NextGen Technology: The Internet of Things

While devices have been interconnected by the Internet for more than a decade, we're just scratching the surface of what IoT means to the supply chain.

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One of tech’s trendiest catchphrases is the Internet of Things. Even if you aren’t fully familiar with IoT, you probably have a rough idea. Our devices have been interconnected over the past decade by the Internet. And, it’s not just our phones or computers: Home alarms, vehicles and even refrigerators are WiFi- and Bluetooth-enabled and doing things we never thought possible. The scariest part may be that we’re only scratching the surface of what this means to our businesses and our lives. Technology has long driven innovation within supply chain management so we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that IoT has already had an indelible impact. Below, are just some of the ways that it’s already impacting supply chain operations by reinventing processes and making them more efficient:

1. Fleet management
Companies are equipping trucks with Internet-capable sensors that allow a fleet of assets to speak to each other. You’ll have real-time access to your entire fleet, giving you the ability to provide a more accurate delivery schedule than ever before. You can even reroute deliveries based on traffic and weather conditions, making more efficient deliveries and saving on fuel costs. DHL is taking it a step further and using embedded chips in their vehicles and their docks to automatically coordinate and schedule deliveries among drivers.

2. Tracking assets from shipment to sale
Someday, barcodes may seem as ancient as the cave drawings in France. RFID tags along with GPS sensors are able to manage products from the moment they leave your warehouse to the time they spend on a retail shelf. One major implication is that this gives you a chance to perform some quality control. If there’s a delay in the shipping process, you’ll know exactly when and where it occurs. You’ll be able to track exactly how long it takes a product to go from production to sale. This makes product forecasting and inventory management automated and more accurate.

3. Reacting to Environmental Variables
If your products are highly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, environmental tracking technology can be an incredible boon. Using the same technology that exists in smart refrigerators, you can automatically receive alerts when something is out of sync. For perishable goods, the environment can be monitored and maintained automatically. In a worst-case scenario,  you can still have a replacement shipment on its way before the spoiled goods even arrive. This is also useful during the production phase. One American automaker is using environmental tracking to monitor the humidity level in their manufacturing plant. If it’s too high, they cease painting their vehicles or move the function temporarily to a less humid part of their plant. Through this process, they are able to avoid defects and maintain quality.

4. Providing data for product improvements
The data that you have isn’t just valuable for your operations. It can be valuable for your customers too, giving you an incredible way to figure out how they’re using your products and what improvements can be made. Agricultural equipment providers, for example, are using microscopic RFID tags on their equipment to track exactly how the customers use it. This information is then shared with marketing and product development teams to make product enhancements in order to make their customers’ lives even easier.

5. Monitoring inventory
You can monitor the inventory that you have on-hand and integrate it with other data points such as sales forecasts to ensure that you always have the right amount of inventory on-hand. You don’t have to worry about running out of stock or holding too much inventory and driving up your warehousing costs. If you’re able to integrate directly with your suppliers, this can all be handled without ever having to submit a single purchase order.

6. Anticipating disruptions
As on of the world’s leading data companies, it should come as no surprise that IBM is at the forefront of the Internet of Things and supply chain management. Big Blue is using Watson, it’s artificial intelligence platform, to provide suppliers with all the data it possibly can. A key selling point is its predictive ability, specifically its ability to anticipate disruptions in the supply chain early in the process. This gives you plenty of time to plan and mitigate its impact.

7. Providing the data you need
Ultimately, IoT is about greater access to data when you need it. What you do with this data is up to you. As the Internet of Things and supply chain management continue to evolve, you’ll have new ways to improve your customer experience, ship more efficiently, track inventory, and more. Constantly use this information to look for bottlenecks and areas for improvement. If there’s information that you’re missing, look for a way to gather it. The odds are good that it already exists.

Dennis Mehaffey is the Small Business Expert for who holds his MBA from Widener University and has worked in sales, marketing, content development, and management. His specialties include small business, technology and the internet of things.


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