Top 10 Supply Chain Trends in 2021

Whether it’s spoilage, delivery timetables, quality control or cyberattacks, successful supply chains can only support patients and customers if they are resilient.

5m3photos Adobe Stock On The Road
5m3photos - Adobe Stock - On the Road

People across the globe are laser-focused on the ongoing mass distribution of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines. Vaccinating the world relies on the integration of factory workers, truck drivers, pilots, freezers, dry ice and many more links in the supply chain. Along the way, there are myriad opportunities for disruption.

First, trucks transporting the vaccines must keep them at a brisk -94°F. As anyone in food logistics knows, the cold chain is a huge challenge. The good news is that vaccine temperature, light exposure and location are continually monitored. As Pfizer’s president of global supply chain told The Wall Street Journal, “We actually know every moment in the journey.”

Cybersecurity poses additional challenges. Although vaccine manufacturers have instituted safety measures, there have already been cyberattacks aimed at the companies and organizations distributing vaccines. According to The New York Times, it’s unclear whether the goal was sabotage or theft of the refrigeration technology.

Furthermore, vaccinating the world requires a synchronized, mass distribution of the supplies used during the administration of the shots, such as saline, needles and syringes. As Bruce Gellin, president of global immunization at Sabin Vaccine Institute, told the Journal,“having syringes without vaccines isn’t very helpful.” And, vice-versa.

Of course, the vaccine isn’t the only thing that needs to get from Point A to Point B these days. Another potential obstacle is the massive surge in online shopping pushing global delivery networks to their limits.  

Of course, all of this really comes down to one thing—resilience. Whether it’s spoilage, delivery timetables, quality control or cyberattacks, successful supply chains can only support patients and customers if they are resilient.

Here’s a look at the Top 10 supply chain trends in 2021, developed by ASCM’s Research, Innovation and Strategy Sensing Subcommittee.

1.     Resilience as a key focus of risk prevention. Supply chains are complex, global and increasingly interconnected. When one part of the network is exposed to risk, all are vulnerable to disruption. Focusing on supply chain resilience in conjunction with risk prevention will enable companies to mitigate adverse events faster than the competition, take market share and outperform.

2.      E-commerce boom elevates consumer expectations of flexible shipping and fulfillment options. As previously mentioned, the pandemic impact of consumers shopping online is forcing companies to create new and innovative last-mile delivery solutions such as turning retails stores into fulfilment centers, delivery vehicles into pickup points and passenger vehicles into delivery vehicles. Distribution centers and transportation hubs will move closer to key retail partners to enable better real-time tracking and logistics optimization.

3.      Using digital supply chain proactively. The transformation from loosely connected sets of data, processes and people toward a fully integrated, end-to-end supply chain will significantly enhance visibility. Information-sharing and global data harmonization and standardization will shift today’s focus on putting out fires to predicting them. Likewise, large-scale vaccine distribution will be impossible without a visionary digital approach.

4.      Introduce supply chain career path early. Supply chain organizations need a robust strategy for hiring and retaining diverse talent. Partnerships with universities and other organizations will develop flexible programs to prepare current and future industry professionals to drive the supply chains of the future. Companies must do their part to influence the younger generation, women and minorities to pursue a supply chain career.

5.      3D printing to the rescue. COVID-19 gave the world a glimpse of how 3D printing can be used temporarily to alleviate the strain on supply chains during demand surges and shortages as it did with medical equipment. Inventors are combining 3D printing with traditional processes creating unique combinations of parts that perform better with lower cost that can be manufactured closer to the customer, all while being more sustainable.

6.      Accelerated use of analytics and automation across the supply chain. Implementation of artificial intelligence and machine learning for predictive and prescriptive analytics will continue to accelerate, with broad-reaching effects across the end-to-end supply chain. Businesses that harness the power of big data and automation will have a competitive advantage in visibility, executional efficiency, quality and profitability.

7.      Cybersecurity is a prerequisite for survival. The explosion of data and data-driven organizations through artificial intelligence, blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT) is creating much more interwoven areas of vulnerability in systems and tools. Social engineering, ransomware and exploiting even the tiniest gaps of vulnerability will continue. Supply chains must protect their networks, devices, people and programs.

8.      Low cost and reliability increase IoT usage. The IoT continues to revolutionize supply chains by increasing visibility and real-time tracking for both raw materials and final products — not to mention life-saving vaccines. Cheap and reliable are making networks more responsive and competitive. Cheap and reliable sensors that provide large amounts of data will be essential.

9.      Corporate citizenship comes with challenges. The ethical and ecological expectations of consumers will drive supply chains to determine how they source, produce and serve their products in sustainable, eco-friendly and profitable ways. This could create challenges for all constituents, including consumers, who may experience price increases, quality issues or product availability problems. 

10.  Changing demographics. Migrations to cities are creating new urban landscapes that have different supply chain and infrastructure challenges. Populations in the West face an ongoing talent shortage, as populations shrink while the workforce ages. As consumer and talents pools continue to evolve, supply chain leaders will need to be fixated on ways to optimize performance to be responsive while also managing sourcing and logistics costs. 

Supply chains are complex, global and increasingly interconnected. When one part of the network is exposed, all face disruption. For the links in the chain to hold, the global supply chain community must keep a keen eye on supply chain resilience in 2021 and beyond.