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Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility: The Essential IT Stack

Real-Time-Supply-Chain-Data

The benefits of real-time supply chain visibility are undeniable. A quick Google search for the phrase returns 50 million results, all of which seem to extol the virtues of real-time visibility for your entire supply chain.

And for good reason: full, real-time supply chain visibility gives your organization plenty of advantages: efficiency, agility, better inventory tracking, and more precise shipping estimates.

Better visibility lets you make data-driven decisions that give you a competitive advantage. Today, we’re diving deep into the benefits, challenges, and how’s and why’s of supply chain visibility.

In this article, we take a detailed look at supply chain visibility, and how a powerful IT stack and real-time data can drive growth, lower costs, and improve profitability for your organization.

That’s a lot of information! Let’s break it down.

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Visibility in Supply Chain: Some alarming stats

Ever wish you had a crystal ball that allowed you to see the future of your business? Let’s say you could see every aspect of your supply chain — end-to-end, data-driven snapshots of what’s going on at any given moment.Let’s also assume that you had magical powers to constantly analyze minute details and implement immediate changes to support your big-picture strategic vision.

Just imagine your competitive advantage!

Is this just a dream? For most businesses, the answer is yes, but not for long.

Complete visibility across your entire supply chain, along with the capability to make automatic and immediate changes that improve your business, is starting to become a reality. Regardless of industry or market, the more visibility you have into your supply chain, the better.

Most business leaders agree with this concept, yet only six percent feel they have full visibility into their supply chain. That’s because it’s difficult for brands to gain the full-picture perspective into their operations they desperately need.

Two main reasons are to blame:

  1. Explosive amounts of data — Supply chain data is accelerating so rapidly, it’s hard to track it, much less analyze it quickly and comprehensively.
  2. Silos that isolate data — Even if you had the tools and resources you needed to use the data to your advantage, you would have to find it first.

Currently, valuable data exists in silos, across numerous business units, partners, suppliers and even customers.

These silos make it nearly impossible to access the data you need to implement an adaptive supply chain that gives you a competitive advantage.

Businesses need a way to harness and connect supply chain data quickly in order to make impactful, smart, strategic decisions.

While many brands have implemented solutions or processes that improve visibility into various segments across the supply chain, few have been able to implement visibility across their entire supply chain.

To keep pace with evolving technologies and trends, businesses need to understand what true visibility looks like, how to support and execute it, and how to leverage it to support their future business goals.

  • 77%: Companies that still have either no visibility or a restricted view into their supply chain.
  • 6%: Companies that have complete visibility into the supply chain.
  • 25%: The amount of firms with full visibility into their supply chain that have an EBIT (earnings before interest and tax) more than 25% of turnover.
  • 33%: Companies that outsource the supply chain to gain expertise in IT and tools.
Source: 2017 Geodis Supply Chain Worldwide Survey

Chapter 1

How to Gain Supply Chain Visibility

Sophisticated supply chain solutions are incredibly expensive and require significant investment from your business. That said, building a powerful IT stack for your supply chain is key to achieving the visibility you need.

By partnering with a supply chain solutions provider, you can access all the technologies you need at a more reasonable price point.

Essential Supply Chain Visibility Tools

As you build your supply chain IT stack, below are some components to, consider adding:

Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility: Enterprise Resource Planning ERP.

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) for Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility

A robust, enterprise-grade ERP system lets you generate real-time reports to better manage inventory, warehousing, manufacturing and shipping.

You can also leverage all the data and analytics functionalities to drive decision-making.

Today’s powerful ERP systems are adding new capabilities (AI, ML, Blockchain) and let you generate real-time reports to better manage inventory, warehousing, manufacturing and shipping.

Without having to make the purchase yourself, you can also use an ERP system as the go-to dashboard to manage your operations— integrating all the information you need for full supply chain visibility.

Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility: Data Analytics.

Data Analytics for Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility

An effective data analytics strategy can unite disparate sources of information as well as organize and analyze your data for better decision-making.

