Smart Machines: Closing the Supply Chain Gap Between Demand and Delivery

Robotic arm playing chess, artwork

I recently spoke at a conference in Chicago for MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations program. Gathered there to learn about the latest innovations in advanced manufacturing were executives from some of the world’s largest manufacturers. Artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, the Industrial Internet of Things and robotics were among the topics and it was clear that everyone there is aware that manufacturing is at an inflection point and big changes are needed to make the pivot. How, when, what and why were the biggest questions.

I can’t remember the first time I heard or read Lora’s description of the “demand-driven supply chain”, but while at the conference it struck a chord in my mind. The concept is a heady one – especially when we think about manufacturing and the ease of comparing driving change in the field to turning a battleship. That is to say slow and methodical. The idea that supply chains can be designed, built and managed to meet demand where it falls – up, down, in new markets around the corner or around the globe – is exciting and initially, daunting. Now, though I see technological breakthroughs that will, in fact, bring us closer to the vision, maybe sooner than we think.

The ability of the supply chain to “sense and respond” to fluctuations in demand is at the heart of the demand-driven supply chain and I’d say that manufacturers are doing much more to find ways to get closer to the customer. The next hurdle is to find ways to tighten the window between product design and delivery so that the “respond” side of the equation can be executed flawlessly.

The radical transformation of automation will speed this along. Advances in hardware and software are moving machines into a role where they can make meaningful and measurable contributions to manufacturers’ ability to adapt the supply chain as demand and market conditions fluctuate. This smarter automation includes

  • Sensors that collect data in ways similar to humans – seeing, touching, engaging
  • Behavior-based artificial intelligence – innovation in intelligence is making it possible for robots to integrate and interpret the information gathered by the sensors and then formulate and direct the appropriate action, overcoming the limitations set by “programmed-only” responses.
  • Actuators that can execute the required action – advances in the hardware take shape as robot hands and arms that work much more like human appendages – more flexible, dexterous and sensitive to the environment and the situation

With machines that can do more than perform a single task over and over and over, manufacturers and supply chains will become nimble. The responsiveness articulated by the concept of a demand-driven supply chain will move from a vision to a real-world model and become the standard by which world-class performance is measured.

Originally published on Beet Fusion.