This author has been writing and speaking on the significant impacts that the Internet of Things (IoT) will have on industry supply chains in the next five years. Physical devices such as sensors, production equipment, transport vehicles and other supply chain focused devices connected to the Internet, transmitting valuable data and insights, literally bring the notions of connecting the physical and digital supply chain closer to reality.
More and more industry supply chains have opted to outsource logistics, transportation and customer fulfillment to outsourced logistics and transportation partners and thus leveraging the potential benefits of IoT becomes a de-facto capability requirement. They also require broader vision among supply chain service providers for incorporating such strategies in their strategic planning.
Industry supply chain teams have gained significant learning from previously vendor hyped, single focused initiatives such as RFID, which ultimately had to overcome initial unplanned and unforeseen cost and technical infrastructure hurdles to reach compelling cost and operational benefits. The broader vision of cost-effective item tracking and data management was a missing element. Similarly, the context for the benefits of IoT itself need to include leveraging the convergence that is now occurring in data analytics, in-memory, mobile and software engineered systems technologies that are providing deeper capabilities at less cost than a mere few years ago.
Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Chris Power, Director of Product Management for Airclic. For those readers unfamiliar, Airclic supports the critical last-mile of the supply chain, providing a cloud-based proof-of-delivery and routing service for food service, retail, healthcare, third-party logistics (3PL) and transportation industries.
In our discussion, Power observed that B2C/B2B Omni-channel fulfillment requirements are presently driving profound impacts on logistics and customer fulfillment needs. More and more B2C focused supply chains are moving their focus toward increased requirements for cross-dock, sorting and service center capabilities. Goods are becoming more in-motion vs. traditional aspects of transport, store and ship. From Power’s observations, teams initially tend to seek more and more data regarding different logistical touch points, but “their eyes more often become bigger than their stomachs” when all that data overwhelms systems and people resources. That is often when Airclic gets the call. The need then shifts toward the broader need for making more effective use of data and avoiding data overload.
We discussed the notion that the term “big-data’’ may be disserving, and that a better term may well be what we at the Ferrari Research Group advocate, which is “smarter data”. Smarter objects that report on exceptions or abnormalities beyond a threshold provide a huge opportunity for managing the critical last mile of the supply chain.
Airclic advocates a three-stage maturity model. First is harnessing capabilities to gain more automated visibility. A second phase addresses managing exceptions, “tell me when there is a problem” vs. a hose line of streaming, overwhelming data. The third phase, one that Powers observes that few supply chain have achieved to-date, is predicting what is going to occur, especially in peak or seasonal demand periods when all resources are stretched. One example we discussed was last winter’s situation when horrible weather conditions caused noteworthy transportation and logistics delays, especially during the critical holiday buying period. Supply chain teams were often reacting to bottleneck disruption vs. anticipating such disruptions and executing alternate strategies that buffer or overcome disruption quicker.
However it is quite important to point out that the true benefits of harnessing IoT, smarter sensors and more predictive analytics within the physical aspects of products in movement is highly dependent on the ability of key upstream supply chain participants to have vision and commitment to invest in IoT, coupled with smarter data capabilities. As a community, 3PL’s, with the exception of FedEx, UPS or other visionary players, have not had a track record for investing in leading-edge technologies unless prompted and compensated by specific customers. In this author’s view, the time is long overdue for the broader logistics and 3PL community to broaden their vision and invest in such capabilities without solely passing the tin cup of customer donation. Leveraging the physical and digital capabilities is a service that will attract customers, and the economics for such investments will change for the better.
The time is now for bold vision and broader technology perspective across supply chain execution partner ecosystems.
Supply Chain Matters invites other supply chain logistics and transportation industry players to share their views on the business benefits of harnessing IoT, enhanced mobile, smarter data and decision-making capabilities for industry supply chains.