64% of supply chain executives consider big data analytics a disruptive and important technology, according to SCM World’s latest Chief Supply Chain Officer Report. This sets the foundation for long-term change management in their organizations.

Data warehouses improve visibility, serving as the master repository where you can see and discover data.

Companies are increasingly leveraging cloud platforms to store and process huge data sets, and some are turning to a hybrid approach, combining on-premises data centers with public cloud infrastructure.

No matter which option you choose, you will need a data analytics strategy that can unite disparate sources of information as well as organize and analyze the data.

If you choose the public cloud option, many providers also offer data analytics as part of their services.

64% of supply chain executives consider big data analytics a disruptive and important technology, setting the foundation for long-term change management in their organizations.

SCM World’s latest Chief Supply Chain Officer Report

Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility: Data Visualization Tools.

Data Visualization Tools for Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility

The data visualization market is expected to reach USD 7.76 billion by 2023 at a CAGR of 9.47%. These tools effectively analyze data to discover insights, trends and opportunities.

As you develop enhanced access to data, you need tools that help you not only integrated the data across the supply chain, but can present large data sets in a user friendly and intuitive way.

Data visualization tools enable users who understand the data to build analytical dashboards to share data in an effective way, as well as provide tools to analyze and interrogate the data to discover insights, trends and opportunities.

Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility: Middleware/Enterprise Service Bus.

Middleware/Enterprise Service Bus for Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility

A successful middleware strategy links systems and business processes, providing better integration and coordination while enhancing supply chain visibility.

Linking systems and business processes for better integration and coordination is critical. Revenue at “fully integrated” companies outpace non-integrated companies by 20%.

To enable integration and coordination between systems, an effective middleware strategy is essential.

This manages tasks as simple as mapping different product codes to a single product all the way to orchestrating cross-enterprise processes, enabling you to link systems and business processes that allow you to leverage the benefits of enhanced supply chain visibility.

Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility: Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning.

Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning for Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility

By learning your business and recognizing data relationships, AI and ML enhance the adaptive supply chain and automatically drive optimization decisions across huge data sets.

“Machine learning is proving to be valuable at taking into account causal factors that influence demand, yet had not been known of before,” says Louis Columbus, contributor for Forbes.com in his June 2018 piece, 10 Ways Machine Learning Is Revolutionizing Supply Chain Management.

As machine learning and artificial intelligence technology improves, the ability to apply this to enhance the adaptive supply chain and drive optimization decisions across huge data sets increases.

Building tools that learn about cycles in your business or recognizes data relationships that were not visible to the naked eye and then implementing these insights automatically into your supply chain execution is starting to drive real time optimization and provide a more “hands free” way to continually drive improvements.

Machine learning is proving to be valuable at taking into account causal factors that influence demand yet had not been known of before.

10 Ways Machine Learning is Revolutionizing Supply Chain Management, Forbes.com

Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility: Application Programming Interface API.

Application Programming Interface (API) for Real-Time Supply Chain Visibility

APIs build integration of data into your supply chain, ensuring collaboration with different platforms and enabling real time orchestration of processes across systems and enterprises.

According to EFT, 55% of executives surveyed considered web service APIs as an alternative to EDI because of its overall flexibility and a more efficient exchange of electronic documents.

An API is a set of programming instructions and standards that let you access and integrate software applications—allowing different software programs talk to each other without human interaction.

APIs can be used to build integration of data into your supply chain, this ensures collaboration with different platforms and enables a real time orchestration of processes across systems and enterprises.

Supply Chain Tools & Partners: Leverage your IT stack.

After you select the right tools and technologies, you need an implementation strategy. Taking the necessary steps to improve visibility is a tremendous undertaking.

It requires intensive implementation processes, expensive technological investments and widespread organizational adjustments. It’s a lot to manage on your own, and, ultimately, it can distract your supply chain employees from their main objectives, selling the product or running manufacturing.

Many organizations find that a supply chain partner gives them the support and expertise they need to implement the full visibility across their entire supply chain.

