Using technology to build a transparent supply chain community
Sue Welch, CEO of Bamboo Rose, discusses how food retailers can use advanced end-to-end solutions to increase transparency throughout their supply chains
One of the most significant factors, if not the most significant one that contributes to a successful supply chain, is transparency. That’s particularly true for grocers or any retailers managing a complex food supply chain – with the inherent risks associated with fresh produce, it simply has to be.
Thanks to evolving consumer demand driven by a desire for higher quality products, more personalisation, a focus on sustainability and ‘ethical’ produce as well as the ‘need it now’ nature of modern digital consumerism, the challenge of transparency is more complex than ever.
Today, retailers must not only maintain visibility throughout their supply chain to ensure success, but also demonstrate a sense of shared ethical values to consumers whilst managing increasing regulatory scrutiny and a growing network of partners.
According to Sue Welch, CEO of product lifecycle management (PLM) platform Bamboo Rose, the answer lies in a strong, collaborative community underpinned by digital technology. “In trying to get up to speed with any challenges, and ensuring transparency and visibility, you’re only as fast as your slowest partner,” she says.
“Bamboo Rose is a true end-to-end product that starts with ideation, through PLM, sourcing, order management, global trade management and sales order management but, at its heart, it’s all about the community,” Welch adds. “Ensuring that strong community exists is how our technology helps retailers. By having a system where everyone collaborates on the same platform, everyone wins – that’s where you can really make huge improvements and drive down costs.”
Modern supply chains are incredibly complex, whether a business is operating nationally or internationally. Such an environment means that the implementation of innovative digital solutions, such as that offered by Bamboo Rose, are essential.
Gone are the days when products could be tracked merely by spreadsheet, or partners managed and contacted via phone or email. These archaic methods, according to Welch, make it all too easy for “things to fall through the cracks” because they are typically disconnected technologies used in isolation by partners.
Instead, implementing a digital platform allows for more streamlined and efficient supply chain collaboration, thus resulting in improved transparency. “To achieve that visibility, it’s vital to have a multi-enterprise platform,” Welch explains. “It’s no longer just about you; it’s about everyone in the community. As soon as you have everyone on the same platform you have records, validations and verifications that increase transparency. It’s also invaluable should something unplanned occur.”
One source of truth
Grocery retailers, says Welch, need ‘one source of truth’ whereby technology manages complex supply chains from end to end, increasing visibility and communication with all suppliers and partners to put transparency at the forefront.
Bamboo Rose’s digital B2B marketplace is an innovative platform that connects the retail community to offer benefits such as reduced time to market, increased efficiency, a system of record at every link in the chain and more. It’s a concept that was borne out of Sue’s previous experience in international sourcing.
“It comes from what I witnessed when actively working out there in the field and with suppliers,” she states. “One thing I saw very early on was that communication with partners in the supply chain was so fragmented and delayed that it was causing many problems in all areas of the supply chain. Building Bamboo Rose, it was really important for me to take into account all the differing needs and perspectives of those many players.”
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To give an example of exactly how that works in practice, Welch discusses a typical project that shows the scope of Bamboo Rose’s end-to-end activity. It all starts, she says, with the PLM phase and the product development – typically, materials, ingredients and so on. Based around the specific attributes of products or materials Bamboo Rose identifies any early-stages issues around compliance, cost or testing, for example. After which, suppliers are consulted to ensure that the best price – and best product – are sourced successfully.
“At every stage, it’s all about taking on the ‘heavy lifting’ and making it as simple as possible for the customer,” she adds. “Once suppliers are selected we handle the purchase order – by the time the customer has reached this stage it should already be very simple, reducing the typical time of getting an order out from up to 30 days to the click of a button.
“We monitor everything at the supplier’s site too, from receiving raw materials, product care, health and safety inspections and more, to give visibility of all those parties that are involved in producing, defining and testing the product. Once the product is ready to be shipped we’ll then manage carriers, booking requests, any problems with the order, commercial invoices and goods tracking, borders and customs and final project completion. Again, it’s about making it all work for everyone in that community.”
Transparency at every stage
The key, then, is about managing the minutiae and providing a solution that offers true transparency at every stage. The complexity of any supply chain means that the simplest of errors can cause significant problems, as Welch indicates in an example involving the US Fishing and Wildlife Service.
In this instance, one company produced an item that included a fake feather. When the supplier found an alternative source for the feather it became a real feather, a change that no other supply chain partner was aware of. The result saw not only hold ups at the border, but also concerns around possible fraudulent documentation due to no other parties being aware.
“If the customer were on our platform,” Welch expands, “it would have noted that a component supplier had changed during the process and would have triggered a response from us. In that instance, the one small error cost the company around $6mn.”
Legal and ethical compliance
Of course, it’s not only regulations that are driving transparency. Consumers today have a greater awareness of the implications not only of food safety, but also sustainability and ethically produced goods. It’s a simple fact that people are far more concerned with point of origin for their food products, requiring true end-to-end supply chain visibility that gives a detailed look at the whole process and the ability to precisely locate any problem.
For the latter, Bamboo Rose “creates a full supplier profile,” Welch comments. “It’s really important as a retailer to have visibility of testing and audit companies, data around workforce, human rights, safety of workers and associated legal and ethical compliance. Many of the brands we work with really understand the importance of introducing their sustainability programmes to the market and their consumers.”
The speed at which the retail sector continues to progress is formidable. And while change may be one of the biggest challenges for any business or organisation – particularly when introducing a supply chain-wide development – innovation is essential for ongoing success.
According to Welch, with a change in mindset it’s possible for advanced technology like Bamboo Rose’s platform to significantly improve visibility. “One thing we previously encountered was a retailer or supplier bringing on a new system, and only bringing it on for themselves. That attitude is a huge mistake and, as I’ve explained, success can only be achieved by understanding every partner in the community.
“There will always be challenges, but the beauty of technology is that you can easily filter out anything that can disrupt a supply chain. By having that platform in place, you can achieve true transparency – if you know something is authenticated or validated you know it can be trusted. It’s all about trust.”
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.”