When is automation not appropriate?

By North Star Projects

22 Nov 2023

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Over the last few weeks, we have noticed that there has been a lot of media coverage on AI and the effects that automation has on businesses, how this affects job roles and what it means for the future. We thought it poignant this week to see Booths reverse its decision to install self-checkout tills. 

In one article we read by The Guardian it states: 

“Some people love the speed and efficiency of supermarket self-checkouts. But then there’s the not recognising your bag, the unexpected item in the bagging area, the surprising item on the scale, the point-blank refusal to scan something, the constant coupon confusion, and that’s all before the long – so long – wait to get your alcohol or paracetamol approved.

"Booths, a high-end northern England supermarket chain, is siding with the dislikers and has announced it is removing self-checkouts in the majority of its stores. “We’re not great fans of self-checkouts,” the Booths managing director, Nigel Murray, told the Grocer. “We pride ourselves on great customer service and you can’t do that through a robot.””

This is something that we at North Star Projects have spent so much time in the last 2-3 years delivering consistent messages to our current and prospective clients that automation is not always the answer.

In the fast-paced world of logistics, the integration of automation has become increasingly adopted as the right way to go. It, and the companies who sell it, promise enhanced efficiency, reduced costs, and improved accuracy (and to be clear – in some cases it delivers). However, it is essential to recognize that not all aspects of logistics, much like retail and grocery stores, can be seamlessly automated. In certain scenarios, human intuition, adaptability, and problem-solving skills remain indispensable. 

As a result, we at North Star wanted to further give some pointers and share our thoughts on when automation is not appropriate and hope that it’s acknowledged that just in the same way customer service interaction is important to a retailer, so too is the balance for human interaction behind the scenes.

So, when can automation not be the right answer?

1.  Highly unpredictable Environments

Automation thrives in structured and predictable environments. In logistics, however, some situations are inherently unpredictable. For instance, natural disasters, sudden market shifts, or unexpected disruptions can significantly impact supply chains. In these instances, human decision-making is crucial as it allows for quick adaptation to unforeseen circumstances - If automated planning was in place for the Suez canal, you’d get a lot of tankers trying to do a U-turn!

2.  Complex decision making

Logistics often involves intricate decision-making processes that require a deep understanding of various factors, such as regulatory changes, geopolitical events, and customer preferences. While automation can handle routine decisions efficiently, it may struggle with nuanced choices that require a combination of experience, strategic thinking, and contextual awareness - Sometimes the rules that are set need to change!

3.  Last Mile Delivery

The last mile of delivery is notorious for its complexity. Navigating through crowded urban environments, dealing with unexpected obstacles, and interacting with customers all demand a level of adaptability and social intelligence that current automation technologies lack. Even in the automation of driverless cars, a truck carrying cargo will need to have a way to deliver inside - One word – London!

4.  Sensitive or High Value cargo

Some shipments involve sensitive or high-value cargo that demands a level of care and security beyond the capabilities of automation. Human oversight is essential in ensuring the safety of these shipments, as well as responding to any unforeseen issues that may arise during transit - You can programme a machine to understand value, but not its worth!

5.  Regulations and compliance

Logistics is subject to a myriad of regulations and compliance standards (I Know, we’re sadly an expert in a lot of them!) While automation can assist in managing routine compliance tasks, interpretation of complex regulations and navigating legal nuances often requires human expertise. Failure to comply with regulations can result in severe consequences, making human oversight indispensable in this aspect - Did you know that despite being neighbouring countries and the biggest freight terminals in the world, you couldn’t fly goods between Qatar and Dubai until they signed a treaty in 2021!

While automation undoubtedly offers numerous advantages in the logistics industry, there are instances where it may not be the most suitable solution. Recognizing the limitations of automation and even semi-automation (e.g., drones and robots in warehouses) is crucial. Striking a balance between automation and human expertise is the key to achieving optimal efficiency and adaptability in logistics. As technology continues to evolve, a thoughtful and strategic approach is needed to avoid reversals. Whilst its fantastic to recognise when you’ve got it wrong, this will definitely come with a cost.

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