A survey of over 100 manufacturing companies showed a growing trend for outsourcing many areas of the supply chain, such as distribution, logistics, manufacturing, finishing and packaging.

Integration in an Outsourced Supply Chain World: A Benchmark Report, Supply Chain Digest

A supply chain partner can function as an outsourced arm of the company, providing a fresh, third-party perspective to your business. The partner’s processes and its people not only drive optimization, but also provide a pool of resources that you can tap into.

Whether you are a small startup that is already data-driven but needs to scale from the ground up, or you are a large organization with multi-million-dollar legacy systems that require transformation, a partner can put the right building blocks in place to enhance supply chain visibility.

Partnering with a supply chain solutions provider also opens up other outsourcing opportunities.

In addition to using your partner’s ERP system, you can also outsource other supply chain processes, from fulfillment to kitting to even building a data warehouse. With an intimate knowledge of your business, your partner can integrate each process for better visibility across the board — in a matter of months rather than years.

What’s YOUR ideal real-time visibility?

Download our FREE ebook to discover how the right IT stack can help you determine your ideal real-time visibility throughout your supply chain.

Discover real-time visibility


Chapter 2

Supply Chain Visibility Challenges: What’s holding you back?

You probably agree that to become more competitive, you need better visibility in your supply chain. Yet, despite your best efforts to implement improved visibility, you haven’t made as much progress as you’d like.If that’s the case, you are probably experiencing one if not all of the following top barriers to adopting a more visible supply chain:

Legacy Infrastructure

A never-ending list of supply chain solutions are on the market today, which gives you lots of choices, but also makes upgrading much more complex. With such diverse options, choosing the right technology for your business is often time-consuming and confusing.

Add to that hurdle the reality that you probably already made a hefty investment in your current technologies. Moving forward means that you may have to reevaluate past purchases, which can be an agonizing process.

As you make decisions regarding your legacy infrastructures, keep in mind that they typically don’t provide the technological maturity you need to achieve end-to-end supply chain integration.

Your IT infrastructure must be able to access the data your business needs in a secure way to drive decision-making.

“Generally, business growth bottlenecks are found in two areas: 1) people and 2) processes.”

Lead Forensics

Even more importantly, it must allow you to share that data, making all information available to everyone involved in the supply chain. New technology platforms offer the processing and storage capabilities to view the complete supply chain — dismantling data silos and connecting business beyond your four walls.

As an added bonus, these newer systems are better designed to integrate into other systems and provide more access to information than legacy systems. Ultimately, retiring your legacy technology will open the door for more efficiency and provide you with the information you need to build a transformative strategy for your business.

Legacy Processes

Outdated processes and culture can pose just as large of a problem as legacy technology infrastructure; many companies today are working with a modern infrastructure paired with 1990s processes.

Updating one without the other won’t produce the results you need. Organizations need to update their processes to avoid creating blind spots along the supply chain, where an employee in charge of manufacturing has no idea what happens to the product after it leaves the facility.

For example, a company may routinely issue department-based incentives to help reach their business goals.

Let’s say a company incentivized their manufacturing department to drive down product cost, adjusting their processes to produce only the most profitable products. Next, the business encouraged the commercial team to hit every sale, so they would over-forecast demand.

Ultimately, the supply chain was caught in the middle with skewed demand planning, forecasts and production schedules.

Organizations need to optimize and incentivize across the entire supply chain so one department doesn’t undermine another. To avoid those blind spots, companies need to focus on organizational processes and culture as much as technology.

According to a PwC survey of 209 companies, 74% agreed that the number of entities in the supply chain has increased in the past three years, creating more data silos. This problem continues to grow, as 95% say that discrepancies between supply chain entities have increased.

Data Silos

Data silos are also a huge problem impeding complete supply chain visibility. As your business grows, you add complexity to your supply chain. You enlist new suppliers and partners, each with their own systems and processes.

With more entities participating in your supply chance, you increase the probability of data silos, which also decreases visibility.

