Optimising the flow - Supply Chain Management Special Technology Report


IT Reseller spoke to a number of key spokespeople from the vendor and analyst communities about recent developments in the world of supply chain management-related solutions – including those involving mobility, Cloud/SaaS and Big Data.

Contributors are: Panorama Consulting Solutions, Frost & Sullivan, Oracle UK, VDC Research, Zebra Technologies, BEC (Systems Integration) Ltd, DynaSys, Peoplevox, Gartner and Capgemini Consulting.

The pace of technological change within the supply chain management solutions space is fast and unrelenting. So, among the myriad current and ongoing developments what have been some of the most discussion-worthy sweet spots? Eric Kimberling, president, Panorama Consulting Solutions, considers that Cloud- and SaaS-based solutions represent one big innovation that is gaining quite a bit of traction in the supply chain management space. "These are relevant not only because so much of the enterprise software space in general is headed toward the Cloud, but because it provides more real-time and reliable visibility into a company's supply chain operations at any given time," he said.

According to Kimberling, another key current innovation trend is a two-tier ERP strategy, which many companies are adopting to enable their SCM system to bolt on to their traditional, back-office ERP system. "This allows companies to get the best of both worlds – the financial and inventory management capabilities of ERP, integrated with the supply chain capabilities of SCM software," he explained. Kimberling believes these trends are being driven by a number of influences, ranging from rapidly evolving and maturing technology capabilities, increased competition – and therefore better products – from SCM software vendors, and increased demands from customers.

Digital tapestry

Muthuraman 'Ram' Ramasamy, research manager – automation and process control, Frost & Sullivan, comments that tomorrow's supply chain will focus on creating a digital tapestry from ideation of the product through the product's entire lifecycle. "Today, the SCM implementations are very siloed with systems not collaborating with each other," he said. "Hence, this restraints enterprise visibility and the ability to predict domino effects of any non-compliant activity within a supply-chain."

Because of this, states Ramasamy, the emerging convergence happening between SCM systems and analytics will create new growth opportunities and drive creative destruction and expansion of traditional business models. "Analytics, be it predictive or prescriptive, will steer supply chains to be more proactive, integrated, intelligent and interactive," he added. "The use of machine learning algorithms, a stream of analytics, will help create the aspects of self-learning and self-healing supply-chains. Aspect of the self-learning supply-chain already exists today. Many companies offer solutions, wherein supply-chains sense disruptions and automatically re-route shipments to ensure achievement of the final requirement."

Ramasamy foresees that, in the future, supply chains will interact with multiple systems to create a consolidated, informed and integrated viewpoint on what is happening within a firm's spectrum of value-chain. He states that consolidating information and data is critical to drive real-time decision making.

Ramasamy adds that another emerging theme is smart factories, which will require smarter supply-chains. "Distributed manufacturing, intelligent sourcing, 3D printing are all causing micro disruptions to the supply chain," he said. "Hence, embracing these change elements now will help end-users build a resilient supply-chain of the future. A case in point: Raytheon uses artificial intelligence in supply-chain to discover previously undiscovered supplier sources. For companies who source globally, finding a reliable and quality supplier means a whole lot of difference to them."

From Frost & Sullivan's viewpoint, Ramasamy explains there are five strategic shifts within the supply-chain:

  • Systems have shifted from reactive to proactive, predictive and prescriptive;
  • Volume-driven to outcomes-based;
  • IT-centric deployment to business-centric deployment.
  • Siloed to system of systems collaboration;
  • Divergence to convergence (SCM's convergence with analytics/artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning).

Vikram Singla, product innovation and supply chain apps leader, Oracle UK, comments that it is really important to understand market dynamics and the evolution of supply chain discipline as it has matured rapidly in recent years. "Today, organisations can't rely on the traditional transactional relationships with their customers," he said. "Customers today demand high-quality, personalised experiences based on their local needs. For organisations, this means that every interaction must improve the customer experience, not matter where it is in the customer lifecycle."

Singla explains that supply chains have had to change to effectively and efficiently deliver these expectations and non-delivery directly hits the top and bottom line. "Organisations today need to leverage local Intellectual Property (IP) to ensure an appropriate offering for each target market segment," he stressed. "True partnerships, across companies, must work to ensure that a customised offering, for an increasingly smaller customer segment, is delivered profitably with as much commonality and customisation as possible. Supply chains are now at the heart of the business and not just cost-centres looking for efficiency gains only."

