The Supply Chain Manager of The Digital Age

transportation management system with track and trace freight solution
Author PhotoBlueGrace Logistics - July 3, 2018

The supply chain has long been held as the lifeline for any company’s operations. It is the flow of goods and materials necessary for the company to continue to function and operate at peak efficiency. Because of that, supply chain managers understandably need the most accurate information in real-time about what’s happening within the chain. Armed with up to date data, a manager can make decisions about how to proceed in the event of problems, delays, and overall operations.  

Legacy systems that have sustained the supply chain for the past several decades are no longer valid.

However, in the face of new and disruptive technologies, the legacy systems that have sustained the supply chain for the past several decades are no longer valid. They lack the ability to provide the necessary end-to-end visibility required for high speed, lean operations. But it’s not just the tech that’s getting outmoded. Soon the position of supply chain manager might be a thing of the past as well.

“New digital technologies that have the potential to take over supply chain management entirely are disrupting traditional ways of working. Within 5-10 years, the supply chain function may be obsolete, replaced by a smoothly running, self-regulating utility that optimally manages end-to-end workflows and requires very little human intervention,” according to the Harvard Business Review.

“With a digital foundation in place, companies can capture, analyze, integrate, easily access, and interpret high quality, real-time data — data that fuels process automation, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, and robotics, the technologies that will soon take over supply chain management,” HBR adds.  

Making the Shift 

Some companies are already experimenting with different ways to make the shift into an automated supply chain. Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are already being used to digitize and automate the more labor heavy and repetitive tasks within the supply chain. While this applies to warehouse and distribution center mechanics, such as order picking and selecting, it also applies to front-of-the-house tasks such as purchasing, invoicing, accounts payable, and various facets of customer service.   

The use of predictive analytics is giving companies better insight into upcoming demand which is vital for shoring up in times of demand volatility, as well as making better use of in-house assets, and cutting costs for customer service functions without sacrificing quality.   

Intelligent Design Leads to Smarter Operations  

One of the big aspects of this technological shift is sensor data. The data collected can better monitor machine use and maintenance which can reduce downtime by providing real-time alerts on upcoming maintenance reducing the chances for machine breakdowns.   

Blockchain technology is also growing in both popularity and utilization as a means to radically optimize how different parties collaborate and communicate within supply chain networks. Instantaneous and complete data chains can provide users, end-to-end, with complete visibility of the entire supply chain process from initial components and raw materials to completed products slated for delivery.  

Transportation procurement should also be digitized in order to keep the pace.

Transportation Management Systems (TMS) will also be playing a role in the supply chain shift. Given the newfound agility of the digitized supply chain, it makes sense that transportation procurement should also be digitized in order to keep the pace. Many companies are looking more to 3PLs and intermediaries to find capacity and book freight, trusting in their systems to reduce the time and effort previously required to perform this task.  

As we mentioned before, robotics are seeing a heavier implantation rate for warehouse and fulfillment center operations. Rio Tinto, a global mining consortium, has been exploring automated metal mining operations for the past several years. This would make use of driverless trains, automated trucks, cameras, lasers, and tracking sensors, all of which would allow the supply chain to be managed remotely while improving safety and the need for personnel in remote locations.  

Less Personnel: More Control 

One of the concepts set forth by Rio Tinto and other companies who are taking the automated approach to supply chain management is the “digital control tower.” This is, in essence, a virtual decision center which is equipped to provide necessary end-to-end visibility in real time across the global supply chain. For smaller companies, these control towers have become the command center for operations. For those working in these control towers, it is their job to keep their thumb on the pulse of their supply chain, monitoring the influx of data 24/7 for any inventory shortages, bottlenecks, or literally anything else that could disrupt their supply chain operations.  

The control towers serve as the front line for a supply chain, allowing planners to quickly adapt, change, or reroute the supply chain to correct any of these potential issues before it becomes an actual problem. This works not only for retail companies but for industrial companies as well. “One manufacturer’s complex network moves more than a million parts and components per day. The control tower flags potential supply issues as they arise, calculates the effects of the problem, and either automatically corrects the issue using pre-determined actions or flags it for the escalation team,” says HBR.  “Similarly, a steel company built a customized scenario-planning tool into its control tower platform that increases supply chain responsiveness and resilience. The tool simulates how major, unexpected equipment breakdowns — so-called “big hits” — will affect the business and points to the best risk mitigation actions,” they added.  

Is This the End of the Supply Chain Manager? 

As more and more things turn towards automation, there is always the concern that human positions will be replaced and outmoded. This has, typically speaking, only affected the lower end of the spectrum, those positions that perform the menial and repetitive tasks. However, as the supply chain itself is becoming more and more automated, will we see a need for supply chain managers in the future or will they too be replaced by AI and computers?  

Rather than simply managing people to do the repetitive work, they’ll have to manage the data flows.

 Ultimately, the answer is no. Much like any position that could be replaced by a robot or a computer algorithm, there will always be a need for some human intervention. For supply chain professionals, this will mean focusing on different skill sets in the future. Rather than simply managing people to do the repetitive work, they’ll have to manage the data flows. Analyzing and interpreting the data to make the best possible decision when handling a potential issue. This skill will require learning how to make the most of digital tools, analyze and validate data sets, and make an effective forecast from the data provided.  

It will be the companies and the specialist who can adopt and adapt to the new technologies that will come out on top.

Companies will have to change their approach from the tried and true to the new order. Supply chain management, as we’ve known it from the past is on it’s way out. It will be the companies and the specialist who can adopt and adapt to the new technologies that will come out on top.  

As manufacturing and decision making become more automated, transportation will also be a vital area of focus for companies. Both the supply chain and transportation are in the process of evolving into something completely different from what we’ve seen in the past. Companies will have to adapt, and quickly, to these changes if they want to keep their supply chain flowing smoothly. While the digitization can help with that to some extent, there are some areas in which it will fall short.

A Vital Asset 

Third-party logistics providers will become vital in this disruptive era, helping companies navigate the shifts and changes within transportation logistics as they occur. BlueGrace not only provides clients with the bandwidth to create transparency, operate efficiently, and drive direct cost reductions, but our proprietary transportation management system, BlueShip, is free!  For more information on how we can help give you the visibility you need and adapt to the future, feel free to contact us using the form below: 


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