Digital Innovation and the Supply Chain

First appeared in TCS&D Magazine April/May Edition 2019

Bear with me, I am going to try and talk to you about digital innovation and the supply chain. As I launch into this, I am very aware as I am probably going to come across very much as embarrassing Dad, using buzzwords and mangling technical explanations.  But I will plough on because for all of us interested in understanding what our industry might look like in five, ten- or twenty-years’ time cannot ignore what advances in digital technology, and artificial intelligence could mean for us all.

These issues were top of the agenda at our first Cold Storage Conference this month. It was a well-attended and inspiring day. Our speakers and delegates were able to discuss how these technological advances will or will not shape our future.  The consensus was that whilst it will never be a substitute for experience, leadership and knowhow. No one engaged in logistics can afford to ignore the opportunities of smarter data led technologies in improving what they do.

Artificial Intelligence

AI can’t set out a complete strategy or make every decision, but it can compute and automate large volumes of data. The big advantage is eliminating time consuming, error prone human processes, freeing people to undertake more productive activities and revealing opportunities that otherwise would not be understood.

A striking example was presented to me recently of a cold storage group with multiple sites, that was able to use AI and smart data management to map their existing cold stores. Then by running bespoke algorithms on the data they identified new ways of organising stock that took the business from thinking it was at full capacity to creating space for a further 20,000 pallet spaces.

This major improvement was not about constructing a new facility, or investing in robots and complex refits, they simply used the tools available to them (and some extremely smart data analytics) to identify that they could take on more business than they thought for no other capital investment.

The first lesson of digitisation was that businesses can embrace it without major upfront cost and investment.

Security, Collaboration and Blockchain

Whilst getting started for businesses is low cost, harnessing the full potential of digitisation requires major industry- and economy-wide investment.

The first is in security. In a competitive global market place, with increasingly sophisticated cyber threats, company leaders are right to think carefully about the risks of where and how company data is stored, accessed and shared.

I was delighted that we were joined at our conference by colleagues from IBM Blockchain. We’ve all heard of Blockchain but, if we’re honest, few of us genuinely know what it is. What IBM were able to show us was how blockchain technology creates an opportunity for businesses to share data in a way that deliver the highest possible levels of trust for all parties. The key is that the design of blockchain, means that businesses can create data, use it in several ways, and crucially, share it, without risk of it being lost or altered without their knowledge.

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