Delivering for Best-in-Class Wholesaler-Distributors
November 21, 2016  |  ByPaul St. Germain, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Author
Developing Trends in Wholesale Distribution—Robotics, Industrial Connectivity

Gaining Efficiency Through Robotics in Wholesale Distribution

One offshoot of the Internet of Things (IoT) is the rise in the implementation and use of connected robotics as companies look for ways to gain efficiency and cut costs on the customer’s factory floor, in the warehouse, and elsewhere. This is a growing opportunity for wholesaler-distributors to keep manufacturing-customer plants running without interruption, especially as many firms consider how the industrial IoT will shape the industry.

Connected robotics can be used in manufacturing on the factory floor to final delivery of products to customers. For example, a European technology start-up is building a fleet of self-driving delivery robots designed to deliver goods locally within 30 minutes. Although they navigate autonomously, they are overseen by humans who can step in to avoid safety issues. The robots can deliver the equivalent of two bags of groceries to locations within five to 30 minutes from a local hub or retail outlet. Shoppers can track the robot in real time from an app and can schedule delivery at a time convenient for them. Only the app holder is able to unlock the robot and retrieve the groceries. This type of autonomous robot-delivery service opens up new opportunities for other types of delivery services, including point-to-point goods delivery.

Retailers are also testing robotics for both inventory management and customer service. One large retailer has launched a trial to test robots that roll autonomously around the store while scanning products to determine if they have been misplaced or mispriced or are low in stock.

Another company created a warehouse buddy to follow human pickers around the warehouse picking products. The robots follow the worker around, stopping when the worker stops to load the bins on the robot. The worker can send the robot back to the shipping table at any time instead of walking to it him- or herself, avoiding delays in shipping items from several different orders and reducing the distance the worker needs to walk.

In another example, robots are being tested that have a touchscreen mounted easily within reach and a platform to place bins full of goods. The bots travel to a particular warehouse zone, where a human worker can be told by the bot what it needs so that the product can be retrieved and given to the robot, which then moves to the next location. The human laborer remains in a particular zone, and the robots remove the need for walking between zones.

Distributors could apply these technologies to their warehouses to help locate missing items, measure inventory, and move items from one part of the warehouse to another.

Wholesaler-distributors must be aware of and how they can use those technologies to avoid disruption—or to become a disruptive force in the industry. Some trends and technologies are in their infancy while others have started to reach a tipping point beyond which any company that lags behind will find itself lost at sea.

Not all technologies will mature or become accessible from a cost perspective, and not all are relevant to every line of trade or every individual company. However, the potential exists for them to radically change business models, organizations, staffing models, and value propositions across a wide range of industries, including wholesale distribution.

In the brand-new 11th edition of Facing the Forces of Change®: Navigating the Seas of Disruption, you will find much more detail on all of these topics, including strategies and examples from leading distributors, along with suggested actions to understand and minimize the effect of disruption on a business, or present the opportunity to become a disrupter.

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Paul St. Germain, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Author

Paul St. Germain, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Author

While working for IBM, Paul St. Germain was responsible for managing IBM’s business and strategic initiatives within the global wholesale distribution industry. He researched critical issues and trends, developed IBM’s point of view on industry imperatives; guided IBM’s industry offerings and solutions; and engaged with wholesale distribution executives to help them transform their organizations.
Paul St. Germain, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Author

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