The COVID-19 crisis is among a multitude of factors including the U.S.-China trade war and shifts in labor and automation costs that have forced changes in the supply chain, but if retailers expect to keep up with and even stay ahead of these changes, they are going to have to take greater risks, particularly in technology investments. Only 21 percent of organizations are willing to adopt, or even consider, early-stage technologies.
In the 2020 Strategic Supply Chain Technology Trends report, Gartner outlined eight technology trends that will dictate the future of the supply chain this year and beyond, including new opportunities such as hyperautomation, digital supply chain twins, artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and continuous intelligence among others.
Hyperautomation is a framework to mix and match technologies such as historic legacy platforms with recently deployed tools and planned investments. The term means different things for different organizations, but in general, hyperautomation refers to the move from simpler rule-based systems of automation to new generative models.
In the case of the supply chain, hyperautomation might represent the changeover from using simple robotics automations to help factory workers to fill boxes or bags to instead leveraging sophisticated image processing and computer vision, coupled with decision-making AI, so that if a robot encountered a different size or shape, it would effortlessly adapt with no human intervention needed.
If deployed correctly, hyperautomation can encourage broader collaboration across domains and act as an integrator for disparate and siloed functions.
Digital supply chain twin (DSCT)
A digital supply chain twin (DSCT) is a digital representation of the physical supply chain. This pairing of the virtual and physical worlds harvests data from various sources and systems and analyzes that data to solve problems before they even occur and enable stakeholders to make proactive decisions.
“DSCTs are part of the digital theme that describes an ever-increasing merger of the digital and physical world,” said Christian Titze, vice president analyst with the Gartner supply chain practice. “Linking both worlds enhances situational awareness and supports decision-making.”
As a bridge between the physical and digital worlds, the twin is key to the digitization of supply chains. However, it is dependent on good data to function optimally. Data collected from IoT devices and shared via the digital twin can monitor factory product milestones, container temperatures, truck movements and more.
Continuous intelligence (CI)
According to Gartner, continuous intelligence (CI) is designed to leverage a computer’s ability to process data at a much faster pace than people can. Supply chain leaders can look at the processed data in near real-time, understand what is happening and take action immediately.
“There are already several use cases for CI in decision support and decision automation. For example, retailers utilize CI to automatically react to customer behaviors when they shop online. This enables better customer service, more customer satisfaction and tailored offers that lead to higher sales revenue,” Titze explained.
Supply chain governance and security
As global risk events are on the rise related to heightened tariffs, climate change and and security breaches impact companies on both the digital and physical level, retailers are going to have to step up the safety of the overall supply chain by collaborating with governments, buyers and suppliers.
“Gartner anticipates a wave of new solutions to emerge for supply chain security and governance, especially in the fields of privacy as well as cyber and data security,” said Titze. “Think advanced track-and-trace solutions, smart packaging and next-gen RFID and NFC capabilities.”
Edge computing and analytics
The Gartner report highlights edge computing, which is defined as a distributed computing paradigm that brings computation and data storage closer to the location where it is needed, as a rising trend, particularly as IoT devices continue to proliferate the supply chain.
Rather than relying on a central location that can be thousands of miles away, edge computing due to its proximity does not suffer latency issues that can affect an application’s performance. Retailers can save money by having the processing done locally, reducing the amount of data that needs to be processed in a centralized or cloud-based location.
The technology is making its way into manufacturing. Organizations are adopting driverless forklifts for their warehouses or installing devices that monitor manufacturing equipment on a factory floor. Heavy equipment sellers can use edge computing to analyze when a part needs maintenance or replacement.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
AI in the supply chain consists of a toolbox of technology options that help companies understand complex content, engage in natural dialogue with people, enhance human performance and take over routine tasks. Within the retail supply chain, for example, stakeholders can leverage AI-powered solutions to track supplier data qualities like accuracy, frequency of updates, corrections, and the speed at which suppliers respond to corrections to provide real-time scores about vendor data quality.
With increased data coverage and comprehensiveness, vendors can make more informed decisions and better manage the product flow to their end users with greater data visibility and speed.
“AI technology is present in a lot of already existing solutions, but its capabilities evolve on a constant basis,” Titze added. “Currently, the technology primarily helps supply chain leaders solve long-standing challenges around data silos and governance. Its capabilities allow for more visibility and integration across networks of stakeholders that were previously remote or disparate.”
Compared to its predecessors, the long-awaited fifth generation of cellular technology—5G—may be a major step forward in blending the back-of-house operations in the supply chain with the customer-facing aspects of commerce.
With promises to enhance the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks, retailers hoping to recoup losses from the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to take a hard look at whether they could benefit from deploying the technology across their stores, distribution centers and supply chains.
The technology is designed to give companywide employees real-time, immediate visibility into enterprise-wide level data via mobile device to perform tasks more efficiently, and in the long run may be linked to autonomous checkout and even last-mile autonomous delivery.
Gartner refers to the ecosystem of virtual, augmented and mixed reality as “immersive experience technology,” which are new interaction models designed to amplify human capabilities. Virtual prototyping and 3D modeling already permeate fashion design processes as employees across the supply chain continue to communicate digitally and work from home.
“Companies already see the benefits of immersive experiences in use cases like onboarding new factory workers through immersive on-the-job training in a safe, realistic virtual environment,” said Titze.