Logistics is an industry of paradoxes. It’s both evolving rapidly and stuck with some old technologies and manual processes. It’s ripe for disruption yet difficult to change. The supply chain is inherently reliant on cooperation and collaboration, yet it also struggles with silos and a lack of industry-wide standards.
But a cluster of inter-related and mutually reinforcing technologies is creating change. The four “BIRD” technologies — blockchain, internet of things (IoT), robotic process automation (RPA) and data science — are revolutionizing the way we move goods around the world. Knowing how to approach these technologies can be daunting for business leaders. The key is the development of collaborative ecosystems across the supply chain.
Blockchain enables the encryption of information from each stage of the shipping process in distributed databases, reducing the risk of data being tampered with or lost. The use of blockchain technology in the supply chain has the potential to significantly increase efficiency and reduce paperwork. My company has been running blockchain pilots in collaboration with IBM and Maersk, the companies behind TradeLens. We have been using blockchain technology to identify “milestone” events associated with individual shipments and sharing and receiving information about them with the aim of making international shipping transactions more efficient and streamlined.
However, widespread implementation can seem like a daunting task, in large part because different players are developing blockchain solutions outside collaborative ecosystems. The key to successful implementation will be industry collaboration. That’s why cooperation between industry players and the establishment of forums for joint implementation of standards along the global supply chain is a critical first step.
2. The Internet Of Things (IoT)
The internet of things, or IoT, is a system of sensors and devices that allow data to be transferred over a network without human interaction. IoT devices can be attached to cargo so that manufacturers and customers can monitor their movements at each stage of the shipping process, recording vital information, such as location and state awareness (temperature and tilt, for example).
Used in conjunction with blockchain, IoT can provide real-time information about the movement of goods, trigger smart contracts and enable automatic payments. Widespread use could greatly improve supply chain efficiency, allowing customers and suppliers to make more informed decisions about inventory and reducing the element of risk in just-in-time production.
3. Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
RPA — software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities that can handle high-volume, repeatable tasks — also has the potential to transform the logistics industry. RPA means that monotonous tasks previously completed manually can be managed by software, freeing up employees to take on more creative, varied tasks.
Through RPA, data entry becomes more accurate and paperwork mistakes are reduced, meaning fewer delays and, consequently, cost savings.
For tips on implementing cognitive automation, such as RPA, and for advice on how to pilot the technology and measure its success, take a look at my previous article on RPA.
4. Data Science
The term “big data” originally referred to data from multiple sources rather than just large quantities of data. As the number of sources has grown and gotten more reliable, data science has played a bigger role in more accurate predictions about how supply chains will behave. IoT is often a very important contributor to this data pool, with minimal or zero human touch needed. Rather than using arcane human-centric technology and processes to flag shipment problems in real time, artificial intelligence enables us to proactively (or predictively) analyze data to prevent the problems and bottlenecks occurring in the first place.
Despite the rapid adoption of data science seemingly underway, we’re still in the early stages of the adoption curve with the largest opportunities remaining ahead of us. The next stage will be validation and industrialization. The focus should be on setting up shared databases, allowing us to take information from multiple sources and make a common set of inferences.
Although large supply chain players are the ones that can currently take advantage of BIRD technologies, small businesses and firms are also benefiting from the wealth of new data and falling costs of innovations built to employ artificial intelligence. Major developments, such as instant financing, cheap cloud computing and automated marketing, have benefited the global economy as a whole.
To establish a truly digital supply chain, we must take an integrated approach to these technologies. Organizations should be aware of emerging technologies so that they can pilot the ones they consider to be the most promising. Findings should then be shared with partners to determine whether the technology should be implemented more widely. Companies must be willing to disrupt their current processes and stretch the boundaries in cocreation.