The path to autonomous supply

Tom Bonkenburg, Director of European Operations at St. Onge shares how robotics are set to disrupt supply chain operations

Add bookmark

Pharma IQ

Earlier this year, Tom Bonkenburg, Director of European Operations at St. Onge joined Cold Chain Global Forum to discuss how robotics were set to change supply chain operations. 

In this interview, Bonkenburg shares how robotics are moving from delivery to distribution, why automation should be leveraged as a long-term strategic investment and how to decide where to focus technological efforts in the supply chain. 


How are robotics impacting the supply chain?

Bonkenburg: Since their beginning, robots have always lived in the ‘make’ side of the supply chain. Robots are very good at precisely repeating the same tasks hour after hour with high quality. This is a good fit for manufacturing where exacting precision is often an important requirement and robots are used to improve quality while reducing the cost of labor.

The challenges typically found in the ‘deliver’ side, however, often require flexibility rather than exacting precision and the traditional manufacturing robots have not been a good fit. We now see new robotic concepts being developed that are about to enter the distribution arena allowing organizations to improve quality and reduce labor in the customer facing half of the supply chain. I find this an exciting development that will change the way we design supply chains of the future.


What are the top challenges companies face when adapting new automated technology?

Bonkenburg: One of the main challenges I see companies face is addressing their outlook on capital spending and ROI. Many corporations require a payback of three years or less for new projects and this often makes it difficult to implement automated technologies.

I see this changing, however, as businesses are having trouble finding quality labor and now view automation as a longer term strategic investment. In addition to this shift in thinking, newer technologies coming onto the market will be more flexible in their finance models allowing operations to lease rather than buy robots or move them from site to site as needed to help keep capital spending lower than it has been in the past.

A second challenge is that what works well in one industry does not always work in another. Every supply chain and every distribution center is different. Just because a technology works for Amazon does not mean it will work for another company. Very often the C-Suite does not undertand this and tries to push in a technology direction that is not a good fit for them. Really understanding how the needs of your particular supply chain maps against available technology is key to making a good decision and getting buy-in from the entire organization.


Looking forward, how could robotics transform the pharma supply chain industry in the next 10-15 years?

Bonkenburg: I try to never predict what will happen by a specific date in time because we have been disappointed by technology projections in the past. In my opinion, however, the current trends will eventually lead to automation allowing smaller DCs to be productive throughout the day and night, faster service to customers, lower inventory levels and on overall reduction in cost.

Automation will continue to shape the supply chain and changes seem to come faster and faster each year.


How can pharma supply chain leaders prepare now for this future state?

Bonkenburg: We are on the cusp of a significant change in the technology being used. Much of it is interesting to think about but is just not ready yet for prime time use. Today’s supply chain leaders need to keep themselves continuously educated about upcoming trends in technology because things are changing so rapidly.

People in their organizations will be asking ‘is it ready yet?’ and ‘should we jump in now?’ Really understanding in detail and explaining to others the potential and limits of the technologies that are currently available will become an important skill. Salespeople and magazine articles will always make a new idea seem like a winner. The trick is to understand when it is ready for your industry and the direct value it will bring to your company.

RELATED: For further insights from Tom Bonkenburg, download the full interview