What’s Coming Around the Next Corner in Supply Chain Technology?

The first annual NextGen Supply Chain Conference in Chicago kicked off with an all-star lineup of speakers and panelists, and a full house of attendees from dozens of different industries.

After Peerless’ Brian Ceraolo and Bob Trebilcock kicked off the first annual NextGen Supply Chain Conference at the Chicago Athletic Association, Ron Castro of IBM took the reins and jumped right into the topic that’s top of mind right now: How to effectively integrate advanced technology into the global supply chain.

Citing protectionism, national disasters, geopolitical forces, and ever-changing customer demands as a handful of the key disruptors that companies are grappling with right now, Castro pointed to data as “one of the world’s greatest natural resources” (a quote from IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty).

The problem is that 90% of the world’s data was generated within the last 24 months, and 80% of it is unsearchable—and, as result, virtually non-useable. Much of that data exists in silos, he added, or involves outside business partners. “The question becomes: How do we make sense of all of that data and make it actionable?”

Castro also discussed the role that artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, machine learning (ML) and predictive analytics are playing in global supply chain management, and highlighted IBM’s Watson and Quantum as two related initiatives that the company is currently working on.

Up next, George Bailey of the Digital Supply Chain Initiative tackled the hot topic of digital transformation, telling the audience that in a world where all companies are striving to do more with less, that transformation “needs to happen on a massive scale.”

Making the distinction between “satisfied” and “happy” customers, Bailey explained how managing algorithms and exploiting data are helping companies provide truly customized experiences that buyers have come to expect. He pointed to Under Armour’s personalized subscription box service “ArmourBox” as a prime example of this concept in action.

John Santagate of IDC then took over and presented a three-pronged approach to warehouse robotics that included his own presentation on the real value of robots, followed by two panel discussions (one on piece-picking and the other on mobile robotics).

Santagate spoke about the labor shortage, high labor costs, the need for speed, and the push for more digital transformation and connectivity between organizations. Citing an average payback period of two years or less for robotics implementations, Santagate says that more than 80% of companies see double-digit ROI from those investments.

Populated by experts from organizations like MIT, Soft Robotics, Fetch Robotics and Honeywell Intelligrated, the robotics panels fielded dozens of questions from Santagate and conference attendees. Key topics discussed included the key drivers of robotics and automation (essentially answering the “why robotics now?” question); the convergence of AI and robotics; and the key considerations that all companies should factor into their robotics investments.

In a use case presentation, speakers from Rochester Drug Cooperative and IAM Robotics shared the stage to discuss Rochester’s robotics implementation. Then, HP took a deep dive into how the modern-day supply chain—both its own and that of its customers—is being transformed by 3D printing. Finally, after receiving the first-ever Supply Chain Management Review NextGen Supply Chain Awards, representatives from Geodis, IBM, Johnson Controls, DHL, Cisco and IDC participated in a closing award panel.

Collectively, these NextGen Supply Chain presentations laid down a solid foundation for any company that wants to ride the current wave of automation and robotics technology. The information provided useful insights into what the next iteration of supply chain technology could look like.