The modern supply chain is a showcase of up-and-coming, and truly disruptive, technologies. If you're a supply chain manager, you might be wondering where to start, how to prioritize your investment and whether these same technologies will still be relevant and delivering results a few years from now.
Below is a selection of some of the most important of these supply chain-disrupting technologies. These are big ideas with significant staying power — and they stand a chance of helping even modest supply chain partners streamline and totally reimagine what they do.
The global supply chain, and commerce in general, is practically swimming in data already. What we see now is every technology company, large and small, jockeying for a leadership position in providing data analysis platforms for customer relationship management and enterprise planning.
Since we're spoiled for vendors, the next questions are: "What data are we talking about?" and "Where does it come from?" Here's the briefest of summaries:
- Analysis of web traffic and keyword use yields marketing dividends and helps supply chain companies court new audiences and new partners.
- Analysis of internal processes reveals where things aren't running as smoothly as they should, or where additional personnel or infrastructure may be necessary.
- Analysis of facilities and equipment performance can help plan preventive maintenance and reveal wasted energy expenditures.
Whatever data you decide to analyze, make sure your collection is simple, seamless and strategic. Analysis of critical data up and down the supply chain is maybe the most consequential disruptive technology on this list. In addition to the performance improvements it helps uncover, data analysis also assists enterprises of all sizes in shrinking their ecological footprint and using resources more effectively.
The concept behind blockchain is a little tricky to explain — but its benefits for supply chain are crystal clear. What blockchain offers, fundamentally, is the peace of mind that all your inventory is where it's supposed to be, hasn't gotten miscounted and can easily trace back to its source.
Supply chain managers have done their best for many decades, using the traditional approach to transaction records, traceability and shipping manifests. What blockchain proposes is an immutable ledger shared between business partners. Information entered into this ledger — the nature of shipped goods, their origin point, stops in between, etc. — is visible to all parties and updated in real time upon the fulfillment of predetermined conditions. It is also unchangeable, except with the consent of the parties using it.
It's true AI is a little more "artificial" than "intelligent" right now. But our institutions waste a lot of their human intelligence on busywork and repetitive tasks — a perfect opportunity for computers to step into the fray, in other words. AI is a powerful asset today, but it will only grow in usefulness and relevance in the coming years.
AI helps supply chain managers find and predict patterns in purchasing demands and identify redundancies, which are instrumental in effective inventory management — especially across multiple locations or a complex supply chain with many partners. Everyday tasks in warehouses and distribution centers are far easier to manage and require less human "mental capital" as well, such as having an artificially intelligent warehouse management system that chooses locations for incoming freight, automatically, based on FIFO principles, environmental requirements, size and the speed of inventory turnover.
AI is the first step in automating any process. In the previous example, we talked about AI in warehouse management as a way to trim error-prone human decision-making from the methods of receiving, stowing and dispatching products to partners and customers.
Automation brings this concept to its logical conclusion with machines which navigate independently between process areas in warehouses, and production and handling equipment — including robotic arms and conveyor belts — that start and stop automatically in response to obstructions or other stimuli, or help rebalance the rate of production according to ongoing demand. Even venerable technologies like RFID aid automation by making it easier for unmanned equipment to perform intake and inventory counting without human intervention.
We tend to think of "robots" when automation comes up — and that's one piece of the puzzle. But automation is making its way into the back office, too. If we're a few years off from seeing robots run the average fulfillment center all on their own, we're much closer to having artificially intelligent business software automate responses to quotes from existing and prospective business partners.
As new technologies proliferate, the cost of adopting them inevitably falls. Pretty soon, we'll see the innovations named here crop up everywhere. That includes in smaller businesses, which comprise more of the global economy, and are growing faster, than you might think.
This tour has only touched briefly on a few branches on the technology tree. But as we've seen, each one suits a wide variety of processes and could soon serve a dizzying array of business types.