Flying cars, laser pistols and colonies on Mars? Science fiction has a tendency to zero in on obvious targets. But it’s often the more benign aspects of life that skip along quicker than you could have anticipated. Flying delivery drones, automated warehouses and self-driving trucks? There’s nothing fictional about these developments, or disruptions they’re causing to supply chains.
Track and trace
The information revolution has brought about fundamental shifts in how companies relate to their customers. The keyword here is information.
Andrew Shaw, transport and logistics leader for Africa at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), sees big changes taking place in the retail and last-mile sector. “People want to know where their goods are, and the reduction in cost of digitised solutions and track-and-trace is making the information much more accessible, meaning people can access information about the supply chain they couldn’t before,” he says.
This means more potential for communication and interaction between retail, warehouse and manufacturing, allowing for a more fluid, efficient and cost-effective chain of supply.
“If you’ve got a retailer at the end of the chain,” says Shaw, “and something’s moving very rapidly, they may want to look up the chain to see how many units are in stock. The idea is that they’ve already got the answer because that data set has been pushed down the chain. Then potentially – and this in the norm in Europe now – you can push that up the chain to the manufacturers so they can see what’s happening in terms of demand.”
It’s all well and good making something at one end of the chain and selling it at the other, but what about the middle step? One area where local players are making big strides is in warehousing. Enhanced data collection, automated picking and drone surveillance are all helping to make this step more efficient and cost effective.
“If you look at the areas where South African movers can cut costs in the logistics supply chain,” says Shaw, “generally these are no longer in the road-transport space; costs have really been eked out there by way of things like scheduling software and new-generation trucks with better fuel efficiency. Inventory and warehousing is a space where you can push down costs. If digitisation across that area will drive down costs, then these companies will invest in it and sell it to their customers. Cheaper labour costs relative to first-world markets mean we’re unlikely to see fully automated factories, says Martin Bailey, Industrial Logistics Systems executive. “But this is being driven by the need to be faster and more accurate, and by operators who are tired of labour issues. An added big driver is theft – robots don’t steal.”
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By Anthony Sharpe