The Modern Supply Chain

Drone flying holding a delivery box

Technology is continuously advancing by the second every day. While its impacts are felt by all industries, one in particular may be facing a total technological transformation; the supply chain. In a white paper entitled “New Supply Chain Technology Best Practices (The Application of New Technology in the Physical Supply Chain),” by The Global Supply Chain Institute (University of Tennessee Haslam College of Business), five modern and innovative technologies are analyzed for their effects on the supply chain industry. These technologies are explored based on their current applications in the world, where they might lead in the future, their benefits to supply chains as well as what obstacles they may face before a wide-scale rollout.

The Tech to Come

The five technologies investigated are drones, robotics, wearable technology, additive manufacturing (3-D printing) and driverless vehicles. All of these innovations suggest serious changes to supply chains, with both monumental risks and rewards. One thing is made undoubtedly clear in the article’s findings; companies are well advised to keep up, as every new technology proposes a potentially substantial disruption in competition. Most experts seem to believe robotics will have the greatest impact, followed closely by drones and autonomous trucks. As far as rollouts of these technologies, it seems to be a consensus that the technology is being developed at a far faster pace than supply chains will be able to implement them. For the time being, experimentation has been a significant portion of what we hear about in the mainstream news, with countless big-name companies testing the latest advances like Amazon, UPS, Apple and more.

Special Delivery

Regarding drones, the applications seem endless; from customer delivery to disaster relief and even a special pizza delivery in 2016. Their capabilities have also extended to inventory, inspection, yard management and repair services. They do however propose problems including battery life, safe deliveries, and weather conditions. Robotics, while not a new technology, has advanced supply chains in new ways. Most experts believe robotics to be the most useful of the five technologies covered because of its broad spectrum of applications. Like drones, consumer deliveries by robots are being experimented, but robotics seem to be making great strides in order picking. While many of these robotic advancements leave room for collaborative work with humans, one of the biggest setbacks is still the fear and mistrust of robots.

New Accessories

Wearable technology also presents an opportunity for impact in supply chains. This article separates the broad topic into smart glasses, wrist devices, tablet-like devices and clothing sensors. Smart glasses may combine augmented or virtual reality technology to connect people to inventory or warehouses to which they might not otherwise have access. These technologies may streamline order picking and allow virtual engineering design. They also motivate gamification of the workplace (seen as a negative by some experts.) There is also a major concern for personal privacy, comfort, and theft.

Print it on the Way

Additive manufacturing or 3-D printing has been around longer than presumed, but its effect has not yet broadly impacted the supply chain. While it has become revolutionary by printing everything from body parts to sneaker soles, the article specifies that speed, materials, and cost will play a vital role in how its supply chain evolution transpires. Some experimentations and possibilities for 3-D printing for the supply chain include the printing of products in route, quickly created repair parts, mass customization, and personalization and even 4-D printing options. There are also “ultra-futuristic” concepts that the ability to print any product, anywhere will eliminate the supply chain altogether.

Driverless Deliveries

Driverless vehicles have immense potential to improve productivity, fuel use, delivery times and flow of goods. The technology has been around and continually developing for over a decade now, and experts believe its widespread rollout is closer than we may think. Experiments, mostly successful ones, are being held globally by some of the biggest companies in the game including Tesla, GM, and Fiat-Chrysler. There are however common sense barriers that must be overcome. Infrastructure improvements, such as street signage, are vital. Government regulation, reliability, and even cyber-security are all major concerns. The most obvious barriers are not only overall safety but a greater social acceptance of driving alongside autonomous vehicles.

Risk, Reward, and the Future Supply Chain

All five of these technologies come with their own unique, but overall similar risks and rewards. Which, if not all, that become mainstream parts of the supply chain are up for debate; however, this article suggests a clear step-by-step process for companies to ensure they don’t get left behind by the competition. The suggestion is clear; embrace the changes coming and the enormous opportunities they present. The supply chain is an industry that can greatly benefit from the experimentation and probable utilization of these new advancements, and all the ones yet to come.


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