During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have found themselves among the bare supermarket shelves and a critical worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment. The shortage of toilet paper seemed a bit funny while looking at it on the TV, however, this opened up a broader, much more complex issue tightly connected to the supply chain industry. Supply chain companies had very little to almost no time to fully address new logistics disruptions, sudden swings in demand and rewire their entire supply chain operations with the adaptation to new supply chain innovations and technologies in order to embark on the journey to a more flexible and agile supply chain structure.
Supply chain inefficiencies and disruptions
According to the survey conducted by WHO (2020), the global supply chain is experiencing a big challenge to keep smooth supplies of food and medical instruments including masks and medicine highly required for the treatment, protection, and control of the pandemic. Based on a Deloitte survey, the blockage of both people and material movement, slashing of costs, lower inventory levels, and drive up asset utilization has disrupted every supply chain company in the world. It is a huge challenge to keep global supply chains of essential goods going while some parts of the chain have stopped operations during the pandemic. The global pandemic has convincingly illustrated how many companies, as well as people, are not fully aware of the vulnerability of their supply chain relationship to global shocks.
It has become apparent that the supply chain industry will never return to the old “status quo”. In the second quarter of 2020, McKinsey research surveyed 60 senior supply chain executives on the impact of the pandemic on their supply chain operations and their future plans to make the supply chain more flexible and agile with the use of supply chain innovations and supply chain technologies. Like any other crisis, COVID-19 was able to lay bare the weaknesses of the supply chain industry, which is now working overtime to address and fix them for the future. The McKinsey research revealed that 100 % of the respondents faced major problems with production and distribution. A whopping 85 percent of respondents struggled with inefficient digital technologies in their supply chains. The need to increase the level of resilience with the use of supply chain innovation and supply chain technology is unavoidable, as 90 % of respondents state that the plan to increase the amount of digital supply-chain talents has been firmly put in place for 2021.
The supply chain industry is one of the more complex and dynamic industries out there, and it has never been so important for it to adopt an agile approach in order to keep the supply chain “upfloat”. Changes in business models and the use of both new supply chain innovations and supply chain technologies have led to more new relationships and updates of the existing supply chain structures and operations.
Despite the fact that the global pandemic continues to place an unprecedented strain on the supply chain, it has also hastened the introduction and widespread acceptance of the use of new supply chain technologies, which have greatly helped out many logistics and transportation companies around the world in terms of supply chain innovation and improving overall transformation of the supply chain operations. Innovative practices and solutions for supply chain resilience that have emerged during the last couple of months of the global COVID-19 pandemic are (re)shaping the future of the supply chain. With so many unprecedented changes that keep hitting the supply chain industry, the application of new supply chain technologies builds a certain level of resilience of the supply chain industry for the future in the wake of the “new reality”, as companies are beginning to understand the need for technological innovation and are transforming their operations accordingly.
10 supply chain technologies and innovations to watch in 2021
The ongoing pandemic keeps testing, challenging, as well as inspiring companies to consider bold moves in rebuilding their supply chains for the future. In this article, we take a look at the 10 supply chain innovations and supply chain technologies that will continue to shape the industry in the future.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term used to describe the network of actual objects that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging information with other devices over the Internet. The IoT technology has already displayed the capacity to revolutionize the supply chain industry, and it will continue to expand its impact in the years to come.
The implementation of this technology has the ability to monitor supply chain operations and infrastructure in terms of storage, as well as being able to improve the workflow and reduce supply chain costs. Furthermore, with the implementation of IoT, supply chain companies have the opportunity to improve manufacturing, transportation, and utility organizations with the use of sensors and other IoT devices, which can be accessed at any time on any device, authenticate the location of goods, track the speed of movements of the sent out goods, as well as locate them with complete accuracy. IoT also improves the transfer of data and quality of business services, therefore reducing the need for human intervention. The use of IoT coupled with smart sensing devices could help communication and material tracking with high accuracy and free of noises such as human error, workforce shortage, cramped budget, early identification of issues with goods getting lost, real-time shipment tracking, adverse weather conditions, and other environmental factors.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning have been the front runners in terms of supply chain innovations during the pandemic, helping supply chain companies drive automation, promote efficiencies, and providing them with advanced analytics.
In the supply chain realm, companies have rapidly begun to expedite the utilization of both artificial intelligence and machine learning. The biggest advantage of AI and Machine learning platforms is the ability to ingest massive amounts of both historical, as well as real-time streaming data. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have accelerated product delivery, for example, to take advantage of better pricing or availability.
Probably one of the most talked-about technologies of 2020, besides video conferencing platforms, the fifth generation of wireless technology — also called 5G — will reshape the future of the supply chain industry with more and more devices having the ability to become a part of the “Internet of Things”.
Throughout the supply chain process devices will produce an incredibly rich data stream, which will send real-time signals in order to trigger a wider variety of events with the use of 5G that enables exponentially increasing download and upload speeds.
