Top 10: Disruptive supply chain technologies

By Sean Ashcroft
From 'fog computing' and automated truck convoys, to robotics and 3D printing, the future's already here for supply chain, and it's very sci-fi

Disruptive technology is advancement that changes the way consumers, industries, or businesses operate. Disruptive techs have the potential to replace age-old practices. Few areas of business are seeing more of such changes than supply chains. These are evolving to become digital networks that are on-demand and always-on. As such, they have the potential to deliver massive economic and environmental rewards, boosting productivity and sustainability, driving new markets, and encouraging innovation.

As with all disruptive tech, choosing the right time to invest is a key consideration. Some disruptive techs - such as Industry 4.0 advancements (Internet of Things) - are more embedded than others (3D printing). But in ten years’ time, most of the techs listed here will have had a seismic impact on the way companies move goods from A to B.

Here they are, in order of their impact on the supply chains of today:

10. 3D printing

3D printing has come a long way since the early 1980, when it produced only plastic prototypes. Now, 3D printing produce finished goods from materials including metal, body tissue, concrete and food.

The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply says: “The 3D printer could be set to revolutionise future supply chains by reducing supply complexities, increasing the speed to market of products, reducing global impact by limiting the shipping of goods around the globe, whilst enabling the printing of replacement parts in remote locations. Whilst 3D printing is not set to displace mass production it will open up a world of product personalisation that could shape the demands of consumers.”

9. Fog computing 

We all know about ‘the cloud’ but what about the ‘fog’? This is a new concept that spreads data across multiple servers with no reliance on any single location. It uses virtual buffers to endlessly relocate data packets, meaning a file is never completely in one place. Such a network has the potential to make big-data analytics more secure and stable, because at no point is any given single piece of data in a single location. 

8. Autonomous vehicles

In a decade’s time, lorry drivers will be driving in an entirely new way. Through the integration of vehicle-to-vehicle comms and radar-based collision avoidance systems fleets of trucks will drive in ‘platoons’, using aerodynamics to save fuel. The lead truck sets the pace. The tech synchronizes braking and acceleration between pairs of trucks. This communication ensures lorries travel at a safe distance.

Platoons are managed by cloud-based network that connect trucks through mobile comms and Wi-Fi. Cloud-based supervision limits platoons to specified roads in safe driving conditions.

It’s hardly an original idea. ‘Platoon’ is just another word for ‘convoy’. In the 1970s truck drivers used CB radio to do exactly the same thing. There was even a hit song about convoys in the 1970s. ‘We’ve got ourselves a platoon’, doesn’t have quite the same ring, somehow.

7. Drones

The increasing demand for contactless deliveries is seeing drones being used to deliver packages. There are an estimated 20,000 drones carrying out retail deliveries today, and an estimated 500,000 drones are registered for commercial use with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US. The drone package-delivery market is expected to grow from $528 million in 2020 to $39 billion. Gartner estimates drone delivery will not only reduce last-mile delivery costs by 70 pacer cent but will also make the delivery process more energy efficient.

6. Wearable tech

Wearable tech are smart, hands-free electronic devices that automatically deliver information to the wearer. Connected glasses and clothing are becoming increasingly common in warehouse facilities.Companies such as UPS use wearables to streamline their supply chain processes and save time.

A recent IDC study revealed 160 million wearables shipped in 2019 -although 120 million of these ended up on the wrists of the general public, in the guise of smart watches and digital lifestyle devices. 

5. Blockchain tech

Blockchain is set to significantly change the way retailers and consumer-packaged-goods manufacturers run their supply chains. The universal need for secure transactions and the demand for transparency are already steering how buyers relate to brands. Blockchain is meeting these needs by guaranteeing the origin of goods, as well as the security of the transaction. 

4. Robotics and Automation

No longer the stuff of Isaac Asimov novels, robotics is revolutionising the supply chain and delivering significant value. It improves speed and accuracy of operations, particularly in warehousing and manufacturing. 

Robots are also helping companies increase worker productivity, reduce error rate, cut pick-, sort-, and storing-times; and increase access to difficult or dangerous locations. And with the current labour shortage - and people’s general disinclination to work in warehouse environments - robots are the last-mile workers of the future.

3. Predictive analytics

Big Data has long ceased to be a buzzword; it’s now a guiding principle of supply chain management. But having data and making sense of it are different things. Enter predictive analytics. This uses applied statistical modeling and data mining to give supply chain bosses a 360-degree view of the supply landscape. Research shows the decision making of high-performing organizations is five times likelier to be analytics-driven than intuition-based, with intuition being the habit of low-performing firms. 

2. Inventory and network optimization tools

These types of tools help businesses produce, store and distribute products more efficiently and effectively. Customer service is the watchword here, with all manner of businesses now demanding speed, visibility and transparency from supply chain partners with a view to satisfying customer expectation. Once mostly a retail-centric notion, ‘on-demand’ is now mission-critical for all companies, regardless of size, industry or position in the supply chain. Solutions that optimize inventory or supply chain networks are now de rigueur. 

1. Internet of Things

Not so long ago, complex supply chains were seen more a barrier to progress. But no more, thanks in main to the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is really little more than a collective noun for the billions of sensors that are embedded in various devices (within the supply chain but also the wider world, just as in fridges and cars). The IoT allows for data-exchange - both within and between systems - over the Internet, and can leverage actionable data from step of the supply chain. It’s now used for locating materials, servicing equipment and monitoring productivity and efficiency. 

Back in 2013, there were around 20 million smart sensors in use in supply chains, feeding live data back to those controlling supply levers. In 2022, that number is expected to climb to 1 trillion, and by 2030, Deloitte says 10 trillion sensors will be deployed



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