Machines Are Finally Earning their Way in the Connected Supply Chain

With the Internet of Things, machines across the supply chain are on the cusp of transforming the way enterprises operate

Burke Maxwell
Burke Maxwell

Some say that the digital revolution marked the end of the machine age. But the reality is that the Internet and digital communications are taking machines to entirely new levels of interaction, productivity and usefulness.

Humans started it. First, we built machines to manufacture and handle goods. Then we wired them together to communicate with each other (and with us) in increasingly sophisticated ways. With the rise of the Internet of Things, widespread mobility and information everywhere, machines and devices across the supply chain are on the cusp of delivering their full value to transform the way enterprises operate.

Here’s how to use this dynamic to transform your supply chain and your enterprise. Instead of asking, “Will it be worth the effort?” you should ask, “How can we afford not to engage in the endeavor?”

You can paint some very compelling pictures of the connected supply chain. Here is one from a macro perspective:

  • Intelligent loading bays track trucks in transit; automatically calculate time of arrival, unload time and required warehouse space; and alert appropriate receiving and warehouse personnel.
  • Material pickers and staging machines are automatically scheduled to get the raw materials from the warehouse to the manufacturing line at the right time.
  • Complex production schedules get laid out automatically—from sub-component builds to final assemblies, quality checking, packaging and outbound warehousing—with all required personnel aligned to the schedule.
  • Outbound carriers are automatically alerted to when to schedule pickup, while the distribution center is alerted to the arrival time and quantity of goods.
  • Retail stores are updated on inventory availability and, when in-store inventory levels fall below set thresholds, replacement orders are automatically placed and the cycle starts anew.

In this sequence of scenarios, human effort and precious time are squeezed out of supply chain processes at a time when both are at a premium. Costs are reduced while productivity and competitiveness are increased along the line.

Things are coming together quickly to make these and other connected supply chain scenarios a reality. Gartner, Inc., for example, projects a 30-fold increase in Internet-connected physical devices by the end of the decade. Commercial telematics, 3D printers, and sensors within fabrics and clothing are just a few of the connected elements that will help drive new supply chain efficiencies and new differentiated services to consumers.

Making the Connected Supply Chain a Safe Reality

Despite this appealing portrait, there is a snake in the garden. Gartner believes that the coming flood of billions of new Internet-connected devices will not only “significantly alter supply chain leader information access,” but also their “cyber-risk exposure.” The challenge then is to make the connected supply chain a safe reality, as free as possible from cyber-risk.

The connected supply chain, and all the critical operational decisions, changes and adjustments associated with it, will be run with minimal human intervention. Machines will not only do all the work, but practically all of the operational thinking as well. It will take extensive security and the establishment of high levels of trust before enterprises are comfortable implementing full supply chain connectivity. In this case, as in most cases, the lynchpin of trust and security will be digital identity.

Billions of connected machines and devices will equate to billions of discrete digital identities. As this multitude of machines talk to each other—adjusting manufacturing schedules, ensuring warehouse space is available at the right time for incoming materials, etc.—their unique digital identities will have to be secured and managed to enable the safe exchange of data from system to system, and from systems to people and their mobile devices.  

Given the huge number of machines and devices that will be involved in a fully connected supply chain, and the fact they will all be Internet-connected, a centralized cloud-based platform approach to identity management and security will be the optimal solution. Identities can be managed using role-based and contextual information, changes and updates can be centrally managed, and the cloud-based processing infrastructure will be able to scale smoothly and economically.

Take the Baby Steps Now  

It is neither necessary nor advisable to wait on getting started in ramping up machines to more fully earn their way. The rise of the machines will change the way all businesses function and organizations can lay their future foundations today by implementing aspects of the connected supply chain on a micro level.

For example, it is possible to enhance product quality during the manufacturing process with machines configured to automatically issue their own quality alerts. Based on pattern recognition during end-of-line test, these alerts can be pushed immediately to the mobile devices of appropriate in-plant quality engineers, off-site design engineers, line managers or suppliers. The results are the faster resolution of issues; decreased waste, rework and product recalls; and the aversion of potential injuries and lawsuits at the source.

Another possibility is for devices and things to communicate from the consumer side to provide organizations with valuable data regarding usage, customer experience and customer service. The auto industry makes for a good example, as newer car models will be able to notify service centers ahead of unexpected repairs, parts and projects.

The point is to start small and start now, so as not to be left behind. Essential steps include:

  • Identifying starting points for fully connecting your supply chain.
  • Mobilizing and connecting key supply chain processes and functional groups within your organization.
  • Putting in place a robust infrastructure for security and identity management that you can subsequently build upon and scale out as needed.
  • Going after the low-hanging fruit and promoting the successes.

Once your room is in order, you can then tackle the house, the neighborhood and even the world.

The machines will be there waiting for you. Get them to earn their way.