Supply chain execution goes mobile

By Freddie Pierce
Before you read this, check out the upper-right hand corner of this page to view this article in our digital reader. Trust us, it's way cooler! Wri...

Before you read this, check out the upper-right hand corner of this page to view this article in our digital reader. Trust us, it's way cooler!

Written by Claire Umney of AEB International

There’s a new kid on the logistics block - more and more supply chain managers are using their smartphones to manage their tasks. So far they have mainly used them to improve information flow around the supply chain, e.g. for transmitting tracking data and reports, or sending alerts as soon as a process deviates from the schedule. In most cases, the mailbox is still the supply chain manager’s main tool.


But Smartphones – such as Blackberry, iPhone and tablet devices - are, well, smart, and are capable of running complete operating system software. They provide a platform for applications, or “apps” - computer software designed to help the user to perform singular or multiple tasks. Some of the most popular applications are location-based (e.g. social networking or fitness-related applications), and those that use maps and transportation information.

These functions - control, tracking, messaging and timekeeping - are also very useful for supply chain management (SCM) and execution and have greatpotential for enhancing productivity, improving responsiveness to customers and reducing employee downtime. That’s good news at a time when customers’ expectations go beyond real-time tracking. Shippers of perishable goods, for example, require temperature controlled environments for their cargo, so the temperature needs to be tracked and recorded throughout the journey. The range of potential Smartphone applications is seemingly endless – from basic visibility and traceability via order and warehouse management solutions through to transportation management systems.

Let’s take the example of an express delivery. The driver arrives at the customer’s premises. He dials his logistics telephone server and types his delivery round and branch number into his Smartphone. Once the delivery is complete, he uses the phone again to record the delivery status. The system confirms his entry and delivery time and processes it. All details are immediately available on the respective platform via the logistic company’s interface, and all relevant partners in the supply chain can access it.

Smartphones could also prove an ideal solution for various areas of the freight forwarding industry, where subcontractors tend to change quite frequently. It wouldn’t make sense to issue them with expensive equipment to ensure live data accompanies each delivery, but the subcontractor could simply use the client’s Smartphone application and telematics solution to ensure uninterrupted supply chain information flow.


And because Smartphones have a camera, they can also serve as a more user-friendly version of the barcode scanner, reducing costs further (particularly for SMEs). But that’s not all. Built-in GPS and audio headsets mean that pick rates in the warehouse can be calculated via iPhone and pickers can be quickly navigated through the warehouse using voice instructions. 

Smartphones are easy to use, so theoretically they seem ideal for operational SCM activities. But their scope of use in operational supply chain environments remains limited so far. For example, they’re not yet perfectly equipped for certain warehouse operations, where more ruggedized equipment would work better. Additionally, they can’t be integrated with all systems, such as the navigation system of a truck. There are also growing security concerns over data manipulation on smartphones, due to the increasing amount of business-critical data stored on typical handsets.

Malfunctions can bring additional drawbacks. Most Smartphones are targeted at the consumer market and are not suitable for a number of logistics requirements. Damaged hardware would delay processes and be a risk to supply chain execution. Chances are, there will soon be special Smartphone versions for the sector, perhaps similar to the more sturdy mobile phones known as rugged mobiles.

These are some reasons why Smartphones probably won’t ring in a logistics revolution, if you’ll excuse the pun. So what’s the future of Smartphones in the supply chain? They’re likely to get a lot faster, and it will soon be possible to use them for operational research (e.g. on the cheapest carrier), or for performing specific tasks such as screening business partners against restricted-party lists. Apps will also enable supply chain executives to react quickly to operational issues, make informed decisions based on up-to-date information and take appropriate actions. There are other options, such as carrier management or freight cost control. SCM apps will improve our ability to manage supply chains from just about anywhere, as long as there is a Wi-Fi or mobile signal. The supply chain of the future is likely to be very mobile (and smart) indeed.

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