The Global Supply Chain Technology Outlook 2021

By Oliver Freeman
Taking a look into the technology outlook across global supply chain networks in the year to come; from AI to RPA, 2021 is set for transformation...

If you were at a party, did you know that the supply chain would be the life and soul of it? The drink, the food, your clothes, shoes, the furnishings, the music ─ each and every part of the experience has, at one time or another, travelled along a web of sophisticated supply chains to be there. 

One thing should be clear: since the dawn of trade, supply chains have been crucial not just to the party but to the survival of humankind, and we need them now, more than ever before. 

In times of crises, as we have experienced in 2020, courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic, the traditionally robust and stalwart supply chains of yesteryear struggled ─ that stark reality pushed forth a new agenda. The endorsement that industry-leaders and multinational corporations invest in technology to digitally-transform and enhance their global networks, creating more agile and resilient systems. 

Companies all over the globe heard this call and have, as a result, got to work on innovating new solutions, strategies and systems to alleviate the strains of a modern, highly volatile world, on our supply chains. 

With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at the outlook for 2021, to see which technologies will be transforming the old, and building new supply chains of tomorrow.

Analytics and Analysis

Where would the modern world be without analytics and the detailed analysis of them? In a ditch, I imagine. So, it’s unsurprising that “big data”, “data harvesting”, and “predictive analytics” are all set to continue their exponential growth through 2021. 

The information that your company acquires during day-to-day operations of your supply chain network will, undoubtedly, hold a myriad of hidden secrets ─ if only you’d take the time to look for them. Through the collation and analysis of data, both internal and external, you’ll quickly be able to identify money-sinks and pain-points where your overall organisational effectiveness and efficiency suffer. 

Artificial Intelligence

It seems that supply chain and artificial intelligence (AI) are almost synonymous, these days, with the enhanced technological capabilities of our computer-colleagues outshining, and often outworking human resources in the workplace. AI-enhanced technologies are allowing industry-leading companies to optimise and automate processes and procedures all along their supply chains. Why is this a crucial development? Because unfortunately for us, humans are prone to error ─ it’s in our nature, and nothing to be ashamed of. Computers, however, are not; binary coding and machine learning systems mitigate the risk of human error, whilst simultaneously streamlining and making processes more efficient. 

As AI can continuously analyse and calculate without pause, the technology is surefire to find patterns, better predict purchasing demands, eliminate redundancies, and optimise inventory levels across your entire supply chain. It saves a lot of time, resources, and to be frank, a headache for your employees. 

Blockchain Technology

Blockchain technology has been on the tip of the tongue of every industry-seasoned professional in tech for years, now. Its original ambassador, Bitcoin, was only a cryptocurrency but over the years, with the rise of blockchain-powered, decentralised platforms like EOS and Ethereum, blockchain has evolved into an industry-disrupting behemoth.  

With that evolution, a system that is wholly unique and incredibly powerful has risen ─ blockchain is, arguably, the very best way to protect companies and their supply chains from cyberattacks, hackers, and corporate espionage, courtesy of its decentralised, immutable, 256-bit encryption. The cryptology that only blockchain creators and few others fully understand has resulted in a system that is both ridiculously confusing to crack, yet easily accessible to all, and secretive in nature, yet wholly transparent. 

Internet of Things

The ‘Internet of Things’ or IoT, for short, is an innovative technology that, for the most part, has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. It’s in everything from smart devices to heating systems, and, currently, while it has broken into the supply chain network, it hasn’t yet reached the point of being an “end-to-end” solution. It’s likely to become one in 2021, though. 

Currently, IoT is already in use in some manufacturing processes, with smart factories and enhanced machines that communicate with the hubs hivemind, and it’s particularly potent in the logistics industry, where aeroplanes, freighters, and vehicles are fitted with sensors and live-tracking capabilities. In the coming year, we should see IoT grasp demand management, preventative maintenance and sourcing applications in the near future, as well. 

Internet of Behaviours 

As an addition to IoT, 2020 has seen a desperate need for ‘Internet of Behaviours’, or IoB. IoB is a lesser-known variant that focuses on using data to change behaviour. This is possible now, courtesy of what Gartner calls “digital dust” ─ the data footprint that we all leave behind us from our everyday use of technology ─ which can be harvested, analysed, and used to influence or manipulate end-user behaviour through feedback loops.

As we move into 2021, it’s likely that we’ll see organisations working with not only IoT but also IoB, as our methods of purchasing, as well as the supply and demand for certain products changes.  

Robotic Process Automation

Robotic Process Automation, more commonly referred to as “RPA”, is a system that, generally-speaking, creates value across the entire supply chain. RPA is software that takes traditionally manual processes, completed by human resources, and automates them ─ the clue is in the name, really. 

Naturally, as I alluded to earlier, we are prone to error; RPA implementation results in fewer mistakes, more efficient processing times, and costs a lot less than its human counterparts. It’s important to remember that the implementation of RPA is for the automation of tasks and processes, not the automation of jobs. The machines aren’t replacing humans. They’re just freeing us up for higher-value activities, and taking the monotonous tasks off our plate. 

Quite kind, really.

These are just some of the impending developments of 2021. There are so many more, and you could probably add to this list, yourself. I like to think of major technological developments that I have listed act as an umbrella ─ I believe that these five factors have hundreds of subsidiary advancements within them and that each represents a core pillar of the modern supply chain networks that our societies desperately rely on. Each will have its own part to play in the successful creation of a more agile, adaptable, and innovative supply chain system, in our bid to establish resiliency against future adversity that will no doubt come, like COVID-19, when we least expect it. 

For more information on procurement, supply chain and logistics topics - please take a look at the latest edition of Supply Chain Digital.

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