How to be Quantum Ready in Supply Chain and Logistics

The transportation industry has the highest rates of quantum adoption of any industry, with 63% of respondents in the early stages of quantum adoption.

Zinetro N Adobe Stock 328958904
ZinetroN AdobeStock_328958904

Technology moves fast. It’s hard to keep up, particularly in an industry like supply chain and logistics where innovation can change course (literally and figuratively) in an instant. This pace of innovation has led supply chain and logistics professionals to consistently reevaluate their technical strategy — in an effort to gain an edge by reducing cost, automating process and optimizing operations.

Quantum computing represents one of the most critical technical strategy discussions amongst the logistics community right now. And during those discussions, there are many important questions being asked. Can it outperform current solutions? What impact could it have? When will it be available? And most importantly, what can I do today to prepare for the quantum future?

What many in the industry don’t realize is that a quantum future is closer than you may think. We’re already starting to see signs of quantum-readiness across the industry — particularly with some of the most complex and challenging aspects of supply chain and logistics management. In fact, a recent Zapata survey of enterprise quantum adoption found that the transportation industry had the highest rates of quantum adoption of any industry, with 63% of respondents in the early stages of quantum adoption.

Whether you’re in that 63% or not, here’s where the opportunities are for quantum computing in logistics, and how to start your journey to quantum readiness.

Quantum opportunities in supply chain and logistics today

For some important context, quantum computing isn’t like a light switch. We’re not going to simply wake up one day with fault-tolerant quantum computers. Like many other scientific breakthroughs, progress is iterative and incremental. So, what does the state of progress look like at present?

Specifically, today we’re seeing that quantum-inspired, classical approaches can, in some cases, achieve a one or two percent improvement in a process or output — and sometimes even more. It is critical to appreciate that, in the commercial context, a single digit percentage improvement can be enormous. Think of improving the logistical efficiency of a national fleet of vehicles by 1-2%. That could translate into millions or tens of millions of dollars in fuel savings and tons less carbon emitted into our atmosphere. That’s very real and very meaningful progress.

For supply chain and logistics technology professionals considering how they might get themselves ready for quantum computing, there are a few specific areas that align nicely with quantum computing capabilities and can be performed using quantum-inspired methods on a classic computer today. By starting with quantum-inspired methods today, you can develop the infrastructure and applications you’ll need to have in place to swap in more powerful, fault-tolerant quantum devices in the future.

·      Last-mile delivery and route optimization. Quantum algorithms could help find more efficient delivery routes to help reduce fuel costs and save time. For example, consider the challenge of pinpointing the optimal delivery routes to stock 700,000 cartons. Finding the best order in which to stock them is a very complex mathematical problem with tens of billions of variables — a problem quantum computing is well suited to solve. In the future, with the right data, routes could even be optimized to account for real-time weather changes, traffic patterns and inventory needs. 

·       Machine learning optimization for preventative maintenance. Quantum computers have demonstrated the potential to improve the accuracy of machine learning (ML) models. With quantum-enhanced ML models, maintenance needs can be better predicted and addressed to avoid transportation and delivery delays and more costly repairs. More specifically, today we can use time series data to correlate equipment failure with a specific sequence of events, so you can predict when there’s a high likelihood that a machine will have a problem. When combined with quantum computing, these machine learning models could provide a better way of optimizing predictive maintenance and similar computational problems.

·       Warehouse and distribution optimization. With the use of quantum technology, warehouse layouts and distribution processes could be enhanced to better manage inventory, reduce stockouts and ultimately maximize efficiency and revenue. For context, when managing warehouse space, even a two-dimensional diagram of the space introduces a myriad of variables that make the stocking and movement of items computationally complex. In reality, warehouses are three-dimensional — which makes them even more challenging to navigate mathematically.

Steps to become quantum ready today

As exciting as these applications may be, you won't be able to simply install a quantum or quantum-inspired software application and expect results. For one, you’ll need a dedicated team to make the most of quantum software. This should include domain experts who understand the business problem — the variables to be optimized as well as the constraints — in addition to technical experts who can map enterprise-scale problems into mathematical problems solvable with quantum computing. Operations specialists, data scientists, and quantum computing scientists are frequent collaborators within our customers’ organizations.

Whether you upskill existing talent or hire external expertise, developing a quantum computing capability will take time, so it’s expedient to get started early — before the already limited talent pool is scooped up elsewhere. External consultants can also help your team identify which use cases can generate the most near-term value, and which applications will be further out.

Another thing you can do today to be quantum-ready is to start building the workflows and infrastructure you’ll need to make effective use of quantum technology. Quantum computing won’t exist in isolation — it will need to be integrated with the rest of your enterprise IT stack. Any speedup you could gain with quantum computing can easily be lost if the rest of a solution is not set up efficiently. This includes the data warehousing, data cleaning, security and governance policies you’ll need to store and prepare your data before augmenting it with a quantum computing component.

Building quantum-ready workflows now can streamline this process and make it easier to iterate on your quantum algorithms as quantum technology progresses. It also allows you to benchmark the performance of different quantum back-ends to ensure you have the best configuration for your given problem. Crucially, by having the workflow in place now, you can experiment with quantum-inspired approaches today and swap in more powerful, fault-tolerant quantum hardware in the future.

When can we expect a broad quantum advantage?

It’s hard to not get excited about the potential of quantum computing. Are we actually “there” yet? No. But we can already start seeing how quantum computing will be extremely impactful — especially in the supply chain and logistics space. If the timelines promised by hardware providers are correct, within a decade, expect to see some form of “broad quantum advantage” over classical devices, opening the door to new and powerful commercial quantum applications.

In the meantime, it’s worth experimenting with quantum-inspired approaches for some of the more computationally intense areas of supply chain and logistics management mentioned above. That way, as more mature quantum computers begin to hit the market, you’ll already have the infrastructure and applications in place to effectively use these devices.