Autonomous vehicles will be the next frontier in the supply chain realm, as more and more companies have been literally pouring money into their development. Now, we are still a bit removed from seeing fleets of um-manned delivery vehicles cruising our highways, but companies have been putting autonomous vehicles to the test as far back as 2016, and the testing of new and improved solutions continues at an increasing pace. Forbes magazine predicts that the first autonomous vehicle fleet will be ready to “hit the road” in 2024 at the latest.
In the first stages of autonomous vehicles, supply chain companies will most likely set their focus on delivering across targeted lanes for selected clients. While there is still plenty of uncertainty and questions regarding the widespread use of this technology, its potential benefits for the transport and logistics industry are so vast that it will certainly remain one of the strongest drivers of innovation in this area.
Automated robotic storage
Automated robotic storage is basically a form of a robotic shuttle system, a hybrid between a traditional shuttle system and a free-roaming robot if you will.
The technology has already seen limited utilization in a number of companies, and it will only become more widely used across the supply chain field. There is a wide range of companies that provide automated robotic storage solutions for supply chain companies in different categories. All of these companies offer the benefit of high storage density and a high degree of flexibility due to the dynamic movement of bots. Automated robotic storage provides supply chain companies with agility and increases the overall productivity potential of the workflow.
The term “supply chain control tower” has earned plenty of buzz throughout the pandemic-affected 2020. In essence, it is a centralized information system — a cloud-based platform that integrates ERP, WMS, and TMS systems, as well as a variety of other operational information in order to provide operational control across all areas of the supply chain.
By turning raw data into actionable insights, control towers offer an unprecedented level of control and adaptability to any disruptions to the supply chain. Aside from providing full track-and-trace visibility of shipments, these insights help organizations optimize their operations, reduce costs, and respond promptly to a variety of challenges. In an industry where even the most marginal percentile savings amount to a lot, harnessing data in order to inform operational improvements will continue to play a major part.
Robotic process automation (RPA) provides automation of processes, which are otherwise executed manually and have very little if not zero room for errors and anomalies in its process.
RPA in Supply Chain is set to have a drastic impact in terms of productivity, efficiency, and accuracy on the business processes industry. RPA will allow supply chain organizations to (re)train employees for problem-solving work, instead of repetitive robotic tasks. A recent research report by Information Services Group says about 72% of companies will use RPA to automate support tasks. Furthermore, the use of RPA results in a 43 % time reduction for tasks such as billings, collection, and credit. However, the overall implementation of RPA in the supply chain field has been rather slow, but each week more supply chain companies are turning to the automation of the workflow to increase efficiency and accelerate their processes.
Blockchain is not a new technology, emerging back in 2016. Blockchain technology allows data to be stored globally on thousands of servers, providing its users with a more efficient way to share information between businesses, as well as allowing real-time data visibility, transparency, and immutability. Perhaps most importantly, it makes the transfer of data more secure and extremely hard to hack.
In terms of the supply chain, blockchain provides its users with a complete history of a product, as it can contain proper documentation of every transaction from start to finish, making every product traceable through different business processes during the whole journey of a product, from factory to the customer. Furthermore, according to the KPMG News, supply chain technologies such as blockchain improve the speed and ease of measuring and reporting on carbon emissions, while enhanced data management allows suppliers to calculate emissions with greater accuracy and transparency.
Another brilliant technological innovation that provides its clients with an efficient way to achieve automation besides AI and robotics are smart contracts. Smart contracts are basically transaction protocols, which are meant to execute when certain conditions are met automatically.
For the supply chain industry, the adoption of smart contracts could mean automatically generating an invoice when the shipment reaches the destination or conducting financial transactions between parties. More and more businesses across the board are using smart contracts to settle different kinds of payments using cryptocurrencies automatically. The process of smart contracts makes transactions much faster as there is no need for arbitration from a trusted party.
Having real-time data available is a critical, yet competitive advantage in the supply chain realm. Essentially, a digital twin is a virtual supply chain replica that consists of hundreds of assets, from warehouses, logistics, and inventory positions. According to the Supply Chain Digital publication, a digital twin is a critical engineering and operational data which enables the use of big data analytics, such as planning, optimization, and predictive analytics.
Digital twin technology is gaining more traction during the COVID-19 pandemic due to improvements in technical and computational capabilities with operations technology. The real advantage of using a digital twin is the fact that it covers the full asset lifecycle, transforming the data into a single repository for the information needed on both ends of operations and maintenance in the organization’s supply chain. Providing the supply chain industry with a key force that is digital twin will ensure improvements in supply chains in a variety of aspects — fro digitalization and increase of margins to operational performance and adaptability to crisis, such as further lockdowns countrywide and regionally.
To a more resilient supply chain industry in the future
As COVID-19 continues to force entire industries to rethink and transform their business strategies, supply chain companies and technologies are not being left out in the uncertainty and undefinable global disruptions caused by the pandemic, as we can witness nowadays.
The supply chain industry of today is unrecognizable from the one we have seen a decade ago. This is the direct result of the influence and adaptation of supply chain innovations and technology. The crisis has given the transport and logistics industry a unique opportunity to completely reinvent and reimagine itself to create a more resilient and agile future.