According to Singla, IT is now more important than ever to enable the modernisation of the supply chains. "The traditional approach of multi-year software deployment projects and not upgrading the systems for five to ten years can hold back businesses," he said. "To keep up with market demand, modern SCM systems need to be Cloud-based so that latest IT innovations can be consumed to respond to the dynamic marketplace." Singla added that Cloud-based solutions have also given rise to the use of IoT data within the supply chain, which is allowing organisations to deliver a far superior customer experience. "By pulling together information from multiple sources, and analysing it, businesses are able to gain a holistic view of operations and can use the understand to drive greater efficiency and effectiveness," said Singla.

In terms of what has driven these developments, Singla explains that many MRP/ERP systems were primarily designed a few decades back to serve the factory-centric world. "Many new SCM application categories, such as APS (Advanced Planning Systems), TMS (Transportation Management systems), PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) were created around these systems to meet the challenges of the evolving world," he said. "It is a bit like the patchwork extension of an airport or a train station that can go only so far to meet the needs of today. Despite heavy investment and spending years to build, the security, scalability and the reliability become a serious issue which is why it is often easier and more efficient to build from scratch."

Singla adds that a similar approach for supply chain IT was long overdue and the systems needed to be built, ground-up, to support various business flows, including:

  1. Ideation to commercialisation.
  2. Order to cash.
  3. Source to settle.
  4. Plan to produce.
  5. Break to fix.

"So, the changes have been rather fundamental and driven to serve an entirely different set of end-user needs than those that used to exist before," he said.

Competitive differentiation

Shahroze Husain, research associate, AIDC, VDC Research, and David Krebs, executive vice president, enterprise mobility & AIDC, VDC Research, comment that for many organisations supply chain operations are becoming a growing source of competitive differentiation, increasing the focus on investment decisions surrounding disciplines such as logistics and warehouse operations. "As organisations look to retool their operations to better meet these rigours, warehouse solution decision makers are citing the need to support faster shipments and improve labour performance as leading warehouse solution investment catalysts, driving the need for smarter warehouse operations," they said.

Husain and Krebs added that workflow shifts from pallet fulfilment to item-level support is placing a greater strain on warehouse performance; further exposing the cost of errors and increasing the need to equip workers with solutions that enable ever higher levels of performance. With labour the single highest cost for these businesses, VDC research indicates that as long as the human element continues to play a central role in warehousing, any technology that optimises workflows and improves accuracy will add tremendous value.

Other innovations highlighted by Husain and Krebs include modular SCM offerings, data sharing cross systems, and the emergence of Cloud-based solutions. "Customisation and modularity will be appealing to organisations as they are able to pick and spend on software according to their warehouse operational needs," they said.

Further changes to software, according to Husain and Krebs, will be Cloud-based management systems that can be accessed from anywhere and from multiple platforms, and the analytics of Big Data will play a role in shaping the warehouse/distribution centre of the future. "Developments are already in place with solution providers developing modular management platforms instead of complete WMS, WCS, or WES packages," they pointed out.

Visibility and traceability

David Stain, senior vertical marketing manager EMEA manufacturing, field mobility & healthcare, Zebra Technologies, comments that visibility and traceability are becoming the cornerstones of fulfilment and service. "As manufacturers drive towards lean enterprises and consumers are demanding personalised products delivered on their terms the supply chain has to be more transparent," he said. "Manufacturers are now more centric to the supply chain as stored inventory is expensive. Hence manufacturers have to be lean and accurate to enable on-time-in-full delivery." In terms of drivers for change, Stain considers these to be several-fold. "However, put simply, people are driving smart devices and demand smart fulfilment from smart factories," he said. "Shopping is being partnered by clicks and in industry fulfilment conversations replaced with data transfer."

Gary Shaw, business consultant, DynaSys, considers that the availability of data for decision making is important. "People hear about Big Data, and at the same time it's taking them five days to prepare their spreadsheets for the S&OP/IBP meetings," he said. "Now we have in-memory databases and powerful computing combined with an end-to-end integrated APS. Organisations who capitalise on this have access to the data and decision making tools such as scenario planning and financial planning that underpin a robust S&OP/IBP process."

