Supply chain management plays an increasingly critical role in our connected, global economy. As supply chain logistics have grown in stature, so have the technologies that have revolutionized the industry — and they stand on the cusp of revolutionizing it again.
Here are six essential technologies for Supply Chain Management — present and future — that supply chain professionals need to be aware of.
1. Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence plays an increasingly important role in supply chain management for its ability to automate, expedite, and streamline projects. We’re already seeing the impact of AI in route planning, demand planning, automated picking, and robotic last-mile delivery.
Artificial intelligence is a category of tech that can perform tasks usually done by humans, but can perform them better, faster, and more accurately than any one human could.
Machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence, deploys algorithms that get better and better the more input they receive — “learning” from past inputs, in a sense. An example would be AI supply planning that takes into account historic supply needs and seasonality to make better and better predictions.
Autonomous vehicles, like self-driving trucks and delivery drones, have loomed on the horizon as the “future of logistics” for years, but the technology needs a lot more work and probably represents the future of logistics, not the present.
2. Digital Twins
Twin technology was first conceived by NASA to solve a basic problem — how do you troubleshoot equipment that is in outer space, far behind the reach of technicians’ hands? Twin spacecraft technology helped NASA save the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts, by simulating the conditions of the spacecraft with twin equipment.
Digital twin technology takes this concept into the digital realm, creating an exact copy of a product or a process in a digital environment using complex data analysis. An exact digital reproduction can be a valuable tool for troubleshooting, testing, and heading off problems before they occur.
Logistics industry professionals can make digital twins of warehouse facilities to experiment with new equipment and layout changes. They can also make digital twins of the products themselves, as well as their packaging, to identify weaknesses and make improvements.
3. Internet of Things (IoT)
IoT devices are devices that connect to the internet. The Internet of Things was said to have come into existence when there were more objects connected to the internet than there were people who browsed the internet using traditional PC and mobile browsers.
IoT devices have made the biggest impact in their ability to facilitate supply chain visibility.
Successful logistics companies have eyes on their supply chains. After all, anything can happen between Point A and Point B.
Supply chain visibility is the science of knowing what has happened to a product at each stage of its journey through the supply chain — or better yet, knowing what might happen before it does happen, to take corrective action.
The frontier of supply chain visibility is real-time supply chain visibility — the ability to know what has happened to products as soon as it happens. This gives logistics providers the ability to respond as quickly as possible to fix problems.
IoT devices help logistics experts maintain real-time supply chain visibility. IoT devices can tell users where products are, what condition they are in, and what external conditions they might be subjected to in the near future.
4. Data Loggers
Data loggers play an increasingly important role in supply chain visibility, especially now that IoT data loggers have become more common.
A data logger records data about ambient conditions where the data logger is installed. They consist of a sensor, a processor, and a data drive. The sensor records the condition, and the processor writes that data on the storage drive with a timestamp. This record tells you the condition the products were kept in at any given time.
Conditions that data loggers can measure include temperature, humidity, and pressure. They are essential devices for highly-regulated industries like pharmaceuticals and aerospace, whose products must be manufactured, transported, and stored within strict parameters.
IoT data loggers take this kind of automated record-keeping to the next level by enabling real-time supply chain visibility for the conditions of the products themselves. For example, a product that must be kept refrigerated might be ruined if the temperature of a refrigerated transit truck suddenly rises.
A traditional data logger can tell you when the temperature rose, but not in time to save the product. An IoT data logger, on the other hand, can use its internet connectivity to notify logistics professionals of the aberrant condition immediately, possibly in time to save the shipment.
Dickson explains here that data loggers play an important role in monitoring all types of sensitive products.
5. Advanced Analytics
In the past, logistics companies have siloed their data, keeping it in whatever formats they desired. This method of data siloing is rapidly becoming obsolete–companies know that data integration allows supply chains to eliminate inefficiencies, cut costs, and improve deliverables.
The ability to use advanced data analytics to track supply chain data, using AI to extract insights from the data, has instigated the push towards standardization and cleansing of data.
Cleaning and standardizing the data will also make it more viable for supply chain logistics companies to adopt blockchain technology.
While indelibly associated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, blockchain, which was released in tandem with Bitcoin and made Bitcoin possible, has far bigger implications.
Blockchain technology creates a secure ledger of data dispersed across multiple computers, making it almost impossible to falsify. This makes it an ideal platform for the validation of transactions.
Blockchain will probably play a bigger role in the future of supply chain logistics than it does in its present form, but several major logistics companies, as well as ambitious startups, are hard at work to make blockchain logistics validation a reality.
Whatever new technologies come into play for supply chain logistics, the ones that stand the test of time will increase operational efficiency, reduce costs, improve quality, and ensure a continued flow of goods and services worldwide.