How do you prosper in an intelligent economy? Create an intelligent enterprise
We’re all participants in a global economy that’s not only interconnected, but increasingly intelligent as well. Cross-border commerce, logistics and finance — all previously discrete functions — often now take place through seamless digital networks. Their convergence has ushered in an intelligent economy, where cloud-based cognitive technologies shed light on opportunities to unlock value that never would have been possible, let alone perceptible, even a few short years ago.
Back in 2005 perhaps you read Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat — and if you reflect upon it now, it presents a remarkably accurate forecast of how technology and commercial businesses would evolve. Friedman’s insights on platforms that rely on digitised information to simplify communication and commerce anticipate where we are today: the intelligent enterprise.
Everyone, it seems — from schoolteachers, shepherds and songwriters to microbiologists, monks and even meter enforcement officers — is embracing predictive analytics to extend their capabilities. Industry, of course, is no exception. To draw insights from the vast troves of data they accumulate, businesses are turning to artificial intelligence and other cloud-based technologies and unleashing tremendous value in the process. As the intelligent economy takes shape around us, the intelligent enterprise has emerged as its engine — turbocharging growth, fueling collaboration and accelerating innovation.
The internet illustrates a perfect example. Even after twenty years in the software business, I still marvel every time a web browser completes my thought before I do. Or when I pull up a shopping site, and its suggestions get slightly less creepy as the systems improve. Or when a streaming platform suggests new music or movies, and I end up liking them! By remembering previous activity — searches that led to purchase as well as those that didn’t — these sites tailor algorithms to anticipate what we want. It happens before we know it. In return for this convenience, we reward them with purchases and loyalty.
What if business-to-business commerce were just as convenient?
For years, business-to-business platforms have lagged behind their business-to-consumer counterparts in their ease of use and predictive capabilities. But with the advent of cloud-based technologies, they’re rapidly catching up. Aided by cognitive technologies, digital networks are giving rise to the intelligent enterprise, where data-driven insights equip businesses to predict not only what their customers want, but also how they want it delivered and when they need it to arrive.
In procurement, for example, digital networks can anticipate bottlenecks in the supply chain and work around them long before they impede operations. These networks provide newfound visibility into data that was previously siloed, shedding light on unseen patterns. In addition, digital networks enable trading partners, whether located on opposite sides of a street or an ocean, to collaborate in real time on product design, operational alignment or joint marketing efforts. Moreover, by opening transparency into the operations of millions of buyers and suppliers, digital networks can recommend trading partners with compatible brand values. Does a potential supplier have the necessary governance structures in place to root out forced labor from its sources of raw materials? Does it boast a track record of responsible stewardship of natural resources? Does it award contracts to businesses owned by historically underrepresented groups? Digital networks cast a laser-like focus onto these and hundreds of other compliance-related and values-based criteria. In understanding them, businesses can act in ways that positively influence not only their own operations, but those of the world around them.
Yet as the intelligent enterprise takes root, businesses benefit from much more than efficient and ethical decision-making. They also profit from its transformative effect on their workforce. We all know that a company’s people propel its success. So when technology arrives that can liberate employees to perform at their highest level — relieving them of the mundane, tactical tasks that quite frankly bore them — organisations are wise to adopt it. In procurement, digital networks are increasingly taking on many of the manual activities previously involved with sourcing, purchasing, contracting and payments. As a result, more professionals can now focus on strategic priorities such as strengthening relationships with suppliers, pursuing innovation alongside them, and managing risk affecting mutual operations.
At a time when business has never run faster and our global economy is increasingly dynamic, diverse and interdependent, the intelligent enterprise provides the much-needed promise of a simpler, smarter way to grow and thrive. The most intelligent enterprises rely on connected partners and supply chains. Thanks to digital networks and the cloud-based applications connecting them, business leaders are creating immense opportunity for their organisations — and enabling them to spend better.
The author is senior vice president and general manager of SAP Ariba, the world’s largest business network, linking together buyers and suppliers from 3.8 million companies in 190 countries.
Upgrading RFID and Automated Track and Trace Solutions
During the COVID-19 pandemic, global supply chains faced the challenge of rapidly adjusting their business priorities to new customer preferences. Local supplier backlogs, winter storms, and the Suez Canal backup in March underscored the need for efficiency and visibility across the supply chain.
According to Christof Backhaus, Digital Lead Product Supply and Smart Label Project Lead at Bayer, companies must now place critical importance on tracking and tracing their products. “All large enterprises in the world dealing with finished goods,” he said, “seek functional and technical solutions to real-time channel inventory.”
Indeed, RFID’s real-time tracking data allows executives to make quick, well-informed decisions in moments of supply chain crisis - and rather than unfolding across days or weeks, it only takes a matter of minutes.
Why does RFID remain relevant despite digital disruption?