Shaw reflects that a key motivation for change is people's expectation to have data at their fingertips from their use of applications outside of work. "So, it's natural that they want business applications that give the same speed of response and quality of user experience," he said. Pascal Garsmeur, product manager, DynaSys, adds that a full web user interface, mobility, Cloud-based solutions and social media interaction are other key factors that drive SCM change.


Have ways of best integrating SCM with other systems developed to any notable degree over the past year or two? Jonathan Bellwood, founder and CEO, Peoplevox, doesn't believe this is the case, although he points out that Android is making positive strides in this respect when it comes to the integration of Voice for picking. "Android is essential for the successful integration of Voice when it comes to easier, faster and more accurate picking," he said. "Voice and RFID systems are for data capture and ultimately dependent on the application. Part of the lack of progress in finding ways of better integrating these with SCM is the creation of unnecessary complexities which can arise when attempting to integrate SCM software with other systems that are not fit for purpose."

In the case of WMS, Bellwood comments that RFID is good for use in the docking bay at Goods In, but barcode-based data capture is better for scanning of pallets. He adds that one-way Voice is best for picking rather than for two-way communications. "It is good for directing pickers to the next location and advising them on such things as number of orders left to pick, delivery priorities, time left on shift," said Bellwood.

Shaw observes that there is a continuing trend of moving to the Cloud for all business applications, and the growth of applications such as Dell Boomi to link these systems together. He explains that DynaSys's parent company, QAD, has created an Interoperability team to support requirements in this area to effectively link any systems together.

Stain points out that Voice picking is a means of managing humans and also migrating over to manufacturing with Voice-directed assembly. "Ultimately, the notion of Industry 4.0 will become real and the cyber physical world will drive a greater need for technology to support the human machine interface – HMI," he said. "The impact of Voice has many positive features – including route picking optimisation, better space/visual awareness by pickers (safety), dynamic storage balancing (moving locations around for space optimisation while still ensuring that stock location can be easily found by pickers) and quick and effective training of staff."

Singla explains that treating ERP and WMS systems in silo is no longer applicable. "They need to interact and work with each other and every other system in the organisation," he said. "To do this, and drive the most value from SCM systems, organisations should look to deploy systems that are built from the ground up. However, this is not always possible and businesses need to find ways to integrate new applications with existing current infrastructure." Singla points out that there are three key means of integrating effectively:

  • First is the availability of Cloud solutions, specifically for integration, that provides, cost saving, scalability and flexibility. For example, Oracle's Integration Cloud Service automatically provides an environment pre-loaded with connections to all subscribed Oracle SaaS applications. This not only provides the ability to connect to other Cloud services, but also to existing on-premise solutions.
  • Second is the availability of pre-built adapters. These accelerate integration and reduce cost even further. Oracle and its partners provide a portfolio of pre-built adapters through the Cloud marketplace. These can be used as-is or are customisable as per the business requirements.
  • Third is the availability of Cloud solutions to collate data from multiple sources e.g. production machines, fleet. Oracle's Internet of Things Cloud (IoT) enables data collection, analysis and then feeds to enterprise systems to improve the business process.

Disruption of actual operations

Mark Atwood, analyst, Gartner, believes that a digitally vulnerable supply chain can lead to disruption of actual operations. He added that it can also lead to significant damage to brand and reputation, product safety and integrity issues, loss or theft of intellectual property, and substantial fines and fees. Given the stakes, Atwood explains that security is a top concern for supply chain leaders. He added that in Gartner studies of supply chain senior executives, 'cybersecurity' has been ranked as the top worry for the past two years.

Atwood also states that digitalisation has blurred the line between how information is secured and how physical environments are secured, requiring a shared security strategy and planning. "The term 'cybersecurity' does not adequately capture the physical and the information worlds that are increasingly merging," he said. "This can lead to confusion and incomplete approaches to dealing with the expanded threat to the supply chain. Therefore, a new approach to governance, planning and management that Gartner designates as 'digital security' is required to denote the digital effects on both information and physical environments of the supply chain."

Atwood explains that digital security uses the tools and techniques of IT for data and software as well as engineering-oriented techniques from OT, the IoT and physical security automation and management. He points out that both types are also used in product security to minimise vulnerabilities, maintain system integrity, allow access only to approved 'entities' (human and machine) and protect assets.

