As enterprises look ahead to 2021, they are dealing with an unforeseen set of circumstances for the start of a new year as they evaluate how to best optimize operations and accelerate growth. While the COVID-19 pandemic has strained operations across various industries and will continue to do so in the new year, it has also been a catalyst to accelerate key technology developments that can help companies succeed in 2021 and beyond. The ability to integrate new technology solutions to maintain operations and profitability, as well as optimize workflows to support continual peak demand and supply chain disruption is and will continue to be key.
The pandemic has accelerated secular trends that were already under way, including e-commerce, automation and supply chain optimization. Some example use-cases include “buy online pick-up in-store” (BOPIS), ship from store and micro-fulfilment. Our ability to address these opportunities has been enabled by advancements in technology including the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and dynamic intelligent planning. Enterprises have increased their spend on intelligent automation, including robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in conjunction with machine learning (ML) and prescriptive analytics solutions. Enterprises who want to empower their front-line workers with insights that drive real-time actions will need to prioritize these technologies in 2021.
The acceleration in retail automation – spanning the entire supply chain from the store to warehousing operations and distribution centres – has been driven by the demand for delivering directly to consumers and doing so in an increasingly on-demand way which has left parcel carriers operating at peak volumes during what would traditionally be non-peak times. This creates a critical need to automate workflows to satisfy customer demand while also driving efficiency and productivity.
Here is a deeper look at the enterprise technology trends that will continue to be influential in 2021.
Computer and Machine Vision
Developments in computer vision and machine vision solutions are delivering more precise depictions of a company’s physical environment, regardless of industry.
The data gathered from computer vision systems enable solutions to visually interpret and understand the world in a broader, more intelligent way. Computer vision can provide recognition that rivals human capabilities allowing for better inventory visibility and streamlined check-out at the point of sale for example. When combined with other data sources, it can automate operational decisions and help leaders visualize their businesses more accurately, which enables them to take more effective actions.
Machine vision is a subset of computer vision, using visual techniques focused on inspection analysis and anomaly detection. It is a technology that can accurately verify manufacturing build quality and consistency and do so with a high level of repeatability. Machine vision has been deployed for decades on manufacturing lines for part and assembly inspection. However, the sensor and compute technology used in machine vision is rapidly becoming more capable and cost effective. This is allowing it to reach more applications while adding enhanced functionality such as real-time 3D image processing for more complex inspection applications. Systems with computer and machine vision will continue to drive increased automation in 2021. With the capabilities to capture, process, interpret and direct action, they can help solve pressing problems that would otherwise be labour intensive tasks.
Intelligent Automation including AI and Robotics
In the consumer space, AI has been used to provide natural language interaction with digital assistants such as Alexa and Siri. These systems learn over time, not just how to recognize voices more accurately, but to also interpret meaning, context and personal preferences. This type of learning technology is also prevalent in enterprises, and many companies are using AI to improve their workflows, deliveries and customer experiences. Ultimately, AI can improve the ability to recommend the best corrective action, and this is especially important where there are large workforces operating in dynamic environments like retail, warehousing, manufacturing and healthcare facilities.
Many of these technology trends are accelerating the pace of innovation and improving the economics of automated offerings. Computer vision, cloud, AI and lower cost edge-computing are all contributing to the ubiquity of robotics-based offerings. Many enterprises have been and continue to invest in automation to create high-quality, consistent products with higher efficiency. We are also seeing robots intersecting the workflow in many vertical markets. Consider robotic solutions that can be flexibly deployed in place of – or in tandem with – people.
Rather than focusing on completely automating a workflow, deploying it in a hybrid manner to augment physical labour in select parts of operations is anticipated to grow significantly in 2021. The concept of overhauling a facility to shift from a people-driven workflow to complete automation captures a lot of headlines, but it helps to “walk before you run.” We will continue to see the growing adoption of hybrid automation for some time. This is the utilization of both workers and robots – or the use of “cobots” (collaborative robots) – as opposed to the total replacement of humans for the vast majority of workflows. Retail and Warehouse Automation
The shift to online shopping has taken a massive leap in 2020, boosting e-commerce growth. 2020 has been an inflection point for ecommerce, which is now projected to account for 28% of chain retail sales globally. This, in turn, has expedited the move to online commerce by about three years, forcing retailers to quickly adapt to streamline their stores, fulfilment centres and logistics workflows for greater productivity as they face profitability challenges associated with e-commerce fulfilment.
Retail automation is a combination of both physical automation and fixed infrastructure that can automate visibility, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) readers, shelf-edge cameras and computer vision. In warehousing and supply chain, physical automation, RFID and temperature sensing technologies – combined with the growth of robotics, including cobots that interface and collaboratively work with humans – can help fulfilment centers improve e-commerce operations. Integrating temperature-intelligence solutions such as Zebra’s Heatmarker and Freezemarker can indicate if vaccines or medications have been exposed to potentially hazardous conditions that could impact their efficacy or safety.
Data and Prescriptive Analytics
The need for greater visibility and effective intelligent planning is becoming increasingly critical. Data is an invaluable asset, and its power is only unlocked if it is actioned at the right time to the right person to drive an improved outcome.
Applying a prescriptive analytics solution by ingesting near real-time data increases performance and enables more robust actions. Enterprises with analytics in place are often operating on and optimized for historical data, which presents a challenge as new streaming data sources are introduced and injected into predictive models that drive real-time actions and outcomes.
From labor and inventory to fulfilment, intelligent-planning solutions and prescriptive analytics play a role in answering key management questions and allow for more efficient ways of operating in today’s “new normal.” The ability to plan around what is happening in the moment and utilize that data to predict new business and operational decisions in real time is becoming an enterprise requirement and will increase in importance in 2021. Combining customer and inventory data with other external sources unlocks the ability to update plans to match real-time trends, which is a key element for innovative companies looking to move from a reactive position to a more proactive one.
The need for greater visibility is driving the expansion of intelligent planning, automation and prescriptive analytics in our industry. Given the dynamic nature of the current global situation, the ability to execute in a more agile manner has become critical in the retail, transportation and logistics (T&L), manufacturing and healthcare sectors. From labour, inventory and fulfilment planning, intelligent automation has an important role to play.
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