Technology and the Supply Chain: What Does the Future Hold?

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Meet the Jetsons! Like any well-rounded child of the 80s, I grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons. Admittedly the futuristic family sitcom The Jetsons, which actually first aired in the 60s, wasn’t top of my list like He-Man or Captain Planet, but there was something fascinating about the whimsical and almost unimaginable gadgets and gizmos they featured. Smartwatches, drones, jetpacks, robot housekeepers, a food replicator and even a flying car that could transform into a briefcase.

Decades later and a sizable amount of that technology has hit the mainstream market (can anyone say Apple Watch?) with others about to break through. So what does my nostalgic look back at my childhood have to do with the future of supply chains? Apparently everything.

A recent report, ‘Technological Tipping Points’ by the World Economic Forum (WEF), takes a look into a crystal ball, examining the timing and impact of 21 ‘tipping points,’ which they describe as “moments when a specific technological shift hits mainstream society.” A staggering number of those points are things straight out of the futuristic cartoons and early sci-fi series I loved growing up. Wearable devices, 3D printing, implantable technology, connected homes, automated workforces, driverless cars and smart cities are all on the list. And all of them, once they reach critical mass in the marketplace, will have a staggering impact on the future of supply chain. The WEF report focuses on five shifts that will directly influence supply chain. Let’s take a look at each, starting with the notion of a more prominent share economy.

Sharing Economy

In case you’re not familiar with the term, a sharing economy is basically a way to enable the optimization of resources through the redistribution, sharing and reuse of excess capacity in goods and services through collaborative consumption. Think Uber, Airbnb, and other peer-to-peer lending services. But it’s not just individuals taking part. Big business are jumping on the bandwagon too – utilizing collaborative distribution, reverse logistics and cooperative sourcing to lower costs, improve efficiency and better optimize their supply chain. WEF notes 2025 as the year the sharing economy will reach its tipping point into the mainstream market, but I’d lean toward seeing this impact your supply chain a whole lot sooner as the number of new startups in this space continues skyrocketing.

Internet of and for Things

We’ve talked about the Internet of Things (IOR) before and the implications it has on supply chain, but what I found particularly interesting was WEF chose not to focus on issues like consumers’ growing need for instant gratification. Rather they honed in on the fact in just seven years, when they’re predicting the tipping point will be reached, we won’t have enough readily available talent who understands S&OP, analytics and supply chain in the needed context. Smart machines, more workforce automation, and new ways to improve processes will be in place, but what about the education required to teach supply chain leaders how best to utilize these emerging technologies?

3D Printing and Manufacturing

Seven years from now WEF is also predicting we’ll see fully functional 3D printed cars in production — and the implications of wide scale on-demand production to supply chain are huge. Those on the manufacturing side will likely need to build new models that accelerate product development and reduce cycle times while finding new ways to lower cost. Not an easy task. A 2014 article in the UK’s Guardian suggests consumers will be creating the majority of their own goods at home, while traditional manufacturers will be relegated “to only producing highly technical and specialist products.” And of course, we’ll need those delivered same-day.

Robotics and Services

Automated workers, aka robots, are already out on factory floors – 1.1 million of them to be precise. Those in auto manufacturing, where these machines now perform 80% of the work, are already used to seeing a combination of robot and human employees working alongside each other. Everybody else had better get used to the idea. According to Gartner, 5% of companies with complex picking operations will be utilizing self-navigating warehouse robots in the next three years. WEF says by 2021, the automated workforce will reach its tipping point into mainstream and become the norm. In terms of supply chain, this robot employee revolution will allow greater streamlining and the ability to deliver more efficient and predicable business results – and will inevitably cause a shift in the skillset needed by their human counterparts.

Big Data for Decisions

According to WEF, in the next five years, we’ll see 30 billion Internet-connect physical devices, which will considerably impact supply chain operations. How? Data from these legions of devices will result in the ability for faster decision-making. And that means an easier way to ensure end-to-end supply chain health and performance. They say future analytics tools will “help make decisions and seize opportunities” and data-driven organization will be able to access “real-time analytics depicting valuable metrics…” So essentially businesses will have the ability to know sooner and act faster when it comes to critical supply chain decisions. Now that may sound eerily familiar to some of you. Why? Because the future is now (sorry to burst your bubble WEF!). Very rarely do I talk specifically about our supply chain software on this blog, but in this instance I just couldn’t resist. RapidResponse® already gives users the ability to perform demanding analytical calculations in seconds and our alerting technology makes it possible to see supply chain risk and opportunity in context, with a clear view of potential impact, and the ability to simulate next steps and compare results. But make no mistake, just because we’re ahead of our time doesn’t mean we aren’t already working on future innovations!

What other emerging technology do you foresee having a sizable impact on your supply chain? How do you plan to handle any future technology shifts? Let us know in the comments!


Kaitlyn Bigham
- September 28, 2015 at 1:41pm
I believe that the technology that will impact the supply chain the most is the technology that is in the hands of the consumer. As more and more people have access to better, faster, more innovative products they expect other companies to keep up with the technology trend. Consumers enjoy features such as next day delivery, easy online payments, and other impressive features that many companies are offering. As fast as companies are employing new methods and technologies, consumers are demanding them and begin to expect them. The challenge for many organizations, retailers specifically, is to satisfy the customer's ever increasing expectations while still making a profit after all other costs such as development and transportation are taken out. Although I am not sure what they many be, I believe there will soon be technologies to come about that aid consumers, producers, and retailers in the Omni-Channel arena.
- December 27, 2017 at 7:49am
I am pretty much pleased with your good work. You put really very helpful information. Keep it up. Keep blogging. Looking to reading your next post I also read a blog on the same topic that I could say good one 11 Upcoming Future Technologies
- March 12, 2023 at 11:33am
+ for the post

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