"Digital security is an issue for all business processes and capabilities," remarked Atwood. "Supply chain, however, stands alone in the number of 'hand-offs' that typically occur from raw material to delivery of finished good with the customer or patient. All the functional areas of an integrated, end-to-end supply chain – plan, source, make, deliver, and customer service – are potential touchpoints where threats could occur." Atwood added that digital security for the supply chain requires the governance, management and development of operational processes. "It uses security tools and techniques for protecting information and physical assets to achieve regulatory compliance, and maintain privacy, safety and resiliency across the supply chain," he explained.

Supply chain control towers 2.0

Rob van Doesburg, lead logistics and fulfilment, Capgemini Consulting, explains that in an earlier Capgemini blog 'Supply Chain Control Towers: is the hype over?', one of the conclusions was that control tower solutions are now mature but that many control tower implementations still have a limited scope from a supply chain and/or functionality perspective.

Expanding on the theme, van Doesburg addresses the questions of how companies can assess the maturity of their current supply chain control tower solution, and how they can drive cost reductions and improve service levels by extending their existing control tower solutions. According to van Doesburg, the maturity of supply chain control tower solutions can be assessed using the following dimensions:

  • Supply chain: which supply chain processes are supported, e.g. manufacturing, warehousing and transportation for inbound and/or outbound flows.
  • Functionality: which activities are conducted, e.g. order management, planning, event management, cost control, analytics and/or workflow management.
  • Geography: which countries/regions are in scope of the control tower.
  • Business: how many business units or divisions are supported.
  • Governance: decisions rights of the control tower, e.g. accountable, responsible, consulting and/or supporting.
  • Capabilities: operational, tactical and/or strategic capabilities of staff members.
  • IT support: tools and systems supporting the control tower and level of integration with other systems.

According to van Doesburg, control towers can be taken 'to the next level' by extending the scope on the dimensions that have been identified before. For example, the maturity of a transportation control tower could be improved by including warehousing activities and/or other countries or divisions. In van Doesburg's view, typical benefits of these types of measures are:

  • Extending the supply chain scope: by adding warehousing and/or manufacturing processes and collaboration with partners in particular, the logistic execution costs and end-to-end supply chain quality can improve.
  • Extend functionality: transforming a control tower from an administrative set-up to an operational control tower also responsible for planning processes will create overall possibilities to reduce working capital and improve quality.
  • Extend geography/business scope: implementing the control tower concept in more countries/regions or business units/divisions will create synergies which will have a positive impact on operational costs (staff, IT, etc.) in particular.
  • Extend governance: to give the control tower more decision rights will have a particularly positive impact on service levels and working capital costs.
  • Enforcing capabilities: stronger capabilities of staff members will create more possibilities for flexibility in the supply chain.
  • Better IT support: dedicated and integrated tools will notably reduce operational costs as a result of automation of manual work, communication and decision support.

Thus, explains van Doesburg, enhancing the maturity of a control tower solution through these different drivers can have significant benefits, both in terms of cost reduction and improvement of service levels. "The hype may be over, but the real value of having a control tower solution may only now begin to surface," he said.

Functionality enhancements

Has the level of functionality notably increased within today's state-of-the-art SCM systems? Stain sees it as getting more granular and more defined, but adds that volume, variety, verification and velocity is growing in terms of material handling. "To that end, we are seeing a shift towards 2d barcode adoption to accommodate bigger data needs and authenticity," he said.

Kimberling has witnessed that, in general, SCM and ERP software have done a better job of developing more flexible integration tools in recent years. In addition, he points out that vendors have invested more not only in their direct products, but also in their ecosystems of third-party solutions that are able to integrate with their core offerings. Kimberling believes these two trends have enabled better integration with their systems.

Ramasamy comments that SCM systems of late have been seen to integrate with various other systems to drive informed decision making. "Particularly over the past five years, the level of integration among SCM with manufacturing execution systems, planning systems and quality systems has risen to improve production throughput and customer line service level efficiencies," he said. "Also, the integration of IoT/sensor deployment on production lines allows customers to capture production-related data (such as torque, pressure, ambient conditions, etc.) and use it to enable full value-chain traceability once the product has been shipped and is being used by the customer. These deployments will further be integrated as customers find innovative use-cases and benefits from integration of SCM with other systems."

