Automation is advancing! Are human beings retreating?
Excellent supply chain management and smoothly functioning logistics “just in time” are directly relevant to companies’ sales. However, under the difficult conditions due to the coronavirus, deficits have been revealed at many organizations. What should companies do today and what will the business world look like in ten years?
Our editorial team spoke with Johannes Fottner, Professor of Materials Handling, Material Flow, and Logistics at the TU Munich, and Martin Hofer, Partner and Managing Director at valantic. Fottner is one of the leading scientists in his area; Hofer is an “old dog” in supply chain world, with several decades of experience. Their opinions are greatly admired in the industry.
“Automation is advancing! Are human beings retreating?” is the motto of the yearly materials handling congress, which this year will be held for the first time virtually on March 18th.
Professor Fottner, welcome! Let’s cut right to the chase and start with concrete examples. Trends like driverless transport vehicles, which are underway on the highways without drivers, and human-robot collaborations in factory halls awaken people’s fantasies. But how advanced is the technology today?
Fottner: Driverless transport systems – or DTSes for short – have been in daily use for nearly 50 years already, and there has been a lot of hype surrounding them for about the last 15 years. These mobile robots’ degree of autonomy is considerable as soon as ambient conditions allow.
The cooperation with people is a more complex topic, but here too, great progress has been made. Using new sensor technologies and innovative deep learning to further increase adaptability and quick start-up will result in more significant progress. For the collaboration, some hurdles with regard to human-machine communication still have to be cleared, but here too, there is a lot of activity in business and science. In summary, it is possible to say: In industrial environment, feasibility, flexibility, and stability are already very high.
What would a good human-robot collaboration look like, who does what?
Fottner: The core statement of logistics is: It depends. In my opinion, believing that that the robot should handle the simple activities and humans the creative and controlling ones is not quite correct. On the one hand, there are a lot of tasks that seem trivial to us humans and yet are extremely difficult for robots to master; the opposite is also true. On the other hand, you may not forget that there is no law of nature that says that automated technology is necessarily less expensive than human work.
Human beings are equipped with great tools and sensors, which in some fields are very expensive to provide with robots.
”My recommendation would be sooner to pay attention to what people can do especially well and efficiently and what robots can do well. That would be a great division of labor.“
Even today, the ERP or other systems specify the optimal route for picking and the pick sequence – sometimes the machine controls the people. That’s completely OK.
Top companies such as Amazon are already operating almost fully-automated warehouses. Is this something that any company in any industry can implement?
Fottner: Even for Amazon, there are particular warehouse areas in particular regions that are not fully automated for good reasons – because people offer great advantages in these areas.
To answer your question: No, this is not something that can be implemented in every industry and at any type of company. In particular, it wouldn’t make sense to do this. If you keep an eye on the fact that at BayWa the forklift driver has just loaded or unloaded another truck, and then the same employee advises a customer and then places orders, then the use of a DTS makes little sense. There are areas where a particular activity is not performed constantly, but only here and there for short periods of time. It’s obvious that human beings are the best alternative here.
Do automation solutions make people’s work easier? What role will human beings play in materials handling, material flow, and logistics in the future?
Fottner: Human beings will play an important role, but a different one depending on the company structure. At some companies, things will long remain the way they are now. At others, very adaptable, flexible automated technology will produce benefits in a multitude of applications. With modern technologies – and here I’d like to name picking with pick-by-vision and pick-by-voice – human beings will be able to do their work more effectively, efficiently, and especially reliably.
Hofer: On-time performance, low costs and inventories, short throughput times – little has changed with regard to supply chain management. The tools have improved dramatically – but at the same time, the basic conditions have become much more complex.
”Supply chains have many layers internationally and must be in a position to react extremely quickly to fluctuations and volatile procurement and sales markets.“
Technology and flexibility are much more important than they were before.
What kind of efficiency gains and cost reductions can companies count on with the use of automation solutions?
Fottner: There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. In some areas, cost reductions of up to 70% can be achieved; in other areas, no savings at all is possible. Sometimes, companies also have to automate without realizing any economic benefit, simply because there aren’t enough employees.
Let’s think our way ten years into the future: What will logistics 2030, warehousing 2030, and material flow 2030 look like?
Fottner: Maybe by then we’ll be able to beam things up the way people could in the Star Trek films, and someone will have developed a precise crystal ball. I don’t believe this, but it would revolutionize logistics.
It could be that we will be comparing pure economic efficiency against an evaluation of the “total social impact” or sustainability. And the topic of additive production will change, both for manufacturers (OEMs) and the supplier market.
The core tasks of logistics will not change, but the tools will. Modern data processing methods and the use of information across company boundaries could help us increase overall efficiency.
”That’s an added value, economically, ecologically, and socially too.“
Hofer: Something that has developed significantly and changed radically are the technical possibilities, methods, and tools. They create entirely new possibilities and therefore change the work of the people responsible for the supply chain. Today, the information from global supply chains runs into systems in real time. But we are also informed about upstream processes, because the systems of our customers, suppliers, and logistics partners are networked with one another.
All participating employees have the same information everywhere and at all times.
”Our software can also simulate the most complex value creation chains with all their dependencies.“
Even today, this creates added value and this will continue to improve.
The material flow congress 2021, where these topics will be discussed, will be held virtually for the first time, on March 18th. What may we expect?
Fottner: Unfortunately, a face-to-face meeting of colleagues in the industry will not be possible in 2021 due to the coronavirus. However, we will offer the usual format of the plenary session with Christian Jacobi and three experts in direct discussion and lectures about a wide variety of current topics that relate to logistics. Here, the focus will be on topics such as “logistics in the crisis,” “digital and logistics 4.0,” and “new working worlds.” Instead of the usual two days divided into three different, parallel tracks, everything will take place on one day and with just a single track.
Hofer: I will have the honor and pleasure of moderating the track “Taking the next step in logistics with IoT” together with Professor Fottner. There are three exciting lectures: Josef Pilsti of BMW Motoren GmbH will speak about logistics innovations at BMW. Dr. Matthias Jöst of the Profibus Nutzerorganisation e.V. will speak about interoperable and manufacturer-independent real-time localization with omlox. And Matthias Wurst of Inform GmbH will round out this track with his talk about “Logistics 4.0: when the truck orders the forklift at the factory all by itself.”
Professor Fottner, Mr. Hofer, thank you very much for the conversation.