Transparency: The Superpower Behind Global Supply Chains

Supply Chain

The real superpower behind the popular Marvel heroes known as the Avengers goes far beyond unusual talents. Watch them closely, and you’ll see that much of their collective strength comes from a shared visibility. They can be in the right moment with the right solution because they have the data and knowledge needed to win the battle.

The global supply chain works much the same way.

The Wall Street Journal did a fascinating documentary called “Why Global Supply Chains May Never be the Same.” I highly recommend you watch this. It describes the supply chain as a complicated “web” of people moving cargo forward and bringing products to people. It’s a good metaphor.

As consumers, we don’t often see the “invisible” supply chain – all the people and moving parts behind the simple action of clicking to buy a product and finding it on our doorstep. Yet a healthy supply chain is critical to the American economy. The problem now? The web is torn. Single points of failure have turned the rate of processing and shipping, normally three to five days, into two weeks and beyond, according to the documentary. I learned, too, that the cost is higher than I ever imagined: $9B of goods stuck for a day, costs $400 million per hour.

While both supply chain problems and solutions are complicated, progress is being made to increase performance and long-term business value. The study of this topic could fill whole books, yet one aspect seems critically important: transparency.

The bigger picture

What if we could see the entire supply chain web? What impact would that have on our businesses and getting products into the hands of customers?

Transparency is a quality I’ve long valued. It is the basis for seeing the whole truth and leads to greater trust, whether between friends or a multibillion-dollar business delivering on its promise to customers.

Tamara McCleary, Thulium CEO, eloquently hits upon this point in her interview on the AT&T Business BIZTALKS Chat with Kevin L. Jackson, host of Digital Transformers. Her work resides at the crossroad of science, technology and the public good. In her interview, she says the breakdown in supply chain management comes down to communication, pointing to blockchain as a potential solution: “lack of transparency with people not sharing critical information to help others downstream and upstream, make adjustments as they need to, because they’re needing to either up level production or scale down. So, blockchain does that for us. And I think it provides an accurate way of measuring product quality.” She goes on to say that transparency is essential for making smart decisions.

Transparency as a superpower

What does transparency in the supply chain look like in real world applications?

Let’s start with Caterpillar. The world’s top manufacturer of construction machinery is achieving faster processing by using technology like data analytics and automation for greater data visibility and fewer delays. With the help of AT&T Business, Caterpillar launched CAT Connect to provide aftermarket support and product support to customers. CAT can see how operators interact with CAT equipment and provide timely feedback so the customer gets the most out of the product.

Another example is Nutreco, a global animal feed company selling in 200 countries. You can imagine the value of real-time visibility needed to solve problems faster and provide digital fulfilment on time for a global company. The key for Nutreco was to connect all these locations for greater agility and optimize edge-to-edge technology. AT&T Business installed FlexWare Solutions, allowing Nutreco to run virtual services on the network without the need for hardware. The system is sleek! With a few clicks, the company can choose and install a firewall, for example, almost like an app store or an on-demand wish list.

Each of these companies are supercharging their supply chain performance while working toward continuous improvement.

Our eyes and ears: the rise of IoT

Collecting, interpreting and acting on data is the surest pathway to transparency, particularly as the internet of things (IoT) explodes. According to Gartner’s white paper entitled “The Top 8 Supply Chain Technology Trends: “Big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) next to advanced analytics and intelligence are considered the most important emerging technology areas for supply chains. Gartner research shows that through 2024, 50% of supply chain organizations will invest in applications that support artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced analytics capabilities.”

An AT&T Business study entitled “The Factory of the Future” confirms these predictions. Among discrete manufacturers (those that assemble parts to make a product like automobiles, aircraft, smartphones and computers), 23% put IoT on their wish list, second only to a modern network infrastructure at 25%. Such technology is not reserved for the Fortune 500 either. IoT is becoming more accessible to midsize and small businesses as the price has become more affordable from third-party providers. In a separate AT&T Business study entitled “The Next-Generation Supply Chain,” researchers found that 71% of respondents use IoT as part of their manufacturing, logistics or supply chain processes. The primary reasons were safety, compliance monitoring and asset condition monitoring.

I will add one more reason that I hope more people will talk about in future days: sustainability.

Here again, we have a great example of a company employing technology to create greater transparency. AT&T Business client Emerson Grind2Energy empowers clients to turn food scraps into clean, renewable energy. The company uses IoT sensors to monitor waste, carbon emissions and water conservation. Both the Grind2Energy team and its customers have access to real-time information about their recycling thanks to an infrastructure laid over the Grind2Energy product. They can, for instance, monitor tank levels and how much material they are generating. From this insight, Grind2Energy creates sustainability reports so customers track progress.

What’s next?

There are changes coming down the line to strengthen supply chains. Moving your company and supply chain partners to a single platform creates a more agile and collaborative environment. It’s time to gather up all the vendors, all the technology and commit to a single dashboard by which to make sense of data. Gartner observes that 22% of supply chain professionals surveyed are using technology in “highly integrated/collaborative” ways. I see this number rising dramatically in the next 12 months.

In the end, the supply chain web is not much different than our Avenger friends. It all comes back to people. You want to delight customers and follow-through on the promises you make to them, make it easy for team members to do their job well, create a resilient supply chain that shares your mission as a company, and be proactive in delivering long-term business value. Technology by itself is good, but using technology to build trust through transparency is even better.

This post was sponsored by AT&T Business, but the opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent AT&T Business’s positions or strategies.

Posted in IoT