Companies are trying to address supply chain challenges by leveraging cutting-edge technologies including robotics, edge computing, and artificial intelligence.
The supply chain continues to transform—future-proofing an industry traditionally filled with disruptions and unplannable events requires thinking really far outside the box. Companies have stepped up to the challenge by integrating cutting-edge technologies from new robotics to edge computing to all things artificial intelligence. Here are some intelligent digital supply chain trends with significant influence on the industry and what’s causing these changes in the first place.
The digital supply chain we’re talking about here is supported, facilitated, and transformed by technologies. These technologies include artificial intelligence and machine learning, the cloud, edge computing, IoT, advanced robotics/cobots, and many others. These technologies have reimaged what is possible for the supply chain in the face of changing environmental conditions, global disruptions, and increasingly thin margins, thanks to a demand for personalization and flexibility.
The intelligent digital supply chain denotes a focus on connected data from all sources. Companies are using data to drive decision-making, and predictive analytics are helping companies avoid costly mistakes in inventory and operations. Additionally, a connected ecosystem of technologies and partners helps ensure resilience despite continued disruption.
This is not the supply chain of the last industrial revolution, nor the one from even one decade ago.
It may seem like everything changed because of Covid-19, but the reality tells a different story. Much like other industries, the supply chain has been undergoing a digital transformation thanks to the digital age. Covid-19 merely accelerated these changes by creating an ultimatum. Companies that can adapt quickly and act proactively will survive. Those that cannot restructure quickly to meet challenges and continue to react to disruption will not.
Other changes to the environment the supply chain serves have also driven the push for digital transformation:
- Generational expectations have changed: Millennials and Gen Z catch a lot of heat for destroying businesses, but they’re merely signal fires. The world before the internet is long gone. Today, companies must provide the transparency required for consumers to believe in their mission—not just their products. They need to offer real value to customers that demand more personalization and tolerate less wait time.
- The products and the supply chain itself are more complex: Companies may source materials from all over the world to create a product that then becomes a core component of a different product. This has made supply chains a web of intricacy with third and even fourth-party vendors occupying the space. Globalization offers so much opportunity but an equal amount of complication.
- Shorter product lifecycles: Competition is fierce. One solution is continuous innovation, which shortens product lifecycles. Companies have accelerated digital transformation to be able to accurately predict demand and control inventory better because margins are even tighter.
These are trends happening in the intelligent digital supply chain.
To be fair, artificial intelligence isn’t a new trend. However, many companies call simple automation tools “AI” when it isn’t. We’re talking about applying self-learning artificial intelligence to aspects of the supply chain that work in collaboration with human operators. The real trend is super-scaling AI applications to do everything from fleet management and optimization to leveraging augmented reality for smart robotics.
Supply chain companies are leveraging digital twins to essentially “play” with the components that make up their complex ecosystem. The mirrored world allows humans to alter different inputs and scenarios, and AI can predict the outcome based on those changes. This helps companies make better decisions proactively instead of waiting around to find out they’re in the middle of a disruption.
Digital literacy and data democratization
Companies that create technology have a hard enough time keeping talent. Companies in traditional industries have even more of a challenge attracting the talent they need to deploy and monitor these technological solutions. Companies could begin pushing their general workforce towards greater digital literacy as a result. They’re beginning to deploy technologies that abstract the back end and automate many repetitive tasks to ensure that data continues to flow. According to a recent survey, 19% of companies are focusing on digital upskilling and reskilling of current employees. This figure has a strong chance of continuing to grow as more companies realize how valuable this growth is.
Focus on decisioning
Companies are also employing cutting-edge technologies that support humans as they make faster, more accurate, and more efficient decisions. Continuous innovation, shortened product lifecycles, and a complex supply chain create conditions that require humans to make more decisions faster. Decisioning technologies will become more common as companies look for ways to receive the pressure of thin margins, improve customer experiences, and optimize every facet of the supply chain.
The sensationalized coverage of cryptocurrencies aside—blockchain can help complex supply chains maintain transparency and provide immutable records for regulatory compliance. It can record the progression of assets, provide consumers with a clear picture of where their products come from, and allow manufacturers to monitor materials despite globalization and increased complexity.
The supply chain may be complex, but technology has created solutions for some of the biggest challenges facing it today. After the pandemic disruptions of 2020 and beyond, companies understand that failing to transform digitally will have disastrous effects on their bottom line and potential for survival.
Most companies are ready and willing to invest big in the technologies that make the supply chain more manageable and more productive. In addition, an increasing number of companies are coming on board to provide the necessary training/retraining of their employees to meet the needs of today’s intelligent digital supply chain. There’s a lot to watch for in the coming years, and change isn’t going to slow down—not with the new normal here to stay.