“Small businesses don’t have the exibility of Walmart or Target, and it’s hitting them harder.” Automation is starting to level the playing eld, Gomez explains. Access to technologies such as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) used to be limited to large corporations with the budget for a research department and multiple engineers on staff. But over the past decade, new innovations have made these tools accessible to smaller shippers. Meanwhile, the productivity gains enabled by automation help small and mid-sized businesses stay competitive with larger companies. Realtime Robotics technology, for example, helps companies palletize more efciently. The software automates robotic programming, enabling multiple robot arms to build pallets faster and with less human involvement at a warehouse or e-commerce facility. The 2021 MHI Annual Industry Report found that 53% of supply chain professionals are increasing their investment in automation. Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents said that automation and robotics are currently in use at their company, and another 38% plan to adopt these technologies within ve years. “It’s not a luxury to automate, it’s a necessity at this point,” Gomez says. 3-D PRINTING: A DIY JOB Manufacturers have always had to replace spare parts. Usually, that entails outsourcing production to another company. But lead times have stretched over the past two years, thanks to materials shortages, shipping delays, and rising costs. Those challenges are culminating in more frequent production delays. “When you overlay a pandemic, a global supply chain crisis, and a shortage of business-critical items, you end up with a value chain that was once right- sized, but is now completely turned on its head,” says Daniel Lazier, product marketing manager at Markforged, a 3-D printing provider based in Watertown, Massachusetts. “As a result, the process
Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, o¦ers a slew of benefits to small and mid-sized companies such as rapid prototypes, shorter runs with lower costs, easier storage thanks to producing parts as needed, and improved product quality.
to get from raw materials to nished goods and into customers’ hands no longer works predictably.” Enter 3-D printing. At Markforged, printers weave continuous strands of carbon ber into a printed part, resulting in an object that can withstand the same heat and pressure as 6061 aluminum. Manufacturers can use 3-D printing to make component parts in-house to bypass production delays. “3-D printing opens up a world of possibilities that was not accessible before,” notes Lazier. “It gives businesses a buffer against uncertainty with a system that slashes lead time from two weeks to one day, at a fraction of the cost.” 3-D printing can produce objects ranging from repair parts to airplane cockpit equipment. FormLabs, a 3-D printing operation based in Somerville, Massachusetts, uses a process called selective laser sintering, in which a laser melts powdered plastic materials such as nylon or polystyrene into a nal product. Partial Hands Solutions, a producer of prosthetic equipment, uses FormLabs printers to make prosthetic parts for veterans and amputees. SMOOTHING OUT INVENTORY Businesses of all sizes got a crash course in selling through new channels after the pandemic struck. E-commerce sales rose by 32.4% annually in 2020,
and then by another 14.2% in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The transition to online selling had its difculties, but the real challenge came when merchants had to adapt to multi- channel sales. “E-commerce worked really well for millions of businesses,” says Doug LaBahn, chief marketing ofcer at Cin7, an omnichannel inventory management system provider. “But once your store reopens, your cash register can’t tell you how much merchandise you have in the store, much less what’s available online.” The lack of inventory visibility within different channels can cause multiple problems for a business, LaBahn adds. Think about selling the same item twice or shipping out incorrect orders. He recommends a cloud-based inventory management solution to reconcile orders from different sales modes. Order forecasting is one example. Say a business receives a large holiday season order from a major retailer. The company would have to manage—and pay for—the order, sometimes months before seeing any sales revenue. That means ensuring that the order is correct and arrives on time, and having the appropriate cash ow to keep the rest of the business running. Cin7’s inventory forecasting helps companies anticipate which items will
176 Inbound Logistics • July 2022
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