Ramasamy adds that Voice could be biggest disruptor in SCM, as everything today is transaction-based and requires a system. "Use of biometrics and Voice profiling-based authentication for batch releases, shipment releases will infuse further efficiencies into the system," he said. Similarly, Ramasamy believes augmented reality will also be the next biggest disruptor. "As after-sales services, technically falls within the gamut of a supply-chain, the use of AR/VR technologies will help problem resolution at source and first-time right processes," he remarked.

Singla considers that the needs from modern SCM systems are quite different today. "State-of-the-art systems are built from the ground up to inherently serve today's needs," he said, adding that they are characterised by:

Order to Cash

Singla elaborates: "In this customer-centric world, the customers want the perfect order – on-time, complete, damage free and with accurate documentation. An order, as an example, may consist of multiple products shipped from different factories across the world and each factory may have a different ERP system. However, the customer wants simplicity and does not really want different delivery dates for different products unless stated. They want one, seamless experience where the various systems work together to provide them with a single order. As organisations transition towards a single ERP system, the concept of an Order Hub sitting across multiple capture and fulfilment systems has become extremely important. It drives the orchestration of the fulfilment, across orders collected from all channels, to deliver the product in a timely and profitable manner."

Ideation to commercialisation

Singla comments: "Many CEOs cite product innovation as a top priority to drive growth. However, many studies show that only a few (20%) believe that the investments in innovation are paying off (Good to grow 2014 US CEO Survey – PWC). The challenge is not having enough ideas, but how to rapidly filter them through a consistent mechanism to compare apples to apples and hence drive few ideas all the way to the final product. This means having a holistic view of the ideation to commercialisation process. However, the traditional systems were not really designed to support this process and even Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems only support the product development phase. New functionalities such as Oracle's Innovation Management Cloud and Product Hub Cloud are now available to support this process."

In terms of some of the main functionality differentiators among the SCM vendor community, Singla says three of the key approaches being adopted in the SCM software space are:

Point Cloud solutions

Singla elaborates: "Many vendors have decided to focus on a certain aspect of a business process. They have built bespoke capabilities for a certain industry or even geography giving them specialisms that differentiates their offering from competitors. Examples include capturing of ideas, demand planning or trade compliance management."

External hosting of traditional systems

Singla comments: "Some of the vendors now offer Infrastructure-as-a-Service SCM solutions. The main advantages are the breadth of capability and lower hardware cost. The deployment and refresh approach is traditional."

Modern Cloud for end-to-end business process

Singla comments: "The third approach is a complete rebuild of the applications to support modern end-to-end business processes. The main advantages are the breadth of capability and lower deployment costs. As the software is provided on the Cloud, the business can consume IT innovations as required."


And what is the current state of play regarding the SaaS/Cloud adoption model in the supply chain management sphere? Expanding on a key point he addressed earlier in this report, Kimberling believes the Cloud has impacted the SCM systems market in a big way. "It has paved the ways for smaller and less sophisticated companies to start adopting these solutions, which for many was not feasible before the advent of Cloud and SaaS solutions," he explained.

Andrew Briggs, technical director, BEC (Systems Integration) Ltd., makes the point that the Cloud model makes it easier to share applications and data with suppliers, customers and partners, using the standard security and access control. "Historically, this created headaches for IT departments, with the need to create custom reports, secure portals etc.," he said, adding that the Cloud model also facilitates improved scalability and roll-out of solutions. "For example, by extending business systems into TPLs, newly acquired business units etc. can be achieved much quicker with less resource," he explained.

Ramasamy sees several new SaaS-driven business models entering the SCM market. "Particularly, cost efficiencies and scale optimisation are experienced by using the Cloud-based approach as compared to on-premise approach," he said.

Husain and Krebs comment that Cloud-based solutions are expected to increase in adoption going forward. "Many solution providers are experimenting with the idea of Cloud-based WMS solutions, but the shift from on-premise to Cloud-based has been slow in comparison to other enterprise applications (such as CRM) due to security concerns, and the more conservative approach supply chain executives take with technology investments," they said. "However, the trend is undeniable and in the future we certainly expect Cloud-based supply chain applications – across the entire value stack – to scale massively. To put this in perspective, data centres – today almost 80% on-premise – is expected to decline to 20% by 2024."

