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Perhaps some of us with a career in supply chain are still wary about what the future has in store for us. With new technologies continuing to disrupt proceedings, is it safe to say that machines will take over what we do and we’ll be out of a job in, say, ten years’ time?

 

Well, it depends on how you’re looking at it. Some tasks will be replaced —in fact, some of them already are.

 

When I entered the industry working for a material handling products manufacturer, the automation revolution in warehouses is already in full swing in Europe. There, large warehouses are only operated by roughly five people, overseeing machines that pack, tag, and sort products—and even palletize them for transport via truck. My job was to help show companies here in the Philippines that these technologies are available, but of course it comes with a steep price tag, both initially and in the long run. It was a difficult sell.

 

History shows most technologies get cheaper as time goes by, however. Fast forward seven years and you have more companies here utilizing, or considering, automated (or semi-automated, as dealing with laid-off labor can be tricky) logistics solutions. More are understanding how these technologies can lead to more efficient operations, as well as improved safety conditions for those working in warehouses. I imagine that a few more years from now, we would see, in this country, warehouses that rely more on automation than on human labor, for these benefits and more.

 

That would put those working on entry-level warehousing positions at risk, as their day-to-day duties—those tasks that are repetitive and routine—are taken over by machines. The challenge here is to ensure that they are able to adapt: companies should look into upskilling these people to allow them to transition out of these roles and find new ones, whether within their current places of work or elsewhere.

 

As for those in supervisory positions, well, it’s harder to see them being replaced by robots entirely. Right now some of the tasks they do have been taken over by technology, particularly the analysis of data that helps them make decisions about their supply chains. Whether they’re using a bespoke warehouse management system or crunching numbers through good old Excel, they’re utilizing technology that allows them to make the most of their time: spend less of it knee-deep in calculations, and more of it collaborating with other stakeholders to achieve supply chain’s goal of better service at optimal cost.

 

You can imagine that the next generation of supply chain managers would spend more time talking to suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and logistics service providers, perhaps crafting new approaches and solutions to serving all stakeholders. You can imagine they’ve left all the number crunching to supercomputers. Not that they’d abandon that entirely: human input would still be needed to ensure there are no lapses.

 

But then, what would the supply chain manager of the future also do? It’s entirely possible that the rush of technology would lead to tasks we can’t even imagine today. Perhaps they’ll be busy coding software that would tweak a product, in real time, as the end customer wishes. They’ll monitor responses, determine patterns, and alert other stakeholders of what people want much faster.

 

That is what makes supply chain exciting today: nobody really is sure where it will lead. All that counts now is the aim of supply chain—to satisfy customers, to excite customers.

 

General Membership Meeting: We will hold our next GMM on 11 April at the Batanes room of the EDSA Shangri-la in Mandaluyong City. We will tackle the challenge of developing and mentoring the next generation of supply chain talent, with the results of our focus group discussion on the matter, and an open exchange with panelists and delegates. Learn more and register through our website, scmap.org.

 

Henrik Batallones is the marketing and communications executive of SCMAP. A former board director, he is also editor-in-chief of the organization’s official publication, Supply Chain Philippines. More information about SCMAP is available at scmap.org.

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