Supply Chain Technology 101: Important Terms, Tech, and Trends

Cameron Summerson
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Supply Chain Technology 101: Important Terms, Tech, and Trends

The modern supply chain relies on technology to raise efficiency, lower costs, and streamline operations. Supply chain technology is at a point of constant innovation, and keeping up with the latest trends is paramount. 

From simple (but effective) innovations like smart barcode scanners to truly mind-blowing advancements like autonomous drones and warehouse robots, there are a lot of moving parts in the supply chain. 

Examples of supply chain technology 

Whether you’re working the warehouse, transporting goods across the country, or worried about the last mile, technology is an integral component. Here are some common examples: 

  • Smart sensors, barcode scanners, RFID tags, and GPS trackers for monitoring inventory as it moves through the warehouse and beyond.
  • Autonomous drones and warehouse robots for sorting, pulling, and storing goods.
  • In-cab trucking tablets for route management and asset tracking.
  • AI and ML for automating inventory management, forecasting, equipment maintenance, and more. 
  • Centralized cloud databases for global access, intelligent scaling, and OpEx optimization. 
  • Augmented reality in warehouses and transport for instant delivery of tracking, navigation, and more.

In some cases, different pieces of technology are used for a variety of purposes across the stages of the supply chain. For example, a warehouse tablet might be used for monitoring inventory, but could also double as a logistics dashboard. The RFID tags and GPS trackers that help workers locate goods on the warehouse floor are the same ones that allow those goods to be tracked across the country. Augmented reality glasses might be used on the warehouse floor and by delivery drivers. 

Supply chain trends to watch

As technology advances and the supply chain continues to modernize, there are certain trends to be aware of. In the coming years, it’s very likely these will be the difference makers. Now’s the time to start implementing. 

Micro-fulfillment: Faster delivery times with smaller, strategic warehouses

Micro-fulfillment is the modern solution to the last mile. It can realistically be utilized in a couple of different ways:: 

  • Smaller warehouses in urban areas for faster delivery times to customers and stores
  • Online orders with curbside or in-store pickup

In fact, these two methods can actually work in tandem, and more often than not retailers that utilize one of these delivery methods will also take advantage of the other. Bigger retailers that offer a variety of options like in-store pickup, curbside, and short delivery windows (including same day) generally have micro-fulfillment centers in highly strategic, densely populated areas that service both customer deliveries and store inventory deliveries. 

Better visibility into inventory and supply chain processes

As the supply chain gets more complex, better visibility into processes is more important than ever. This is where a lot of efficiency and optimization can be introduced to lower OpEx. Using modern tools, organizations are able to improve sightlines into inventory from raw materials to finished goods, as well as from the warehouse floor to the customer’s front door. 

There isn’t a single tool for improving visibility in the supply chain, but one of the most important first steps is creating a digital twin of the entire chain. A digital twin is exactly what it sounds like: a virtual replica of a real-world object or process. A digital twin for the supply chain is an excellent way to visualize the entire chain from start to finish and note key points where it can be optimized. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are also playing a greater role in improving processes, as analytics data is generated and analyzed automatically. The benefits of utilizing AI and ML in the supply chain are broad — they can help do everything from demand forecasting to optimizing delivery routes. 

Improved customer experiences through detailed inventory tracking

Customers want more data insights about products than ever — pricing and basic inventory are just the beginning. Real-time stock levels by individual location give customers confidence, and in-store location mapping can even guide them straight to what they need. 

But you can’t get there without detailed inventory tracking. Tracking products as they enter and leave your warehouses is only half the story — you need to keep tracking them once they hit the stores and make their way to shelves. Then you need a way to easily and intuitively deliver that information to customers in real-time. 

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)

Augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR) are truly transformative technologies, especially for the supply chain. AR can be used across the warehouse by providing real-time data on inventory, orders, and more. It can also aid in transportation by offering heads-up tracking and navigation updates, as well as instant insights into delivery changes. Combined with AI and ML, AR could stream on-the-fly route changes to transporters and drivers as conditions evolve. 

VR works in tandem with a digital twin, enabling visualization of the entire supply chain — from sourcing to delivery, and everything in between. This can help businesses identify inefficiencies and optimize processes. 

Robotics and automation

In manufacturing, robots are already used to automate repetitive tasks during production, and automated packing systems move finalized products through the manufacturing process. Robotics advancements are further increasing their efficiency and adaptability, and many of these benefits are coming to the supply chain. 

In the warehouse, autonomous robots can move, arrange, and store inventory, as well as pick and pack orders for more streamlined fulfillment. This also aids in inventory management, as automated systems monitor inventory levels and stock rotation, while AI and ML use this data with advanced analytics to generate forecasts. 