Shaw believes the Cloud model is becoming the accepted norm. "People use Cloud apps for critical and secure functions like banking outside of work, so it's a natural progression inside work," he said. "Using a good Cloud solution lets organisations focus on their core business and frees up IT to work strategically rather than maintaining servers and doing backups. From an implementation point of view, deploying a core APS (Advanced Planning Systems) model to multiple sites through the Cloud is significantly easier than a traditional on-premise solution. It allows multiple sites to work in the same system and provides a global view of the business for senior management."

More accurate real-time decision making

Bellwood comments that SaaS is playing an increasingly pivotal role in how quickly and easily users gain access to aggregated data; leading to speedier, more accurate, real-time decision making across the supply chain. "As part of this, SaaS is allowing SCM solutions to leverage the potential of the IoT by connecting retailers' warehouses into the supply chain and enabling collection of passive data," he said.

In the area of WMS, Bellwood observes that SaaS is on the cusp of wide-scale adoption by retailers who are increasingly recognising the cost-savings and business benefits of using SaaS-based software for more easily and efficiently managing distributed warehouses remotely from their headquarters. "The peace of mind of an offline 'fail-safe' operating mode, and the growing prevalence of 4G as a back-up alternative to wireless/Internet connection, is also accelerating this adoption," he added.

Singla observes that as Cloud computing provides a wealth of benefits including low upfront investment, secure access, faster deployments, simplified integration, continuous upgrades and effortless scalability, it is becoming the dominant IT model. "The enterprise-grade IT is now available to a much larger marketplace," he explains, adding that even shadow IT can now move to the Cloud. "This shift to the Cloud creates a growth opportunity in the SCM software solutions market," continued Singla. "At Oracle Open World, 2016, we highlighted SCM Cloud software market is expected to be about $4.5 billion from about $1.8 billion in 2013 and most supply chain leaders are already using or considering using SCM software in the Cloud."


Are mobile solutions, such as mobile computers and tablet PCs, having an impact or influence on SCM? "Immensely so," remarks Stain. "A mobile worker strategy is key to both within and beyond the four walls. In integration terms, familiarity with device navigation such as Android is key to user adoption as is the need for rugged and best form factor for users – and, obviously, security."

Stain adds that device selection has become a really important topic. "We shouldn't forget the most common item missed when looking at consumer- versus enterprise-grade mobile devices – total cost of ownership is around 33% more with consumer grade devices from a support cost perspective alone." Stain cites an extract from a VDC white paper from 2013, namely: "If the device you choose can't support a mobile device remote management solution, the cost per mobile worker can increase by as much as 85%."

Another benefit of enterprise-grade WLAN devices is voice reliability, says Stain. "These devices are designed with superior radios that deliver a higher level of performance. The result is seamless roaming, constant connection, fewer dropped calls and more effective communication." A further benefit of enterprise-grade devices cited by Stain is no unwanted OS (operating system) upgrades. "Consumer-grade smartphones push out OS upgrades on their timeline, not yours," he said. "Enterprise-grade devices let you lock in an OS and keep it for as long as you want to. This helps to stabilise your operation and maximise uptime."

Singla comments that mobile solutions have definitely had an impact both in terms of data analysis and data provision, enabling the next level of process efficiency. "Modern applications are mobile-enabled and the analytics can be accessed through tablets and even mobile phones," Singla pointed out. "Decisions can be made faster as the analytics and alerts are readily available, and various stakeholders can provide their perspectives on the go, speeding up the end-to-end process." Additionally, Singla highlights the fact that mobility helps to capture more granular information faster; e.g. proof-of-delivery information from the truck driver the minute the product is delivered; resulting in faster invoice processing and shorter cash-to-cash cycle.

Briggs makes the point that the scope of people using these mobile devices is changing. "More people are having access to information via smart phones and tablets for reports and dashboards while they are out and about or at home, and more executive level personnel are using mobile devices than before," he said.

Shaw says one of the benefits of mobility solutions is they can support forecast collaboration; especially from field-based sales people. "Give them a nice user interface and a simple way of interacting with the forecast and they are much more inclined to spend time on the forecast to provide good quality insight," he said.

Empowering warehouse personnel

Bellwood remarks that mobile combined with SaaS delivery is empowering warehouse personnel. "It brings them much closer to the action – to the point of activity – and they are increasingly familiar and at home with typing on touchscreen mobile devices," he said. "This all means greater speed, agility and accuracy when it comes to decision making, as well as improved response times, productivity, customer service, and ultimately, profitability."

