The right time to digitalise the supply chain and reap the multiple benefits is now.

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As the global components shortage continues to challenge businesses, the value of a digitalised supply chain becomes increasingly clear. As the return to normal supply levels is still some way off and the situation is not expected to recover until 2023, the time to digitalise the supply chain and reap the multiple benefits is now. Whereas once supply chain digitalisation provided a competitive edge, it has since become an industry standard required to keep pace in an evolving industry with unpredictable challenges. 

The benefits of digitalisation 

Make no mistake, digitalising a business’ supply chain is not an easy task and is by no means a quick fix. It takes extensive research and planning before any updates can be made and once the transformation is underway, businesses are constantly learning and improving their operations based on feedback and data collected. 

However, the business benefits of a digitalised supply chain validate the time and effort required to undergo a digital transformation of supply chain management. 

Improved accuracy and efficiency are two of the most impactful factors of supply chain digitalisation. With real-time tracking and the removal of human error through software-led processes, businesses gain complete transparency of operations at every stage of the supply chain. 

Software-led processes and the introduction of automation can also result in reduced processing time, greater operational productivity and maximised ROI. If the old saying rings true and ‘time is money’, then improved efficiency with greater accuracy can only be a good thing for business. 

Greater flexibility and agility in responding to change is another valuable benefit brought by a digitalised supply chain. As many businesses have already experienced, supply and demand fluctuations can be rapid and circumstances outside of a business’ control can also affect supply chain management. 

Though there will always be some element of the unexpected, technology such as automated stock management and predictive analytics support in the identification and handling of upcoming challenges. Armed with both big data and data specifics at a more granular level, businesses can make better-informed decisions, manage a crisis more effectively and identify areas of improvement and opportunity, at all times. 

Making it happen 

Every digital transformation requires a strategy and there are multiple achievements to celebrate on the way to reaching the end goal of holistic supply chain digitalisation. Identifying the areas which need priority attention will help structure your strategy. Your digitalisation plan should be a series of incremental improvements, as opposed to a sudden and radical change. 

Auditing your existing supply chain is a sensible starting point for discovering opportunities for improvement, establishing strengths and weaknesses, and honing in on risk factors and threats to your operations. 

Using the knowledge and expertise of IT professionals within your business and operations management staff who are familiar with the everyday running of each stage of the supply chain is the best way to gain a clear insight into which aspects of the chain are strong and which are letting you down. 

Your operation management team will also be the ones using your new digitalised supply chain so gaining their insight, expertise and buy-in from the start of the project is highly valuable for future success. 

Software Implementation  

Software is at the heart of supply chain digitalisation and businesses are spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting digital logistics and supply-chain-management software (SCMS) that can oversee transactions, manage relationships with suppliers and streamline your processes. 

There is a challenge however when it comes to deciding whether to build or buy your software solution.  

Though ready-made software is the quicker and more simple option, out-of-the-box solutions may not meet the exact needs of your business and customised plugins or add-ons may be required to tailor your solution exactly as you require. 

The alternative would be to build your own software in-house, which takes a huge chunk of existing resources, adding pressure to already busy teams. 

Arguably outsourcing a custom-built solution from a reputable partner, who fully understands your pain points, risk factors and overall transformation strategy is the best way to gain a tailor-made software solution whilst keeping everyday operations running smoothly.  

Harnessing the power of real-time data, automation and AI 

Real-time data should be gathered at numerous points in the supply chain and can be gathered through a range of methods. From IoT devices to Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and GPS, the data gathered by these technologies improves your supply chain connectivity at every step. 

This data also facilitates increased visibility, improved security, cost analysis insights and accountability. From production to distribution to retail, IoT, RFID and GPS provide efficiency, transparency and data-driven insights to help businesses maximize ROI and continue to improve operations. 

Automation and AI also support in the processing of payments, the rapid sharing of information, inventory updates, tracking information, omnichannel retail sales, email automation and setting new cost goals.

Although these technologies will never entirely replace the human touch, they can assist with repetitive, manual tasks and be the first point of contact for customers which can direct customers to the correct individual or department. 

SCMS systems can integrate real-time data, automation and AI into supply chains on each level, streamlining processes to be more efficient, making more accurate predictions and protecting a business should something unforeseeable occur. 

Realising Industry 4.0 

Ultimately, digitalising the supply chain, however, your business chooses to do so is the realisation of the Industry 4.0 vision which hinges on leveraging digital technology without siloed data, processes and systems. 

The pillars of Industry 4.0 namely IoT, big data and data analytics are the main aspects to be updated in any supply chain digitalisation and taking a comprehensive approach to digitalising the supply chain means data is no longer siloed and useless but is integrated into every business decision, under any circumstance. 

A supply chain digital twin is also a helpful tool which provides a detailed simulation of an actual supply chain using real-time data and snapshots to forecast supply chain dynamics. From this, businesses can understand their supply chain’s behaviour, predict abnormal situations, and work out an action plan. The most effective supply chain management sees digitalisation throughout and can also call upon the use of digital twins to simulate the supply chain and enable the whole ecosystem to enjoy the same level of visibility and forecasting to inform every stage of the supply chain. 

Though investment in time and money, the benefits of digitalisation are evident not only in reacting to unexpected challenges but also in the day-to-day running of a business which wants to keep pace and remain competitive in the digital age. 

Author: Rasheed Mohamad, Executive Vice President of Global Operations and Business Technology, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise 

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