There has been a lot of hype in the supply chain world around emerging technologies, and if you listen to that hype, you may think our robot overlords are doing their work in such an efficient way that you can manage everything from your smartphone on the beach. But beyond the hype, real solutions are making their way into the mainstream that are helping cold food producers and distributors optimize their supply chains.
Three main technologies are making their mark on the supply chain. When referring to logistics and supply chain applications, we often talk about Internet of Things (IoT) devices, Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence (AI). These three fields have shown the most promise and are poised to transform even the simplest of processes, more so with highly complex supply chains involved in getting food to consumers in a safe, effective and competitive way.
Think for a moment how you gather information about your supply chain today and what you do with this information. It can be as simple as taking notes on a bill of material, manually transferring these notes into a spreadsheet for monthly invoicing, or mailing a paper invoice to your client, hoping that invoice or check isn’t lost in the mail.
Now imagine the same process in a highly automated way where each piece of machinery talks to the next one without any human intervention. From processing to transportation, distribution, retail and payment with the use of sensors to gather information, trusted ledgers to record and share the data, and predictive analytics to give you information to eliminate waste in every aspect of your business.
One example is a Canadian technology provider who is optimizing how seafood is handled from the net to the table. It starts by digitizing most aspects of running a small business for what has been a traditionally paper-based industry, from buying fuel and supplies to dockside sales, each transaction can be done on a mobile device which saves time and money. Then each catch—in this case a crate of lobsters—is tagged with a small sensor. Inventory and transactions can now be processed in real time, since those tags monitor temperature, location and even shock. In the case of lobsters, who are sensitive to shock, those tags can identify exactly where in the transportation process excessive handling caused the loss of valuable inventory, so immediate action can be taken.
Now that we’ve collected all this data, what do we do with it? Here is where our next emerging technology comes into play. Blockchain has been a buzzword for a few years now, but the underlying technology has been around for a decade. Blockchain is a way of storing and sharing information onto a permissionless ledger, which means anyone has access to it and validates its information. Conversely, a permissioned blockchain is a private ledger between parties that have agreed to participate in the chain. This is perfect for enterprise, no matter how big or small, and is what companies such as Walmart are using to better manage their supply chains.
Blockchain is a form of Distributed Ledger Technology, or DLT. Distributed means the information on the chain not only lies on a single server or on individual silos, but on all the participant servers (or nodes) at the same time. The Ledger is a growing list of records linked by using cryptography. Each transaction or block of information has a timestamp and a link to the previous block. By having a digital, mutual and safe way of exchanging information in near real time, producers, distributors, retailers and all their partners can gain efficiencies and cost savings within their supply chain.
Walmart put its leafy greens supply chain on a blockchain, so in case of an important recall, it reduced traceability time from several days to a few seconds. In a pilot with a pharmaceutical company, Walmart was able to reduce the time it took to trace the origin of prescription drugs from 16 weeks to two seconds.
By having robust, trusted and near real-time data, we can now add other information from outside sources like weather patterns, fuel costs and transit times from our carriers to better plan routes and improve delivery with AI. By using contextual intelligence, we can better manage inventory in our warehouses, optimize our logistics to reduce operating costs and improve customer satisfaction.
Anyone can leverage technology in today’s supply chain by committing to it. The digitization of the supply chain makes traceability more efficient, makes payments easier with smart contracts, and makes the entire cold chain more sustainable and less wasteful. By combining IoT to collect data, Blockchain to store the data, and AI to process the data we can take our industry to the next level.