How organizations around the globe are continuing to grapple with the impact in-person restrictions are having on supply chain operations

Supply chain operations are under pressure. Twelve months from the beginning of the global pandemic, UK organizations are still struggling with the impact in-person restrictions have had on supply chains. Even though ‘delivery driver’ has become one of UK’s most sought-after jobs in 2020, according to ManPowerGroup, the logistics of ensuring successful last-mile delivery is still difficult to achieve. The lack of physical, in-person supervision has resulted in problems not being addressed before. These have now been exposed to the end customers and seeing more complaints of faulty goods, missed deliveries or long delays in service. 

These struggles have put the operational necessity of the Internet of Things (IoT) into focus. Before Covid-19, companies had already embedded digital sensors into products and installed them on factory floors, in vehicles, throughout utility networks and retail stores. These sensors, ranging from bulldozers to electric toothbrushes, enabled businesses to track its products’ performance and the performance of its business processes and supply chains. This also allows businesses to predict when its products are ready for maintenance, repair or replacement, thus saving labor costs and reducing downtime while generating new revenue streams and improving customer loyalty. However, pre-Covid-19 these sensors were supplementary to physical examination and review of goods and services. With this human element removed, organizations have quickly come to the realization that information isn’t provided at the speed needed for full-proof and safe distribution. This hindrance is especially felt during the last mile of delivery, which is most difficult to manage and plan efficiently. 

Embedding sensors in a company’s products provide some digital capabilities to serve customers, like alerts for service or order replenishments. But, in order to take full advantage of IoT’s potential requires removing constraints imposed by traditional corporate boundaries and internal functional data silos. This means that companies need to use multiple data sources to maximize the benefits of its IoT systems, including data from suppliers, from field technicians on repair calls and from their customers. Although beneficial, in isolation increasing the use IoT sensors is not enough to mitigate the gap left by the removal of physical oversight. 

Becoming something more

Without the harmonization of heterogeneous data, which is only viable using automation and transitioning to the cloud, adding additional sensors only adds to the increased levels of complexity. If a company can obtain a single view of the entire supply chain, through harmonizing the vast amounts of data they receive, for instance, merging sensor data from the supply chain with the data from ERP, CRM, logistics and real-time events, they’ll be able to efficiently drill down on specific pain points of the supply chain and introduce corrective measures. This single, clear, view allows routes to be optimized and makes possible dynamic scheduling. At a time where there are extreme surges in customer needs, this agility and optimization ensures organizations can meet delivery timelines and provide goods in optimum condition. 

This ability is especially prevalent in industries such as perishables, where imperfections can mean whole orders can be scrapped due to the high demands of the grocers and general public. With fruit and vegetables having very limited, finite times when able to be sold, sensors allow for imperfections to be raised immediately. This provides suppliers with the ability to limit their losses from the outset, rather than expending resources packaging the products to go to market and being told by the grocer that they’re unable to be sold. 

Having sensors across all operations allows for greater safety measures to be introduced. For cargo logistics, especially, the ability to monitor the overall fleet, the driver’s performance and the products being transported allows for informed decisions to be made by managers – who may at this time be forced to stay at home. 

One company that has realized the potential of this technology is Damen Shipyards. The organization has introduced connected vessels with more than 10,000 IoT-connected sensors on-board collecting data on fuel consumption, engine performance and operational efficiency. Having this full picture has helped Damen become more than a builder; thanks to the data it collects in context, it is now a maritime solutions provider and able to perfect its operations as and when the data dictates it. 

Optimizing productivity

Well-designed IoT systems are purpose-driven, delivering outcomes designed for specific benefits.  They are resilient. The fact that they are distributed means that one node failure doesn’t break the system. They are adaptable, expanding and contracting as business needs demand. IoT systems are integral to emerging digital ecosystems because they connect to external parties. This radical connectivity can reconfigure how industry players interact with customers, suppliers, partners, and competition – if companies are open to the possibilities. An electric car, for example, may connect the vehicle and drivers to electric utilities, insurance companies, location-based services, and other service providers, even as it provides in-vehicle Wi-Fi.

These end-to-end IoT systems, entwined with artificial intelligence and machine learning predictive recommendations, are able to integrate multiple sensor networks, with efficient integration mechanisms, with wider enterprise ecosystems. What this means is a problem can be identified, fixed and closed in a matter of minutes, ensuring an efficient process at all times. All enterprises, regardless of size, need this visibility and control in order to optimize productivity. This is especially true during these testing times.

Reguraman Ayyaswamy, Senior Vice President & Global Head, Internet of Things (IoT), Tata Consultancy Services

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