The evidence of mobile adoption is already out there, says Bellwood. "Mobile-friendly printers are now being deployed as required anywhere in the warehouse; keyboards on mobile, handhelds are being replaced by touchscreen. Just imagine the situation without mobility. The operative has to find a desktop PC or wait on a manager to print off a report and then must walk down the aisle or to the packing bench to investigate the issue in question. Then walk back to the PC to make the necessary change on the system: all very slow and clunky."

Bellwood also points out that as Android becomes increasingly adopted in SCM, more personnel in organisations are benefitting from fit for purpose mobile devices, designed for their job function. For example, one for the manager, another for operatives doing receiving and scanning tasks, and another one still for supervisors, doing stock control tasks for example. "Until recently this amount of choice would have been cost-prohibitive to mobile device manufacturers, but Android-led market demand across SCM is changing this," he said.

Ramasamy points out that the use of smart watches, smart pads and smart glasses are all making inroads to close the field workforce automation loop.

Big Data

Another large talking point in the supply chain world is Big Data; a theme already referenced by some of our commentators above. So, to address the topic in more detail, how and to what extent is Big Data having an impact on the world of SCM solutions? Stain sees Big Data shifting to 'right data' as the extent and breadth of data can be overwhelming. "We are seeing a lot of App-based developments to enable use case and work cell extension – a modular approach."

Singla reflects that Big Data is essentially providing huge swathes of data, at a rapid speed, to allow organisations to easily and swiftly understand their entire supply chain. "This can be used to improve business efficiency and to improve customer experience," he said. "For example, a digital imaging solutions company primarily built and sold products. However, they were facing significant challenges around monetising and improving the quality of its customer services. They now collect and analyse data from a million sensors and 100 million daily transactions. This has helped them to transition to monetised services and increase throughput four times over its prior solution."

In terms of the main drivers for these Big Data developments, Singla says there is no denying the fact that volume, variety and velocity of data has increased dramatically; whether it is the through the voice of the customer, product, factory, asset. Singla points out that Beecham Research estimates more than 50 billion devices will be connected by 2020, so the data complexity will only grow.

Singla adds: "Marco Annunziata at GE has stated that the cost of the sensors and information processing has decreased dramatically and now make the economics to process Big Data viable. For example, with increasing availability and accuracy of store and daily data from retailers, early adopters are starting to plan at store and daily level. This helps companies create superior plans and optimally trade off service and inventory levels. Moving to daily data typically meant going from 1X to 100X on the data scale and was cost prohibitive in the past. The availability of Cloud solutions, such as Oracle's Big Data Cloud, has also significantly reduced the risk to undertake investments in these Big Data projects."

Singla also references a report from Hitachi that has revealed the technology advancements and awareness are getting aligned now. "The hardware has higher battery life, processing power and miniaturisation," he said. "Users are lot more familiar with mobile and the applications as these have become ubiquitous. So, more data is being generated that can be exploited to improve different business processes."

Kimberling sees Big Data as a double-edged sword. "When properly leveraged, it gives organisations a better historical and predictive understanding of their supply chain operations," he said. "On the other hand, many organisations struggle with how to make good use of Big Data; either because the tools are too sophisticated for them or because employees haven't been properly trained to effectively use them."

In terms of the main drivers for these Big Data developments/enhancements, Kimberling reflects that for years companies have been stockpiling data about their operations with no structured way to make sense of it all. "The Big Data movement is a way for companies to turn data into more meaningful information to allow them to better plan and predict the future," he said.

Identifying patterns and trends

Husain and Krebs comment that for organisations preparing themselves for the future, collecting and leveraging Big Data is about identifying patterns and trends that can propel thair business forward. "From a warehousing and logistics standpoint, studying data and metrics from equipment and labour performance against external data sets can yield trends for optimising productivity, safety, and equipment utilisation in the workplace," they said.

Husain and Krebs add that Big Data has emerged as an operational advantage to businesses as it can reveal valuable patterns, actionable insights and remains an untapped resource for many. "Supply chain solutions generally address three core issues: planning, execution and visibility," they explained. "While many mature solutions are addressing the first two, visibility continues to confound decision makers. In a certain degree it is about Big Data, but really it is more about the right data. One of the biggest challenges for supply chain operations has been integrating data from disparate sources – be it proof of delivery, weather, container location, etc. – to enable and scale real time decision making at the point of interaction."

