The supply chain of the Future - Part 2

Mega Farm 2040

· logistics and systems

Refresh: You’re on a remote farming operation in the Australian outback, this is the most technologically advanced farm every conceived. While asleep, wildlife is threatening some of your crops, and on route to disperse the situation one of your Ranger Drone called Darren is damaged needing of replacement parts. Emily is your Ai assistant running the show. 

To sort out the wildlife situation, Emily despatches a backup Robotic Ranger Drone called… err... Darren 2 or you know… R2D2, to finish off the mission. Disney, please don’t sue me. While this is happening the first Darren drone is brought back to base. Emily conducts an assessment determines that Dazza needs a new set of wings. Not just that, Emily is monitoring R2D2’s efforts and noticing he’s can’t get the job done on his own. Emily needs to get D1 back in the air as fast as possible. 

Two things happen, first Emily commissions your onsite 3D printing module to manufacture temporary replacement wings. Enough to get D1 back in the field and help the other Darren. D2 gets his new set of wings installed with precision instruments controlled via a remote link to your company’s support team back at the companies control centre. Second, an order is sent to you for approval. 

You are awake now, on your smart glasses you see a notification ‘pending approval for new wing order’; You approve, since you’re down to one drone if it’s not fixed properly. You send the order through and given the situation, this triggers an emergency process which looks something like this. A search is conducted of every registered supplier’s inventory to find Darren’s replacement parts. None are in stock; they will need to be manufactured. 

The manufacturer, also a state-of-the-art node, which takes raw materials and spits out made-to-order parts. In this case, your replacement wings for Darren 1. The order for new wings is received by the manufacturer's systems – let’s call him Bob – which then goes to work producing the parts. Once made, those parts skip being put into inventory but are still labelled for tracking with a tiny RFID chip, before being sent to the correct cross docking station. 

The order is placed, the parts have been created, the inventory is available, transport from the manufacturer to your farm needs to go via your companies Control Centre – where it will be loaded and flown out to the site. 

This entire travel plan is coordinated using a transport management system that creates a proposed despatch plan – let’s call it Tina. Tina looks at which trucking machinery to use, the status of potential weather dramas, the traffic movements of every vehicle on the proposed route (including forecasted movements), and when to load in order to coordinate as quickly as possible with despatches leaving from your companies control centre facility. Matching all load schedules between every node which needs to be used in the transport plan. 

The despatch plan is accepted by the operators on duty at each node (actual people) and the sequence is triggered. The order is picked by a robot, confirmed by a human, autonomously put onto a truck then signed off by a person. The truck drives itself to the Control Centre where it is unloaded by a robot and checked by a person before being loaded onto a fixed-wing drone for despatch to your farm. 

(5 robots, drones, or autonomous trucks were just mentioned). 

On the farm now, the package is picked up and brought inside the base where the standard procedure is for goods to be received, checked in, and unpacked – luckily you already have an RF identifier already implanted on parts so this process moves swiftly. D1 and D2 come back to base after a successful mission and D1’s wings are once again installed with correct manufacturer standards; the temporary 3D ones go into spares. 

Situation handled, you have both of your Ranger Drones back in action and can get back to the job of running Mega Farm 2040. 

After all of this has happened, the supplier of your farms Robotic Ranger Drones gets a report. Detailing what has happened, the associated costs, as well as the historical performance data from every drone which the company has sold to any remote farming operations. This data is automatically plugged into the companies creative computer brain which works out a series of design alterations as well as cost implications. An engineer approves these proposed changes, and all of this information – the issues, the design changes, the specific customer profile they apply to – is sent to a sales executive. 

This cost data and projected performance improvements are combined with the sales executive’s price profiles – applying a rate and margin, which is good for the company and palatable for the customer. After doing that part of the job, the exec is now able to offer you a lower risk technology. A Robotic Ranger Drone which now lasts three years in its lifecycle instead of last just two. This pitch is combined with a forecast of how much it will cost to buy the updated model now compared to holding on and doing so in the future. 

What technologies were used in the making of this story?

  • Drones:
  •  a lot of drones and robots (not the same thing I know) were used in the making of this story, they are cheap, small, and can be applied in a range of ways.
  • Manufacturing:
  •  facilities which hold resources and build to order, using small amounts of resources. This combined with 3D printing to get a solution sorted in a short space of time.
  • Transport planning:
  •  For each drone, autonomous truck, nodal movement, there needs to be planning. What happens on each site needs to connect to the rest of the world, hence the network is finely monitored, every vehicle on the road is tracked so that autonomous vehicles can function. The same as schedules are coordinated to maximise throughput of the orders being processed.
  • Ai:

 Each node has its own variation of an Ai. Your farm has Emily, the manufacturer has Bob, transport has Tina. The Ranger Drone supplier has … well, I didn’t include a name for their engineering and sales systems but they did have a computer at their company which was creative .... hmm three C's. And the exec deals with Purchase Orders. C3PO?!

  • Inventory:

 there are a lot of ways to track inventory, the cheapest and easiest is still bar code labels (or QR codes), but the means to label and track inventory is evolving. With RFID costs coming down, people not shutting up about IoT being the second coming or drones being able to image and monitor inventory movements.

  • Smart glasses:

 this was subtlely thrown in, a progression for how we interact with technology. 

You could probably have read all of this and thought… why not just let the machines and Ai’s run the whole world? They can do the job, can't they? Or… you might be wondering, when is Emily going to kill me?

The answer is building a super advanced farm in the middle of nowhere (or on another planet) costs a lot of money. Letting a system go wild spending whatever it wants is not going to keep you in business for very long – even if you give it visibility of the P&L the complication of making this work are just immense. Managing scarce resources, whether the investment is time or money or deciding the priority of investment, that’s still a person’s job. 

Did I basically just outline the plot of Moon while ripping off Star Wars? I don’t think so. I put way more emphasis on the process. 

The moral of the story, for those who didn’t get it (basically me reminding myself what it is). Is that even with all of this technology, I’ve emphasised that people still need to be in charge. Despite the scary size some of these modern companies are getting to (with infinite access to data and processing power), their machines shouldn’t be allowed to run wild. We need to be our own rangers here, fighting off threats to our rights, the right to exist without conditioning-influence, the right to know the value of things outside of our news feeds, and the right to sow the seeds of our own imagination for harvest in due time. Compared to that which is instantly gratified. 

Thank you for reading.