Essentially, RFID uses radio frequency waves to transfer data wirelessly between a scanner and a tag. In contrast to barcode technology, which requires a stationary scanner, RFID tags can be pinged from anywhere in the world, allowing companies to track real-time movement through the supply chain. RFID tags can also scan unique SKU numbers and distinguish between varying product sizes, colours, and styles: a critical feature for increasingly personalised end-user products.
Though the first patent for RFID tags appeared in 1973, higher accuracy rates, lower costs, and advances in sensor and data technology have made it newly accessible to a wide range of companies. Today, the technology is used in logistics networks, manufacturing and delivery networks in the pharmaceutical industry, and any business where efficiently tracking and monitoring product location is critical: raw materials, consumer products, cars, electronics, retail, and agriculture.
What are the key benefits?
Overall, automated track and trace solutions keep labour costs low, optimise operating costs, mitigate security risks, use capital effectively, and assist companies in adhering to regulatory requirements.
Below are three in-depth dives into how RFID benefits major industries:
- Pharmaceuticals: RFID tags help manufacturers safeguard sensitive products such as vaccines, tracking where they are and when they will arrive in real-time. Sensors closely monitor temperatures to ensure regulatory compliance. If anyone tampers with a shipment, the sensors alert the company.
- Logistics: RFID identifies process gaps and frequent anomalies by monitoring a product’s lifecycle from shipment to delivery. This data helps decision-makers predict the most efficient routes and therefore optimise their distribution schedules.
- Retail: Sensors help guard shipments against theft and provide critical intelligence when shipments go missing. Before adopting RFID technology in 2203, UK retailer Marks and Spencer relied on barcodes to scan inventory. When they made the switch, their productivity increased from a maximum of 400-600 items scanned per hour to up to 15,000 items scanned per hour. Building on their initial success, the retailer expanded the use of the technology and is still using it today.
Regardless of the industry, RFID promotes accuracy, immediacy, and efficiency. Companies reduce human error by automatically scanning products, keep track of inventory even in geographic locations with poor connectivity, and help streamline warehouse operations by identifying exact product locations.
Which recent innovations have changed the game?
With recent developments in cloud technology and IoT, a multitude of cloud-based alternatives have emerged to challenge traditional RFID technology. One of these cutting-edge solutions is Sony’s Smart Label - an intelligent shipping label that runs on AT&T’s global cellular network.
As with any good innovation, Sony’s proprietary technology started with a customer need ready to be solved: the Bayer Crop Science Division lacked an international IoT solution that could track seed products from start to finish throughout its distribution channel. Millions of dollars of revenue stood at stake, so Bayer turned to Sony to develop a smart label that would set the organisation up to manage its supply chain with end-to-end visibility.
Sony’s printable and disposable adhesive label allows companies to track the condition and location of their products worldwide and act upon the vast amounts of data it collects. The process is simple: the label activates when attached to the package, connects to AT&T’s secure LTE-M network, and sends data to the Smart Label Cloud in real time.
In sharp contrast to other smart label solutions that place trust in a patchwork combination of Wi-Fi, radio-frequency identification, and other limited coverage connections, the Sony Smart Label connects solely through a secure and universally-available cellular network. “Working with Sony,” says Robert Boyanovsky, the vice president of Mobility, IoT and 5G at AT&T, “we provide full visibility of every item shipped.”
Most importantly for companies on the edge, the Smart Label integrates with existing enterprise systems to achieve full visibility, thus adding value without disrupting supply chain process flow.
Why is this important now?
Companies that previously delayed introducing RFID and other automated track-and-trace technologies can capitalise on recent developments that lower costs, improve accuracy, and supercharge traceability.
Clearly the technology has value in today’s uncertain global marketplace, and can help decrease the costs of tracking goods. To quote Christof Backhaus, the Project Lead at Bayer, “the Smart Label indicates how much product is in the market, from the packaging line to the end customer.” Companies no longer have to spend a small fortune to take advantage of recent IoT developments. “Due to the technical composition [of the label],” Backhaus explains, “we don’t require additional infrastructure, manual scanning, or other expensive tools.”
Over the decades since RFID was first introduced, support for introducing it to company supply chains has also improved. AT&T’s IoT Professional Services Organisation, for example, supports companies through the end-to-end design and integration process--from installation to deployment and project management.
Companies that invest in traceable and visible supply chain solutions stand the best chance of survival, adjusting in real-time to natural disasters, shipping backups, and slowed-down supplier turnarounds as a result of the global pandemic. “Smart Label promises to help businesses like Bayer realise the full potential of the IoT,” says AT&T’s Boyanovsky. “[We can] deliver improvements in revenue and cost savings and make supply chains more efficient.”
Certainly, company executives will be hard-pressed to ignore recent innovations. In an age of uncertainty, RFID and its challengers herald a welcome sense of supply chain security. The next step? “Our sales team,” Boyanovsky adds, “is prepared to engage with prospective customers now.”