For solution providers, Husain and Krebs believe the next step from a Big Data perspective will be for vendors to introduce modules or solutions that can combine data from multiple data silos and systems to provide actionable insights/results to users. "As more data is harnessed and trends are identified, modules and algorithms can be introduced for future management systems such as WES and WCS to not only automate routine tasks but also to make complex decisions which are today left to end-user decision-makers – thus opening the potential to achieving 100% fully automated warehouses and distribution centres. Leverage Big Data and analytics will be vital to drive innovation, deliver new products and services, and compete successfully in an emerging digital world."

Briggs explains that much of the business intelligence in solutions to date has focused on users; for example, the performance/productivity of operatives. "We expect that we are going to see much more use of the masses of data that can be gathered through warehouse management systems," he said. "From a supply chain perspective, this will facilitate the ability to monitor all business process, transparency across many sites. The large volumes of quantitative data will enable very accurate measurement and forecasting of resources – labour, energy, materials etc. This will provide immediate real-time quality and reliability measures, with triggers for anomalies, and exceptions that can then be handled immediately."

Shaw sees many of the key benefits of Big Data, and drivers for further Big Data developments, as pointing to the Internet of Things (IoT), something that is anticipated to become an increasingly strong force in the world of manufacturing and the supply chain; among other industry/business areas.

Bellwood says the human brain cannot possibly interpret the huge volume of 'Big Data' being created and stored, and believes it can only become useful when used in association with Artificial Intelligence. "Having an AI 'sidekick' will increasingly empower humans to make more intuitive decisions based on real-time data, captured and then aggregated from multiple sources," he said. "For example, in the warehouse, managers will receive alerts and suggestions based on actual events taking place. One area this will streamline and improve will be delivery cut off times. The AI will lend the intelligence to dispense with cut off times altogether and replace them with real-time delivery slots popping up on web-based delivery systems – as they become available and matching them to customer preferences. This means more orders can be accepted for next day or even same day, leading to increased sales and all without increasing staffing levels." Bellwood added that Peoplevox is actively involved in AI for WMS and will be launching a number of initiatives in 2017.

The way forward

What might be the next innovations/developments to look out for in the world of SCM software over the next year or two? Briggs points to the Internet of things (IoT); connecting many sources of data, from the factory, warehouse, the vehicles on the road and the delivery points. "Getting all this data into the one place allows for much more powerful analytics, and automating the acquisition of data in real time guarantees both its accuracy and timeliness," he said.

Ramasamy also anticipates increased use of IoT and IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) – together with an increasing number of inputs into the systems. He also foresees security at end-device level. "Vulnerability is increasing from every point connected; security is not built into this device," he said.

Ramasamy also anticipates increased use of IoT and IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) – together with an increasing number of inputs into the systems. He also foresees security at end-device level. "Vulnerability is increasing from every point connected; as security is not built into this device," he said.

Kimberling sees the continuation of the Cloud and Big Data movements, with vendors investing more in this arena over time. He adds that the two-tier ERP/SCM strategy (aka best of breed) is becoming more viable for organisations.

Husain and Krebs anticipate greater integration/introduction of advanced analytics, execution and control systems as the supply chain becomes more automated. Automation optimisation through the analysis of data collected in the warehouse via sensors and data collection devices. Organisations can use data capture devices to collect data such as the hourly capacity of an ASRS system or number of objects shipped per location and in turn use that data to optimise operations, plan inventory, adjust production schedules, etc.

Shaw anticipates a host of further developments and enhancements; including extended mobility with full web-based application, social media interaction, KPIs and integrated supply chain analytics. Bellwood believes that, without doubt, AI will be one of the key future developments for leveraging the potential of Big Data. This, he maintains, will lead to faster, more accurate and predictive decision making.

Stain foresees developments in the direction of trailer load analytics, dimensioning and an exponential adoption of 2d barcode, RTLS and RFID. He also makes the point that the average CIO manages three to five operating systems although they would prefer just one. Additionally, Stain observes that returns logistics is becoming a selling point for retail brands – but can become very costly if technology is not brought to bear. "Particularly around the Christmas period, visibility, track and trace and a technology driven mobile workforce are key," he said. "The mobile computer at the doorstep to return goods with on-demand print capability to hand all connected to your ERP assure the Christmas Elves have total visibility."

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