The Supply Chain of the Future?

We have achieved a good measure of being able to match demand to supply, and have aligned enterprise operations to support that purpose. But now that we have achieved that goal, we begin again—with a new global supply chain metastructure that is always on, never off.

Consumer impatience drives supply chain impatience. For example, Adidas has established a “speedfactory” in Germany, run largely by robots, which will make its first 500 pairs of running shoes this year. Why? Because faster manufacturing and proximity to major markets meet demand for quicker delivery of new, high-end styles. It’s demand-driven, at high speed.

Robots provide not just speed but also flexibility, as they are being taught to act more like humans. Product development company Cambridge Consultants recently demonstrated a new type of industrial robot that combines high-powered, image-processing algorithms with inexpensive, off-the-shelf hardware that enables robots to handle objects such as odd-sized boxes in a warehouse, or dissimilar components on a production line when no detailed computer-aided design instructions exist. This development will revolutionize production and warehouse operations in the near future, according to Cambridge.

Robots are also appearing on the retail end of the value chain. For example, Simbe Robotics recently debuted what it calls “the world’s first fully autonomous shelf auditing and analytics solution.” Named Tally, the robot looks like a Roomba-powered stockkeeping Ninja that quietly stalks store aisles, day and night, delivering stockout, stock low, pricing errors, and promotion level data—in short, completing a full retail store audit in near real time. Tally can capture data on 15,000 to 20,000 products hourly, far more than a non-Ninja human employee. Why wait for check-out big data when Tally can send replenishment alerts to you, with more lead time?

The automotive industry is also part of the new supply chain metastructure. Volkswagen is piloting 3D smart glasses at its Wolfsburg, Germany, plant to speed production. Logistics personnel wearing the smart glasses receive details on storage locations and part numbers directly in their field of vision. They see warnings in red if they pull parts incorrectly or out of sequence. “Digitalization is becoming increasingly important in production,” says Reinhard de Vries, head of plant logistics at the VW Wolfsburg plant. “The 3D smart glasses take cooperation between humans and systems to a new level.”

These examples all represent a fourth industrial revolution, and it is happening before our eyes. We are rapidly piecing together a global supply chain metastructure that never stops running and will truly make our entire world a warehouse. Get ready.

It is imperative that younger readers who were born with a smartphone in their hands, and are at ease accepting and applying every new logistics technology as it arises, achieve equal facility in the practical experience of transportation operations. Seasoned supply chain readers need to stay current. Learn. Engage. Read. Study. Be creative. Think laterally, and seek ways to connect these new advances to your network, your enterprise.

As you’ll see in this edition’s lead feature, Supply Chains That Rock Around the Clock, supply chain success depends on more than just technology. Success requires building relationships, employing out-of-the-box thinking, and working together to aggressively attack seemingly impossible supply chain challenges.

It wasn’t so long ago that these types of advances seemed doable in some far-off, distant supply chain future. Acclimating, absorbing, and applying these fast-approaching developments won’t be easy. But if you are not part of this future, you will likely be part of the past.

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