The future of robotics and automation in the supply chain could prove to be interesting, especially as things like autonomous drone and vehicles become more popular for deliveries. 

If you need help managing your devices, Esper is the answer

Whether you need to deploy dozens of transportation tablets, update all your warehouse devices, monitor the location of your digital assets, or something in between, Esper can help. We offer advanced software deployment and full remote control solutions, all with a unified management interface and intuitive console.  

Device management for supply chain businesses

Supply chain terms glossary

  1. AI: Artificial intelligence. A technology that enables machines to learn from data and make decisions without human interaction. 
  2. Backorder: A customer order for a product that is temporarily out of stock, with the promise to fulfill the order once the product becomes available.
  3. Backlog inventory handling: The process of managing and fulfilling customer orders for products that are temporarily out of stock or backordered, typically through tracking and prioritizing customer demand and scheduling production or procurement accordingly.
  4. Blind drop shipping: A fulfillment method where a supplier ships a product directly to a customer on behalf of a retailer without the retailer ever handling or seeing the product.
  5. Blockchain: A digital ledger system that provides a secure and transparent way to track transactions and share data across a network.
  6. Carrier facility: A location where shipping carriers process and sort packages before delivery.
  7. Cash to cash: A supply chain metric that measures the time it takes for a company to convert its cash investment in inventory into cash from customer sales.
  8. DDP term: Delivered Duty Paid, meaning the seller is responsible for all costs and risks associated with delivering goods to a specific destination.
  9. Distribution Center: A facility used for receiving, storing, and distributing goods to retailers or customers.
  10. Drop shipping: A fulfillment method where a retailer takes customer orders and transfers them to a supplier, who then ships the product directly to the customer.
  11. Dunnage: Material used to protect and secure products during transport, such as packing material, cushioning, or stabilizing equipment.
  12. ERP: Enterprise Resource Planning. A software system that integrates various business processes, including inventory management, finance, and accounting. 
  13. FIFO: First In, First Out. A method of inventory management where the oldest inventory is sold first to ensure freshness or to prevent obsolescence.
  14. Freight on board: A shipping term that refers to the point in the supply chain where ownership of goods transfers from the seller to the buyer.
  15. Hub supplier: A supplier that serves as a central point of distribution for multiple products or suppliers.
  16. IoT: Internet of Things. A network of interconnected physical devices embedded with sensors and can exchange data with each other. 
  17. Linehaul: The transportation of goods between two major points in the supply chain, such as between a manufacturer and a distribution center.
  18. Logistics management: The process of planning, implementing, and controlling the movement and storage of goods and services from the point of origin to the point of consumption.
  19. Logistics operations: The practical execution of logistics management, including transportation, warehousing, inventory management, and other supply chain functions.
  20. ML: Machine Learning. A subcategory of AI that involves teaching machines to learn and improve data without being programmed. Computers are trained to recognize patterns and relationships in data and use that to make predictions or generate new data. 
  21. Perpetual inventory system: An inventory tracking method that continuously updates inventory levels in real-time as goods are received, sold, or moved.
  22. RFID: Radio Frequency Identification. A technology used to automatically track and identify objects or products, typically used in inventory management or asset tracking.
  23. Single source supplier: A supplier that is the sole provider of a particular product or service to a buyer.
  24. SKU: Stock Keeping Unit. A unique identifier assigned to a specific product, used to track inventory levels and sales.
  25. Slotting: The process of organizing and arranging products within a warehouse or distribution center to optimize storage space and improve picking efficiency.
  26. Tank scheduling: The process of planning and coordinating the movement and delivery of liquids or gases in bulk containers, such as tanks or pipelines.
  27. Tendered to delivery service provider: The act of offering a shipment to a delivery service provider for transport, typically through a formal request or bid.
  28. Visibility in supply chain: The ability to track and monitor the movement and status of goods and services throughout the supply chain, often enabled by technology and data sharing.
  29. Weighted average method: An inventory valuation method that calculates the average cost of all units of inventory based on their individual costs and quantities.
  30. Wholesale planning: The process of forecasting and managing the procurement and distribution of goods to wholesale customers, typically in large quantities and at discounted prices.

Image source: metamorworks/Shutterstock.com

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Supply Chain Technology 101: Important Terms, Tech, and Trends
Cameron Summerson
Cameron Summerson

Cam is Esper's Director of Content and brings over 10 years of technology journalism experience to Esper, including nearly half-a-decade as Editor in Chief of a technology publication. He currently oversees the ideation, execution, and distribution plans for numerous types of content from blog posts to ebooks and beyond.

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