Between smart machines, A.I., and big data, supply chain management is steadily embracing futuristic technology. This is driven by a confluence of factors, including rapid technological development, a more strategic charter being pushed from the C-suite, and the realization that company-wide agility begins at the supply chain level.
Below are five of the most exciting technologies either already at work in supply chain management or soon to hit the market:
1) Big data
Data gets buzz in every market, but supply chain management is a field where it can have an immediate impact. David Wilkins, Vice President of Supply Chain at Raytheon sums it up well, “Our customers need us to “do more with less” – that means providing the most advanced capability at the lowest possible price. When roughly 70 percent of a program’s cost comes from materials, we know we can reduce costs by sourcing smarter. To do this, we’re using data analytics, collaborative technology and internal strategic sourcing.”
However, a challenge with data is framing your internal numbers into the overall industry picture. If you have a hard time sourcing and comparing new suppliers or evaluating your own supply chain, data may not provide actionable insights. An open platform approach can be useful in this situation, as it allows you to leverage the network effects of many data feeds flowing to a single source.
2) 3D data visualization
Unsurprisingly, data hits the list twice. Visual representations of digital sources aren’t new–3D glasses and the like can reduce the lag between design and production. Ideas can be quickly modeled digitally, then scrapped or advanced, enabling agility and cost savings. But what’s in market now is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Next-generation tools, such as the AlloSphere will allow for data mining along with the manipulation of massive data sets. The AlloSphere is a 30-foot diameter sphere designed for real-time exploration and analysis in an environment that takes virtual reality to an entirely new level.
Some aspects of this data visualization are already available for supply chain management, such as Flex Pulse, which provides live data and video feeds for potential supply chain bottlenecks. It doesn’t have the capabilities of the AlloSphere, but it’s a lot more collaborative than previous tools.
3) 3D printing
Many manufacturers and retailers are employing 3D printing to manufacture working replicas of parts and products using plastic, metals and other materials–drastically cutting the need for shipping. Entirely 3D-printed products, such as fly fishing reels, toys and iPhone cases, are also increasingly popping up. Fully 3D-printed cars may be around the corner according to a report from the World Economic Forum, Deep Shift, Technological Tipping Points 2015. In the future, you’ll be able to download a file at home and print a product on your own 3D printer.
The implications of on-demand production for the supply chain are huge, with positive environmental consequences in terms of reduction in transport, pollution and production waste. 3D printing can also reduce dependence on large factory employment, particularly in developing countries where resources may be scarce. Manufacturers can build new business models around the technology that can help accelerate product development, reduce cycle times and find new ways to reduce costs.
Amazon and courier services have already proved drones can deliver products. While exciting, drones don’t appear likely to play a large role in package delivery until regulations catch up. In fact, Amazon appears to be going old school with their shipping needs. However, in many ways drones are becoming the eyes of the supply chain as they’re increasingly used to monitor goods prior to shipping.
Drones can alert warehouse managers to low supplies or faulty storage conditions, as well as manually fetch goods significantly faster than their human counterparts. In the near future, drones may be as ubiquitous in factories as conveyor belts.
5) Artificial intelligence
The A.I. envisioned in a William Gibson-esque future is already here. Algorithms trigger supply orders and reroute transit routes to avoid gridlock. DHL recently opened an incubator in Singapore to study the application of A.I. and robotics in supply chains along with other emerging logistics technologies.
For all its promise though, A.I. also presents a unique set of challenges for supply chains, as detailed in this recent TechCrunch piece. As programmers set parameters for machine-administered decision making, regulations are likely to proceed slower than technological advances. Regardless, A.I. will continue to be seen as an essential strategic tool in supply chain management.
As these emerging technologies mature and become more widely adopted, companies who react fast will continue to outpace their more staid peers. Expect to see more Chief Supply Chain Officers being hired.
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