Robotics in modernizing federal supply chain operations
November 30, 2022
November 30, 2022
If you could tour a modern commercial warehouse, odds are you would see robots – robot cranes picking goods from shelves, autonomous carts cruising alongside human co-workers, robotic arms moving heavy items from pallets to racks, self-driving forklifts, possibly even drones taking real-time inventory.
Robotics are becoming more popular in commercial logistics operations, driven by the combined pressure of surging e-commerce sales, consumer expectations for fast delivery, and unprecedented labor shortages. As quarterly sales of robots hit successive highs, 2021 marked the first time that non-automotive industries – including logistics and distribution centers – were responsible for the upward trend.
Supply chain managers face significant pressure to increase safety and productivity, while struggling to recruit replacements for their aging workforce. According to Gartner, for 66% of supply chain organizations, labor availability constraints are the primary driver behind their investment in robotics. These robots are taking on jobs that younger workers, in particular, are not drawn to – physically grueling, repetitive, and sometimes dangerous work – and helping companies survive and thrive in the face of shrinking labor and burgeoning demand.
For federal logistics operations, commercial robotics initiatives offer timely lessons for their own modernization efforts. Agencies can learn from the investments made by their commercial counterparts to better understand robotics’ benefits and potential pitfalls, and ultimately ensure greater mission success today and in the future.
The federal government is hardly a novice at deploying robots to support its many missions. Indeed, most robotics technologies in the U.S. can trace their origins to defense funding. The best-known examples of robots in federal service tend to support military or space missions – think Mars rovers, bomb disposal units, and the Ghost Dog that patrols some Air Force bases. Other examples do exist, though, including robotic technology to dispense medication at a VA pharmacy.
Within the federal supply chain, however, robotics initiatives are far fewer. The Postal Service first brought autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) into sorting facilities in 2018 and has since expanded the use of AMRs and autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) to speed processing, particularly during peak holiday season, to more than 25 mail facilities.
Yet, examples like this are uncommon, even for agencies whose missions are analogous to traditional commercial supply chains. Military Service supply and materiel commands, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), and the Department of State’s diplomatic mail operations – to name a few examples – need facilities engineered for high-throughput handling, processing, sorting, inspecting, and shipping of inventory or packages. These are functions for which robotics can add significant value.
Given the rapid pace of innovation in and commercial adoption of supply chain robots, now is the time for federal agencies to tap into the immense potential of robotics to deliver measurable ROI – to accelerate operations, reduce physical burdens on workers, optimize warehouse utilization, provide real-time, AI-enabled analytics, and more.
The most common barriers to adoption of robotics in federal supply chains include cybersecurity concerns, competing priorities, and slow momentum for change (which applies equally in the commercial sector). But these barriers are increasingly surmountable in light of technological advances, greater political attention, and workforce and economic pressures.
For cybersecurity teams, automation creates a new set of unknowns, which often translates into narrowed use cases and prevents a proof of concept from scaling across the enterprise. However, successful integration of robots into highly sensitive military and space operations proves that systems can be designed with cybersecurity protections adequate to any mission.
Furthermore, Congressional and Executive Branch attention on federal logistical operations has increased considerably in the past two years. Recent GAO reports and Executive Orders shined new light on the role of defense and civilian agencies in supply chains that are critical to national security – including critical minerals, public health, and America’s industrial and agricultural base. With this spike in attention, agency leaders have strong momentum to allocate the resources necessary to explore robotic solutions to their operational challenges.
Adding to these drivers, unprecedented shifts in the U.S. workforce – the same forces impacting commercial logistics operations – are also plaguing federal warehouses and processing facilities. To make federal jobs more attractive, the President’s Management Agenda directs agencies to modernize and elevate the work humans do by – among other things – increasing the use of automation.
Integrating robotics into federal supply chain operations can feel like a hurdle, but the benefits are worth the effort.
Supply chain robotics are a highly mature and steadily advancing technology. While their most promising applications remain low-complexity, low-variation tasks, today’s AMRs, AGVs, and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRSs) exceed previous limitations. Thanks to advances in human-machine systems engineering, they’re safer, more autonomous, and better able to collaborate with human co-workers.
Robots can deliver high-value benefits, including:
Our team at Accenture Federal Services has seen this kind of success firsthand. For example, we partnered with DLA to deploy automated MHE and associated systems at its largest distribution center. DLA took a holistic approach to this modernization effort – updating processes, modernizing its OT cybersecurity strategy, and implementing NextGen change management and training across its workforce. By streamlining materiel flow and boosting efficiency, DLA achieved a 139% increase in throughput and roughly 18% reduction in labor costs.
It’s important to acknowledge that the success record of commercial efforts to integrate supply chain robots is mixed.
By learning from commercial experiments, however, agency leaders can guide a robotics initiative to mission success. Here are four key lessons learned:
1. Build and vet a robust business case. Ensure your rationale and expected benefits justify a robotics solution. Robots cannot solve every pain point, and offsetting labor costs alone is not sufficient justification. Use cases with the strongest potential typically focus on issues of efficiency, error rates, consistency, predictability, and analytics to support scenario-based planning.
2. Find the way to “yes” by including all stakeholders. Successful integration of robotics requires input and buy-in at all levels. You need a leadership champion to elevate automation as a budget priority. IT and cybersecurity need to understand the risks, protocols, and requirements for integrating with operational technologies. And workers and their union – which shares many of the concerns about safety and employee satisfaction that robotics can alleviate – can provide crucial operational knowledge to inform and optimize robotics solutions.
3. Consider your operational environment. Federal facilities tend to be older buildings. Uneven floors, towlines, and other obstacles can impede a robot’s ability to maneuver. To ensure successful integration, robotics must be built for their environment and the environment may need to be modified to ensure success.
4. Modernize your business processes, too. Robots excel at repetitive tasks but need human colleagues to solve for inconsistencies (e.g., a collapsed pallet or a missing tag). You will need policies and processes, for example, to ensure that robot and human workers can collaborate safely. Also, robots and their supporting technology ecosystems require administration and maintenance. Leadership will need to define programs to train and advance human employees in IT, IoT, connectivity, and other supportive skill sets.
As the commercial supply chain continues to accelerate the pace of modernization, more lessons are sure to emerge. Given the current level of executive and Congressional attention, however, now is the time for agencies to accelerate robotics initiatives.
When adopted thoughtfully, robots hold tremendous promise for federal supply chain operations – to strengthen resilience, enable a proactive operational stance, and ensure that the service members and American people they serve always have what they need.
Thank you to Dale Barbee for his contributions to this content.
 Gartner, “Market Guide for Intralogistics Smart Robotics”, Dwight Klappich, 18 April 2022. GARTNER is a registered trademark and service mark of Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates in the U.S. and internationally and is used herein with permission. All rights reserved.