Supply chain technology is constantly (and rapidly) evolving. This can make it difficult to keep up with emerging supply chain trends and identify which ones might actually have a significant impact on your business.
While it can be easy to get inundated with too much information or distracted by the latest flavor-of-the-month tech trend, there are some new and existing technologies that are expanding their presence in supply chain operations. These five top supply chain trends could help you improve your operations in the near future:
Voice-based picking solutions have been available for decades, but recent improvements in hardware and voice/speech recognition technology have made these systems much more attractive — even to smaller warehouse operations. With voice-based picking solutions, employees carry small mobile computers attached to headsets that are used to both deliver audio directions and accept verbal input (i.e., reading location numbers or item numbers) from workers.
Like the other supply chain trends we’ve identified, voice-enabled picking systems can provide a number of benefits. Because the solutions are both hands-free and eyes-free, employees are able to complete tasks more quickly (which increases productivity). Voice confirmations result in greater accuracy than is possible with pick-to-light or paper-based systems. Because their eyes aren’t on a mobile computer screen or paper pick lists, employees can also complete their work more safely.
Heads-Up Displays (HUD)
Heads-up displays are related to voice picking in that they are a component of wearable computer solutions. Wearables have been around for a while, but falling costs and the media attention given to display systems like Google Glass have increased interest in these solutions.
Using a set of glasses or goggles, users can see digital information displayed in front of their eyes while they are working. Instead of hearing a voice command, which at times can be limited, or looking at a wrist-mounted display or truck-mounted display, they can see everything right in front of them, hands free without needing to be at a specific location. This can be especially helpful when planning the route to the next location in a busy warehouse or identifying a part with a visual instead of just the part number and/or barcode. HUD isn’t unique to a list of supply chain trends: These types of systems are also used in augmented reality (AR) systems that can overlay digital information (like measurements or repair information) on the object or area the user is looking at.
Location-Based Services (LBS)
The LBS applications most people are familiar with right now are based on GPS navigation on the road, but that is about to change. Device costs are falling, GPS is more widely available in mobile computers and consumer smartphones, the solutions are more mature, and there are open-source mapping technologies available. This will affect the supply chain in a number of ways.
– First, it will be even easier to track shipments at both the truck and pallet level, in addition to tracking employees and company assets.
– Second, for companies that engage in e-commerce, consumer purchases made via mobile phones and other devices will provide location insight that wasn’t possible before. Companies will be able to track geographic demand trends and help fulfill purchases using locally available inventory.
Now, with RFID and other IoT technology pairing with GPS, systems can track locations of critical assets and people with much greater accuracy and determine real-time movement.
RFID has been the next big thing in supply chain trends for a long time, but the technology’s integration with Internet of Things (IoT) functionality may help increase adoption. RFID allows identification of a specific item, somewhat like a serial number or license plate to identify each item. However, smart tags can also track temperature, movement, barometric pressure and even shock and vibration.
Using RFID, wireless sensors, cloud connectivity, and other technology, connected devices/assets can provide much greater supply chain visibility of everything from inventory levels to temperatures to more accurate shipment arrival time estimates based on in-transit visibility. This can be critical for assuring safe handling of food and potentially hazardous substances.
In a world where returnable assets, vehicles, and products are increasingly connected, it will be possible to improve inventory management, fleet management, driver safety, and supply chain responsiveness. Reorder requests could be automatically generated from a manufacturing plant or a warehouse without human intervention. Shippers could intervene more quickly if a load of produce is in danger of exceeding the required storage temperature. Third party logistics providers could more quickly redeploy idle trucks or trailers to improve service.
Warehouse and truck space is often managed via ad-hoc and reactionary processes. Goods are placed wherever it looks like they’ll fit, which doesn’t necessarily make it easier to find, pack, or deliver them. Space optimization technology will change that. Using advanced dimensioning scanners and measurement data, companies will be able to optimize placement and storage of goods in their warehouses and in their trucks.
New solutions are even available that can help employees more effectively pack goods down to the box level. These systems will improve efficiency and help reduce packaging waste for shippers. And, of course, smaller packaging can cost less to ship, at the box, truck or shipping container level.
Companies increasingly compete on the effectiveness and efficiency of their supply chain operations. Whoever can get the package there first at the lowest cost will win. Staying up-to-speed on these supply chain trends will help your company remain competitive now and in the future.