Evolving Supply Chains – Enabling Zero-touch automation

The post-pandemic era ushered in several changes – one among them being the trend towards a zero-touch economy. Whether it is the boom in “contactless” e-commerce deliveries or enabling card transactions through merely a tap instead of a swipe and password combination, companies have put all energies to transform their products and services touchless without compromising on efficiency and security.

In this blog we shall look at the various drivers and steps leading to implementing zero touch, applications where it can benefit the most, challenges, and scenarios where zero touch is better avoided.

With the shortage of skilled manpower which again got triggered more from the pandemic, organizations today have no option but to embark on a journey to adopt zero / no touch solutions spanning across goods, services, and data retrieval as well. Reasons driving this could be multiple but broadly under the below categories:

  • Unlock human potential
    There are several mundane jobs that can be easily automated; a case in point being order processing. The Customer Service Representative is a highly skilled lot with profound knowledge about the product and their customers. It will be a sheer waste of their time if they are to spend valuable time in keying orders that could have been better utilized by pushing sales or resolving customer issues. Monotonous work can be easily replaced by leveraging Robotic Process Automation’s that require negligible manual intervention and freeing up hundreds of human hours
  • Reduce human errors
    As with all repetitive jobs, there is a high propensity of human errors creeping into the processes. They can abruptly interrupt and cause unprecedented havoc across the entire supply chain. Zero touch systems aspire to navigate through complex processes flawlessly and eliminate human intervention to resolve errors
  • Enhance customer experience
    First time right results in accurate fulfillment, a higher customer satisfaction and a healthy customer relationship. Customers are also benefitted by having more interaction of the CSRs for problem-solving, receiving valuable recommendations about the service / products from the CSR
  • Reduce costs
    Streamlining the processes, reduction in processing errors will extend to lesser resources driving down the overall costs. Companies will now be able to do more with less of everything and lead into a virtuous cycle

An approach to establishing zero touch should be progressive and gradual including relevant governance through standardized procedures, remodeling employee skills, revamping processes, and adapting the corresponding tools that provide detailed analytics, real-time and transparent tracking via application or dashboard. More granular the data, better it is to be controlled and managed.

An example of applied zero touch solution across the supply chain can be envisaged as below, parts that are visible more prominently than others in all modern supply chains:

Combination of smart sensors, automatic valves, IoT embodies the heart of the zero-touch strategy used on the shop floor for manufacturing processes. Intelligent applications use sensor data from connected devices to provide more visibility, insights into the processes and report the efficiencies for manufacturing, improve predictive maintenance, and monitor the workplace safety. Contemporary warehouses, especially huge ecommerce fulfillment warehouses employ an intricate network of conveyor lines, robots in sync with automated forklifts navigate to the correct aisle, rack, and bins to fulfill the customer orders with automated labelling, scanning and packing of goods. E-commerce companies provide contact-less goods deliveries and customers can track the shipments – the data part of supply chain – sitting in the comfortable confines of their house. Returns are also enabled in a click where the pick-ups are scheduled and informed to the customers. If for any reason you still need to visit a store, self-billing stores are now passé and they are upgrading themselves to cashier-less formats. Customers can just pick up the stuff from the shelves and when they exit the stores, the billed amount will be debited from their e-wallets.

Specific industries like pharma and food require a cold chain to be maintained throughout the supply chain. Frequent monitoring of the temperatures that mandate temperature leakages are an un-necessary impediment. Zero touch applications provide a way to ensure the readings can be taken without compromising the temperature drop, moreover reduced chances of contamination and adulteration. In another sector, the telecom industry, AI enabled solution help automatically switch-off the networks during off-peak hours to conserve power and be right back up in no time when there is an increase in the load.

Self-healing networks can pro-actively anticipate any issues, re-route traffic to alternate routes and at the same time intimate the customers of the failure with expected duration of downtime

Though there are an umpteen number of businesses that will benefit from zero-touch, some of the low-volume and highly un-predictable tasks do not warrant an investment of effort and time. There is also a risk of unsuspected intrusions and hacking into automated systems if everything is left to be automated e.g., provisioning of hardware like scanners, printers. This may leave the entire ecosystem vulnerable to outside world.

Implementing zero-touch solutions also bring with them human resource challenges. There is a long gestation period to reap the full benefits; not all the existing staff can be elevated to take up higher tasks due to upskilling constraints. This may lead to losses in jobs, increased distrust between the employer – employee. While supply chain planners may try to mimic real-life scenarios for simulations, it is almost impossible to capture every nuance like market context, political positions, customer buying patterns and competitors’ activities in the model.

Investments and R&D efforts will continue to be poured into advancement and exploration of zero-touch possibilities. It need not be more emphasized that Goldratt’ famous Theory of Constraints is applicable in this context as well, hence zero-touch projects need to be taken up only if the overall process improvement is visible. Existing skills of employees need to be constantly upgraded so that they are able to devote the freed-up time to value-adding activities and do not feel threatened by increasing automation.

Author Details

Devesh Arora

Devesh has 21 years of experience with more than 16 years as Oracle applications consultant. An APICS certified cloud professional, he has promarily worked on procure to plan and plan to produce business cycles in implementation and upgrade projects serving clients in engineering, retail, hi-tech and aviation domain; across US, EMEA and Asia-Pacific geographies.

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