By Dr. Eric Maiser und Juliane Friedrich
The complexity of modern value chains is continuously increasing, with greater flexibility, speed and individualization. Digitalization and networking are what make this process possible in the first place and act as a driver. "In order to turn ideas for virtually networked worlds into reality, mechanical engineering and its solutions are needed for the autonomized supply chain," explains Hartmut Rauen, VDMA Deputy Executive Director. "Today's end customers want to have their say and their demands are growing. They prefer their products to be delivered immediately. In the not-too-distant future, they may even be able to manufacture the products themselves using 3D printers. This alone will bring about fundamental change," comments a convinced Rauen.
Addressing the future
Current technological developments already hint at what might be possible in the future. There are still several hurdles to overcome, particularly if the right technology, interfaces or standards are not available. The fact remains, however, that platform economy, autonomous mobility or blockchain will not wait for industry and trade. They burst onto the market as new players or disruptive business models, which is why it is so important to address possible developments and new technologies.
Manufacturing companies today are faced with the challenges of high customer expectations, increasing individualization of the product portfolio and short product life cycles - no easy task for procurement, logistics and the technology used for this: intralogistics. To plan all these processes and control them without errors, companies rely on supply chain management. No other concept has played a greater role in shaping logistics in this value creation process in recent years. It places logistics in the overall context of production and delivery processes and connects material and information flows from the customer to the raw material supplier. In the factory of the future, the only way to enable networking, decentralization, service orientation and real-time capability will be by adapting logistics.
Optimizing the "last mile"
Alongside internal logistics in companies, transportation and delivery will also be put to the test in the future. The "last mile" has long been a frequent subject of discussions among logistics specialists and can be fundamentally changed through the use of new technologies. Established business models such as those provided by logistics and CEP (courier, express and parcel) services could become obsolete, or even offered by other providers, such as manufacturers or dealers, themselves. New approaches and offers will be required in the future, particularly in urban environments. So why not use drones or delivery robots?
The handling of data
Data handling will have a significant impact on the development of an autonomized supply chain. To implement this, systems will have to be capable of exchanging data in real time, analyzing this data and then making autonomous decisions based on these analyses. From today's perspective, the quality of the data is not yet sufficient to determine reliable decision parameters, while legal and security-relevant aspects still represent a large hurdle to be overcome. Without the corresponding protection against unauthorized access to data, or specific rights for ownership and use, the vision of an autonomous system will remain just that: a vision.
The principle of blockchain
When talking about the automatically documented exchange of data today, blockchain is the most mentioned technology. This is a much-hyped subject that carries huge opportunities for the future of international value creation networks. The blockchain principle functions as a distributed ledger database in which information is encrypted into hashes before it is transferred. Every transaction is written into a block, several blocks are forming a chain during this process. The data is not stored centrally on a server, but on all storage media across the network and is therefore transparent and protected against manipulation.
Apart from financial transactions, the technology offers numerous application fields for the industry. So-called "Smart contracts" enable contracts to be displayed and processed autonomously, without human intervention. Another option are decentralized apps, which also enable applications like order management in a production network, or the collaboration with freelancers such as programmers. There is already a multitude of pilot projects and further developments of the technology. The question is not if blockchain will be able to assert itself, but rather when.
VDMA supporting the transition
The transition of traditional value chains to autonomized supply chains provides a great opportunity for business, policymakers, research and society to help design and develop new and successful methods. VDMA will continue to support its members and the whole industry in this complex field and provide answers to technical questions, standardization and regulatory aspects, all the way up to observing the cooperation between humans and technology. VDMA has a broad range of expertise across its different branches and has created its own Competence Centers for the fields of Future Business, Industrial Security, Work 4.0 and Regulatory Policies. "In order to further develop the topic of autonomized supply chains, we plan to concentrate and expand our activities," announces Rauen.