Technology in the supply chain - does it threaten jobs?


We cannot ignore the technological evolution of work across business. Globally things are changing, fast, and so is the way we do things.

The emergence of concepts influenced by technology such as ‘drop and collect’, digital logistics that facilitates paperless, high-speed and secure dispatch/delivery of parcels through a widespread parcel shop network are today’s reality. Ten years ago, much of this progress was only a dream.

These innovative concepts enable us to serve our clients better, faster and more efficiently. They improve the level at which we produce and meet demand. They have an incredible impact on the quality of our product and the speed at which we produce.

Technology has also helped us manage the distribution of our goods and to have access to important insights into our markets and sectors, which helps in staying competitive. The truth is, technology is here, and if you’re not going to adapt you’re slowly dying.

But what kind of impact does technology have on the labour market?

While businesses are actively using technology tools to optimise their supply chains with integrated and sustainable solutions – the bottom line is that this process needs to be cost-effective and efficient. To invest in technology in a cost-effective manner, businesses tend to think the solution is in cutting down on the labour force while still producing at optimum levels.

In the past, business was obsessed with cyborgs and automation systems. Artificial intelligence (AI) was once a mirage. Today, robotics and AI are normal and none of us have the liberty to ignore them. Today I can ask Alexa to order a book on Amazon and have it delivered at my address.

When you look at supply chain management, automation (AI, robotics, bots etc.) handles potential errors far better than humans – and requires less training. This is because when you build a robot to perform a certain task, you do it once and it will do the job. Basically, you teach it once through coding and it will continuously perform a task effectively without any retraining required. Just updates to do more tasks. We have thus far seen the use of robotics within warehouses by Amazon, the use of google glasses for digital picking of stock - not forgetting the future of ‘uberisation of trucking’.

But is automation our all-in-one solution? Not really. In fact, human labour remains very important to supply chain management. It really doesn’t matter how advanced the automation is or may be in the future… there will always be a need for human judgement. For example, customers may appreciate fast and efficient service, but will never smile at wrong orders no matter how fast the order arrives.

Think about it this way, a machine is more than able to place an order of an item in a box and direct it to a destination, but it may not be able to identify sizes, colours (or any other complex specifications of an order as per individual consumer order). Here, human judgement is key.

So, how do we automate and keep humans? We equally invest in the machine and human beings. Train humans in new skills, especially those we identify as skills that machines are not yet capable to perform. This provides an opportunity for the education system to align curricula to future technology to cater for the changing and dynamic landscape of supply chain.

There will always be something machines will not be able to do. While AI and bots can be used to automate process and productivity, human labour remains important in ensuring precision in customer satisfaction and a more ‘human’ interaction. This way, automation can create more jobs than it can get rid of.

As AI becomes part of our lives, we need to rethink how we educate people and how we prepare them to work alongside an incredibly automated workplace.

Industry-first member association, African Women in Supply Chain Association (AWISCA), seeks to address the numerous technical and practical issues that continue to hinder the country’s supply chain industry.

Lebogang Letsoalo is a Director of Sincpoint, an organisation focusing on sustainable supply chain consulting and advisory solutions. Lebogang has up to 18 years of experience within different facets of the supply chain fraternity .Her extensive range of experience varies within different sectors of the business where she held different portfolios within the energy, chemicals and mining industry.


More News