Data Transparency Essential as IoT Takes Hold in Supply Chains

Meagan Douglas
Tue, Apr 18, 2017
Don't let IoT hype distract you from what the technology can already do for your business.
Don't let IoT hype distract you from what the technology can already do for your business.

It is difficult to fully understand and assess exactly how the Internet of Things will change the supply chain sector. The problem with any predictions is that it is nearly impossible to assess the timeline associated with IoT deployment.

Highly specialized solutions and projects are already on the market, but figuring out cost-to-benefit ratios and understanding when innovative systems will go mainstream is an extremely complex matter. What isn't as complicated, however, is figuring out what businesses need to do to get ready for the IoT.

Taking a Grounded Approach to the IoT
Amazon is one of many businesses experimenting with drones. Even Domino's, the popular pizza restaurant chain, had an autonomous pizza delivery robot program in place as of March 2016. It may seem baffling that businesses can go from processing orders online to getting supplies to production teams and delivering goods to customers almost entirely with robots, almost fully automatically and with sensors in place to ensure quality control. To some extent it is. The Domino's pizza delivery robot is using military-grade robotics technology after all.

What these early pilot projects do is create a vision for the future that may be years or even decades away for most businesses. However, there is also plenty of low-hanging fruit in the IoT sector. A TechTarget report explained that the IoT will be a major theme for supply chain professionals in 2017, but it wasn't focusing on drones and robots. Instead, the news source said that data-driven processes are set to be disrupted by the IoT. Essentially, organizations will increasingly use sensors and location-aware devices alongside analytics programs to understand their supply chain with a greater depth moving forward.

This sentiment was echoed in a Supply Chain Movement report that focused on how the IoT is beginning to create efficiency and control gains within the supply chain. The theme of visibility was critical here as well. The article pointed out that the devices and sensors used within the IoT will make it easier to understand the disposition of products and parcels, a long-time pain point for a wide range of businesses.

Getting Ahead in the IoT Reality
While it's easy to marvel at the most ambitious IoT projects out there, most businesses are probably at the stage where they are beginning to see the possibility of using the IoT to improve data gathering and visibility within an organization. Want to get an alert when a package is scanned at a shipping center? You can set a system to do that. Want your workers to use barcode scanners to track how items move through your supply chain? No problem. The core technologies are all in place to provide a combination of connectivity and ease of use. The problem, at least for many organizations, is that those technologies are still often segmented in distinct systems.

Perhaps you have a dedicated barcode scanning application within a warehouse management system, but you are purchasing raw materials from a vendor portal in your enterprise resource planning software and then logging deliveries via barcode. Imagine that those systems don't interconnect with one another. In this situation, the process of verifying that an order is correct involves having your employees hop back and forth between the systems, potentially on multiple devices, to ensure correctness. Of course, you probably don't have time for all that, so you just have your warehouse team scan incoming shipments and log items, then a manager goes back later to check for accuracy. This is precisely the kind of bottleneck that the IoT can solve, but only if businesses can get their various management systems integrated with one another.

Laying the Groundwork for IoT Innovation
Having connected devices spread across your supply chain helps create data, but it is only useful to your business if that information can get to the right people at the right time. This is where ERP integration comes into play. Extending ERP data and core functionality out to the mobile devices your workers rely on empowers them to manage the supply chain with a greater degree of responsiveness and precision.

For example, imagine that one of your workers performs a quality check on an item in your warehouse and finds a couple of damaged goods. Typically that user may have to either report the problem to a manager, log it on a paper checklist that gets filed away or go back to a workstation to get data entered into the system. With ERP integration, the user can scan the barcode and get details on the shipment batch that the good came in with. From there, the employee can identify where other goods from that batch are stored and check them for similar problems. This kind of visibility to data across lines of the business allows employees to respond more intelligently to problems rather than needing to send potential issues up the corporate ladder, something that takes plenty of time and can cost lots of money.

The IoT offers a future vision in which many data collection processes are automated. Instead of having a worker identify the location of items in that potentially damaged shipment, for example, the employee can simply trigger a stock check and drone will fly off with a camera and check all of those boxes, providing footage of the items to verify their condition. Instead of manually scanning goods that enter the warehouse, robots will handle that data collection so employees can focus on more valuable tasks.

In the meantime, however, organizations still need to get their data workflows in order. Doing so can offer immediate benefits while also providing a foundation for future innovation as the IoT gains an even deeper reach across the supply chain. Don't let the seemingly impossible IoT visions painted by technology giants and major corporations cloud your idea of what the technology can do for you. Instead, begin laying a data-driven operations foundation now through ERP integration and mobile data collection so you'll be ready to take advantage of the IoT at a controlled, focused pace.

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