5 Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything in Your Supply Chain

In the logistics industry, we are inundated with news about up-and-coming technological innovations through the media we’re exposed to. With so much information available, it can become overwhelming when considering which technologies to consider looking into investing in for your company’s continued viability. While some of these new, innovative products are tantalizing in their originality, what can they do to tighten inefficiencies in your business’ operations in terms of addressing costly supply chain disruptions? In the list below, we will cover some big new technological breakthroughs, and relate them to the supply chain disruptions that they could realistically address.

The disruption: Costly labor, the driver shortage

The solution: Autonomous vehicles

A major supply chain disruption that the industry has been struggling to solve is the shortage of truck drivers that is affecting supply chains all over the world. Trucking is a crucial element to logistics, especially to e-commerce sales, because it often fulfills last-mile transportation needs. The scarcity of qualified truck drivers that logistics companies are experiencing is certainly on the list of major supply chain disruptors.

Source: Statista

Many industry members hope to address the problem with autonomous, self-driving vehicles. Once the technology is ready for market, logistics companies will have the opportunity to invest in the self-driving vehicles, eliminating the driver-shortage as a potential supply chain disruptor. It may be hard to envision the next yellow DHL van you see cruising through your neighborhood without a driver in the seat, but this scenario is not far from reality.

Trailblazing companies like U.S.-based Waymo have brought this fantastical technology to fruition. In a deal with Google, the company will implement its self-driving trucks into Google’s ground operations network.

The disruption: Time-consuming need to scan in items at every point through the supply chain

The solution: RFIDs

There are certain limitations to traditional inventory management that, until now, have not been possible to address. Even with the advent of barcodes in the mid-20th century, which enabled operations managers to scan items or pallets of items in at checkpoints through the supply chain, disorganization of inventory is still very common. Once it has been scanned in and stocked in a facility or warehouse, it can be difficult to keep track of. This means that the inventory needs to be reorganized before it continues on to its next location in the supply chain. This delays the shipments’ continued movement, a common cause of a kink in the supply chain.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology improves on the limitations of barcodes. RFID tags are small, radio wave-enabled devices, which are placed on individual items or pallets, connecting said items into a network that allows access to data about the item via a software platform at any moment in time. So, as an operations manager, you can see the GPS location of a pallet of goods without having to hunt-and-peck around the facility to find it. These tracking devices solve the problems associated with not being able to locate inventory, whether it’s a box in a warehouse, a container on a ship, or an item in a retail store. RFID tags can also track data like temperature — a huge bonus for perishable products like pharmaceuticals, which we wrote about in-depth in our blog, that need to be kept within a specific temperature range in order to maintain their integrity.

“The days when pallets or containers disappeared into the supply chain and — hopefully — showed up on the other end weeks later are long over, said Orlando Remédios, CEO of Sensefinity in Shipping and Freight Resource’s Executive Insights column.

Various companies have premiered their own RFID services that can be implemented into a supply chains’ operations. While barcodes are sufficient for many companies’ supply chains, companies that put a high emphasis on location tracking may find investing in the technology a worthwhile cost in order to evade inventory management related supply chain disruptions.


The disruption: Warehouse inefficiencies

The solution: Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)

Automation has played a major role in supply chain management since the technology was made available in the early 20th century. Since then, automated manufacturing processes have been incorporated by operations managers as much as possible, due to the obvious labor cost savings associated.

The 21st century’s contribution to automation will be Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), which refers to the technology that gives robots the ability to process information and make independent decisions. Enabled by algorithmic code, these innovations will forever change the logistics game once incorporated into industry players’ supply chains.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, have gained media exposure inside and outside the logistics world, utilized by both public and private sectors. In recent years, they have been used increasingly in government military operations, and have also seen success commercially by sale to consumers who enjoy flying recreational adaptations of the technology. Leaders in technology saw an opportunity to translate the autonomous flying vehicles into supply chain operations to address various supply chain disruptions that occur in warehouse scenarios.

Recently, some drone companies have piloted drones equipped with A.I. software that will change inventory management forever. When equipped with cameras, A.I.-enabled drones can perform safety inspections quickly and efficiently, scanning the facility perimeters to ensure the constant safety of inventory. They also have the potential to be used to quickly move objects around warehouses, replacing the need for traditional slower methods of transporting cargo, like conveyor belts. It’s also easily conceivable that they are used for picking and putting away items, using RFID technology to record inventory data in the process.

