As companies increase their spending on supply chain technology, a growing number are turning to robotics and automation. In an annual survey by logistics industry group MHI and Deloitte, 51 percent of the respondents said robotics and automation are a source of either disruption or competitive advantage, up from 39 percent of the respondents last year. Out of the 900 supply-chain professionals surveyed, more singled out those fields than technologies in wider use, such as inventory or network management tools, cloud computing and sensors.


A majority of the respondents said their organization now plans to spend more than $1 million on emerging technologies in the next two years, with 12 percent of the respondents saying their company will spend more than $10 million, and three percent expect the company to spend more than $100 million. Nearly 35 percent of the respondents said their company has already adopted robotics into their supply chains, and that number is expected to grow to 74 percent of the respondents in the next six to 10 years, according to the report.


Hytrol Conveyor, one of the largest manufacturers of industrial conveyors in the Americas, has used automation technology to reduce “wasted activity” in its facilities, such as time spent walking around, and to improve consistency, says Gregg Goodner, past president of Hytrol and a current board member, in a Wall Street Journal article. It gives the company a competitive advantage, he says.


“Customers today demand their suppliers be able to deliver their product faster,” Goodner says in the Wall Street Journal article. “Their demands are stronger, and you’ve got to be able to meet them or, quite truthfully, you don’t play in the game.”


In a separate survey of managers at freight forwarders by shipping software company Freightos Ltd., 68 percent of the respondents said warehouse robotics would profoundly impact their industry. On the other hand, only 49 percent of the respondents believe 3D printers will have a major impact, and only 32 percent of the respondents see drones and self-driving trucks having significant effect.


“While the vast majority of forwarders agree technology is the future of freight, they see many types of technology as over-hyped,” according to the report. “Warehouse robotics are the only innovation that a majority consider will have a profound impact on the industry.”


Perhaps the most interesting recent news on robotics and automation was in an article in Maritime Executive on the Rolls-Royce led Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA). The group presented its first findings at a conference, where speakers expressed high hopes for vessel automation in commercial service—and predicted it will arrive soon.


“Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry,” Mikael Makinen, president of Rolls-Royce’s marine division, says in the article. “As disruptive as the smart phone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations.”


The AAWA initiative’s researchers suggest that engineering hurdles would not be a major obstacle. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist: The sensor technology needed is sound and commercially available, and the algorithms needed for robust decision-support systems—the vessel’s “virtual captain”—are not far off, says Jonne Poikonen, senior research fellow at the University of Turku and a leader of the project’s technology research. The challenge, she notes, is to find the optimum method to combine them cost effectively in a marine environment.


“This is happening—it’s not if, it’s when,” says Oskar Levander, VP of innovation at Rolls-Royce Marine. “This work supports the development of remote controlled and autonomous vessels and will enable proof-of-concept demonstration following the completion of the project. We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”


  What are your thoughts on robotics and automation? Do you see an increased spend on such technology where you work or throughout the supply chain to gain competitive advantage?