading a trailer.
Quality-of-life improvements are necessary to attract and retain more qualified employees, who are in short supply across the board.
The good news is that we can now offer plenty of opportunities for employees to grow into a satisfying career. That’s the message we bring to the colleges and universities near our distribution centers. We work with those schools to develop and provide the tools that students will need to get started. They know we have jobs waiting for them, if they prepare accordingly, and many colleges offer courses in supply chain, transportation, or import/export.
And despite the buzz about automation and robotics, which are incredibly important new technologies, they’ll never replace humans in some critical roles. You are always going to need someone to work on your computers, do audit checks, and verify that technology is functioning properly.
The physical human component is irreplaceable in areas like quality assurance. Personally, I like when I open a package at my house, and it comes with a note saying: “Quality inspected by …”. That means someone was actually there to verify my order was correct.
It takes experienced workers to operate all the new technology, and the most successful supply chain operators will be those that can identify and deploy them both.
It’s true that computers can do a lot of the work today, picking and sorting products and then shipping them out. But there’s still room for error. The computer may have had a glitch. Another associate may have made a mistake. There’s a chance that a vendor may have made an error, or product could have been damaged. Having another person there, performing visual inspections and other uniquely human tasks, helps confirm that what you’re shipping is correct. It’s not much good shipping product faster if you get the order wrong.
Computers, technology, robotics, and data are fantastic tools for improving logistics and fulfillment performance. They are revolutionizing the industry. But, we will always need to balance those tools with the human component. Just as the technology enables our workforce to do incredible things, that technology can’t run the business by itself. It takes experienced workers to operate all the new technology, and the most successful supply chain operators will be those that can identify and deploy them both.