Logistics giant DHL predicts that these kinds of UAVs will require at least another five years before the technology is ready for widespread adoption, but the potential inventory management problems that have been previously accepted as unchangeable realities could potentially be solved once marketable versions of these A.I. products hit the market.

According to Accenture, these are the five fundamentals of Responsible A.I.:

  1. Responsible AI should be transparent (no black box algorithms),
  2. Honest (built with objective data),
  3. Accountable (liability lines should be clear),
  4. Fair (benefiting everyone), and
  5. Designed to support the business. From self-driving cars to digital privacy, these standards will be vital to AI’s assimilation into society at large.

The disruption: Time consuming communication via paper, telephone, and fax machine

The solution: Digital platforms

Over the last few decades, there has been a struggle to find a balanced dynamic between carriers and forwarders — a struggle that continues today. Confusion arose around the strategies of carriers who offered their own forwarding services, competing with companies that solely managed shippers’ forwarding.

If cargo is being shipped Internationally, the problem is intensified because of countries’ individual laws about the importing of goods. Combine that with the above-described cluttering of forwarding, and it becomes clear that there is a lot of room for improvement in efficiency in the forwarding sector of the industry.

The newly emerging customs platforms like SkySpace Cargo and Shipwaves’ software service aim to address problems associated with these processes by offering a platform that acts as a communication hub for participating supply chain members, eliminating a majority of the time lost with all of the back-and-forth communication. The platform allows members to communicate instantly — sending notifications to brokers when problems arise and cutting out much of the gap time associated with all of the back-and-forths. Some of the specific benefits that a well-established platform can deliver to its users include:

  1. Instant ocean freight lookup
  2. Transparent pricing
  3. Live ocean freight tracking
  4. Pro-active shipment updates & real-time alerts
  5. Customized consignee tracking view
  6. Invoices & Payments History
  7. Pre-shipment & Post-shipment documents
  8. Enterprise-ready: Multi-user access in an organization

Much of the above information in inaccessible to shippers who choose to operate their supply chains with traditional, paper-based processes. These advancements, while attractive to many shippers, may give traditional forwarding companies pause, for fear that this level of transparency with the client could potentially drive up competition up among forwarders. However, the digitization of these processes saves so much in labor costs that both parties should come out ahead when the application of these platforms is successful.

The disruption: Data corruption, reduces theft

The solution: Blockchain

Blockchain technology has remained one of the most talked-about innovations in the industry for years now, due to its success in the finance industry. For those who aren’t familiar with the idea of blockchain, it is a new approach to data security that utilizes the concept of open-source encryption to create a secure network for the storing of important data and information. Once data is input into the network, it is incorruptible, in-erasable, and inaccessible to hackers and data pirates.

The digitalization of processes and operations has had a positive effect on the logistics industry in many ways. Its sped up processes, reduced errors, and increased transparency between partners in the supply chain. However, it has also exposed valuable data to criminals who are privy to hacking — causing an entirely new set of potential supply chain disruptions for operations managers to consider. Any kind of cloud-based data-sharing software is somewhat vulnerable to some degree, by the simple nature of sharing data via the Internet. Blockchain encryption addresses this vulnerability by backing database systems with open-source software that acts as an impenetrable wall that hackers have yet to beat.

This all sounds great to those interested in ramping up data security. However, many industry members have begun to wonder if this buzz is just hype, as tangible blockchain products for the supply chain have been slow to come to market.

Finally, we are seeing some real developments in blockchain, with industry members throughout the supply chain experimenting with their own adaptations of the technology. E-commerce giants Alibaba and JD.com have both recently pioneered their own blockchain-based platforms, creating encrypted software that will facilitate the movement of perishables within their respective networks.

The technology is also being used to bolster electronic bills of lading. An article from Shipping and Freight Resource describes the benefits of utilizing the open-source system for recording interactions and associated documents, “with new companies like CargoX establishing roles as platforms where shippers can manage shipments, process documentation such as bills of lading, and settle finances using dollars, euros, and increasingly, cryptocurrency.” The possibilities are endless!

Continue to watch innovative software companies releasing their own products that will be available for implementation into logistics companies’ operations networks.

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