When you think of an automated process, the words agile, flexible or nimble may not be the first words that typically come to mind. Most people think of automated processes as efficient, accurate, or repetitive – but not agile. You may even picture an automated process as one that cannot be stopped once it has been started … sort of like a runaway train.
But done right, automation is really more like a smoothly orchestrated railway system – changing tracks, adjusting schedules, and delivering freight or people to the right location quickly and efficiently.
Increase your agility & responsiveness
Although you may begrudgingly acknowledge that certain automated processes are less expensive to operate, you may feel that this lower cost comes at the expense of flexibility and responsiveness. In the context of Supply Chain Management, while workflow automation can clearly be used to reduce operating costs, you might be surprised to find that an increase in agility is often the greatest result.
This agility primarily comes from the ability of workflow automation to reduce your overall cycle times and thus increase your responsiveness to change.
Manufacturing supply chain challenges
If you are a manufacturing or distribution company, you face many challenges in your supply chain including:
- inherent forecast uncertainty
- shortened customer lead-times
- inventory risks
- the need for production capacity flexibility
- maintaining product and service quality
You can meet all of these challenges more effectively if your supply chain processes have shorter overall cycle times and are thus more agile in responding to change.
More customization, better service, shorter lead times
Today’s “empowered” consumers expect and demand more customization, better service and shortened lead times. We want what we want now. If your order-to-delivery cycle time does not meet your customers’ expectations, then you will likely not get their business.
- Make-to-stock companies typically have longer outbound supply chains with more finished goods inventory stocking locations, which increases the risk of higher inventory driven costs (i.e., obsolescence, damage, shrinkage, storage, cost of capital, etc.).
- Make-to-order companies typically have shorter outbound supply chains with fewer finished goods inventory stocking locations, but they still have significant inventory risk upstream in their raw materials and sub-assemblies.
Shorter process cycle times allow you to carry less inventory and reduce your overall inventory levels and associated inventory risks.
Although you can improve forecast accuracy, forecasts are never going to be perfect, so you must be able to quickly adjust your supply chain strategy. In order to further reduce inventory risks, manufacturing companies are trying to build more to real-time actual orders (demand-pull based) rather than building to forecasts (push based). This shift requires your processes to have shorter cycle times and be very efficient. Any delay in accessing information from multiple systems of record, or having to rely on manual processes, is generally not practical.
Flexible workflow automation, flexible supply chain
Today’s best workflow automation tools have the flexibility to be quickly configured with rules and alerts that you choose to match your desired process, so that you are not forced to live within a narrow process dictated by the tool. These rules and alerts can enable your people to only get involved in a process when an exception occurs that requires their attention, but can also keep them out of low-value-add transactional activities that can be completed extremely rapidly without their involvement.
Visibility through open data
As risks in the supply chain continue to occur and customer demand continues to be less tolerant of disruptions, more companies are recognizing the importance of creating and managing a visible supply chain. Although different interpretations and definitions abound, one way to think of supply chain visibility is: the right information, in actionable detail, on events, orders, inventory, and shipments, up and down, and end to end, updated and presented in real time. This definition – ambitious by intention – sets the goal of having visibility through every tier of the supply base, with every supply chain partner, in real time. This means continuous real-time automated presentation of information about such things as a real-time consolidated view of inventories across the supply chain, real-time stock and materials in transit, event management with real-time alerting and a continuous projection of future inventory levels from demand, inventory, and fulfillment data.
Total workflow automation
Supply chain processes are segmented between production, transport, storage and distribution so that workflow automation is not viewed as an end-to-end application but it should be. At least that’s the thinking of Canadian supply chain consulting group MBSL. Development of their Cargo Carousel System has been three years in the making and automates workflows at every segment. The sensor technologies incorporated into their system continuously identifies and tracks the contents of the “modules” they’ve developed to replace wooden pallets. Each module is suspended on an over/under carousel to allow loading and unloading at the same time! Its design simplicity seems counter-intuitive to its actual capabilities. Whether on a flat deck for transport and distribution or stacked for storage and production, this system automates workflows at every stage of the supply chain. This can eliminate empty back hauls and partial loads, double warehouse space utilization and reduce deforestation from wooden pallet production to deliver increasing supply chain agility and efficiency.