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Written by Omera Khan

Digitalized Supply Chains: Building the Future One Step at a Time

End-to-end digitalized supply chains will one day exist. It has taken generations, but information flow along supply chains is now faster—and richer—than ever before. What was unthinkable even a few years ago is now commonplace. 

Autonomous drones delivering packages—perhaps trundling along sidewalks, or flying through the air. Shipment-level real-time GPS-based track-and-trace technology, perhaps augmented with environmental condition monitoring. Intelligent storage bins, capable of intelligently making decisions about reordering, sequencing, and traceability. Or swarms of autonomous AGV-like ‘shuttles’, capable of deciding for themselves what must be done to meet a given set of tasks at a warehouse picking face or materials replenishment facility.

Now throw in technologies such as blockchain, predictive modeling, advanced planning and scheduling, vast online marketplaces driving trillions of dollars’ worth of trade each year, ‘guided’ buying, the Internet of Things, robotic picking faces and materials handling equipment, and chatbots.

Welcome to the future—and more specifically, the future of supply chains and the technologies underpinning supply chain management. For, taken together, all of these are different manifestations of the same thing: aspects of supply chains that have been digitally enhanced to bring about capabilities once considered almost unimaginable.

But actually, is it the future? And undeniably, in one very real sense: no, it isn’t. Because all these things currently exist, are in use, and can be seen working—most of them, in fact, in real, live, supply chains. Amazon, notably, is driving a huge amount of innovation in these very areas. Sceptics scoffed when the company spent $775m in 2012 acquiring robotics company Kiva Systems. They laughed a lot less by the time the e-commerce giant purchased autonomous warehouse robotics company Canvass Technology in 2019.

Yet all too often, as I relate in a just-published paper for Skill Dynamics, Digitalized Supply Chains: Building the Future One Step at a Time, such examples are more properly just standalone instances of information technology at work. Put another way, they’re waypoints along an information-flow journey that goes back not just years or decades, but centuries—ever since supply chains began to stretch across oceans and continents.

In short, today’s cutting-edge technologies are ‘islands of excellence’: initiatives where information technology has been harnessed to improve one particular aspect of a supply chain. Just as—in their time—sailing ships, the telegraph, MRP, EDI and other innovations all accelerated information flow across sections of supply chains.

Whereas—as we supply chain professionals know full well—the real goal is something else. Something much bigger and bolder. Namely, true end-to-end digitalized supply chains, where information technology is used not just to enhance one particular part of a supply chain, but the entire supply chain.

How to get there? Why aren’t we there already—or at least, closer to the destination than many real-world supply chains appear to be? What are the barriers? How to overcome them? And what skills are necessary to overcome them? And—just as importantly—what skills are necessary in order to manage end-to-end digitalized supply chains?

Such questions are easy to ask, but more difficult to answer. To discover some of those answers, I spoke with a selection of highly-regarded supply chain insiders close to the issues. Fellow academics, supply chain practitioners, consultants, and software experts. Together, we explored the journey towards end-to-end digitalisation, the strategic benefits of engaging in that journey, and skills required to undertake it.

If it’s a journey that is of interest to you—or to your organization—then I’d urge you to download a copy of the paper today or watch our expert-driven virtual roundtable.

Dr. Professor Omera Khan's venture into supply chain management began at Cranfield School of Management, after completing a Masters in Design Procurement at UMIST (University of Manchester, UK) followed by a PhD in Supply Chain Risk Management at the Alliance Manchester Business School.

Omera Khan