For example, one department such as manufacturing may generate planned maintenance schedule data which impacts on production capacity and inventory availability, but this department has no way to share that data with another department or supplier.

This practice easily creates islands of data, which prevents you from seeing insightful information that could very benefit your business. Disparate data stored in siloed systems also cause data issues.

One supply chain partner may identify a product as “product123” and another calls the same product “product 123”. Something as simple as a spacing error in a product name can cause an inventory error.

Multiply this one mistake by several departments with numerous parts, products and suppliers, and you have a massive data quality problem. Modern tools and systems better integrate all of your disparate data warehouses.

Data is more easily synchronized, ensuring you access accurate, highly reliable and accurate information. This is however still a significant challenge to full, end-to-end integration.

What’s YOUR ideal real-time visibility?

Download our FREE ebook to discover how the right IT stack can help you determine your ideal real-time visibility throughout your supply chain.

Discover real-time visibility


Chapter 3

What is Complete Supply Chain Visibility?

According to a 2017 Geodis Supply Chain Worldwide Survey, 57% of firms consider their supply chain a competitive advantage, enabling the development of their company. Yet, 77% percent of companies report that they currently possess little to no visibility into their supply chain.These statistics suggests that a majority of businesses could benefit from gaining and using better insights. If you are a decision-maker at a company that wants to improve your supply chain, better visibility is a great place to start.

Before you can solve this problem, you need a clear understanding of what complete supply chain visibility actually looks like.

57% of firms consider their supply chain as a competitive advantage, enabling the development of their company.

2017 Geodis Supply Chain Worldwide Survey

Supply Chain Data Access

Complete visibility in your supply chain means that you can access the information you need when you need it, and you can quickly integrate that information across the organization to fuel your decision-making process.

Whether you need to know how much inventory you have in manufacturing, in the warehouse, or currently shipping, you should be able to leverage the right tools to know the exact status of your products.

This knowledge should extend even beyond the four walls of your organization, including data about vendors, suppliers and customers.

For example, historically a supply chain black hole has existed around sea freight, when inventory enters a container on a ship and vanishes from visibility until it reappears at its next destination.

Today, this black hole can be closed, as real-time tracking of inventory using GPS tracking is commonplace. Carriers routinely send arrival time estimates, as well as a variety of other information related to the status of the product.

Sensors detect if the temperature of the container was compromised, if the container was opened or even if an item was dropped. By enhancing access to information, you can be proactive to any issues encountered during each phase of the supply chain.

Data Timing in Supply Chain

Access to accurate, up-to-date information should also include the concept of timeliness. In many cases, information becomes obsolete as soon as someone enters it into your supply chain systems; therefore, real-time updates are necessary to ensure data accuracy.

It’s important to keep in mind that providing real-time data updates across the entire supply chain may not be necessary. Enabling real-time updates for millions of data points requires significant cost in terms of systems, software and tracking, and not every item requires this type of constant monitoring or immediate action.

For example, you may not want to update your calculated stock levels every five minutes, but you will require continual updates of your inventory levels. It’s important to understand what “real time” should mean for the metric you need to watch.

Regardless of the update intervals, you should sync timing updates across the supply chain to ensure data accuracy. If one branch is updating its inventory levels in real time, but the other does so every 24 hours, the collective view of inventory will be inaccurate.

Why It’s Better to Align Organization-Wide Focus

1. Organizations function far more efficiently if each moving part is working toward the same goal and using the same information. Rather than operating in silos with department-based goals, organizations should share data to align initiatives and optimize processes so that no one unit is inhibiting any other group.

2. In conjunction with extending access to data, communication between functions and roles across the supply chain is vital. Implementing technology is not enough—cultural and business processes need to support your new technological infrastructure.

Supply Chain Unity

Visibility unites the supply chain so that you can simultaneously understand how each unit is performing individually and see how the overall supply chain is performing. Within a single organization, several different platforms may co-exist separately.

For example, ERP and customer point of sale (POS) systems hold vital insights into the supply chain, but typically they do not communicate with one another.

Interconnecting these data silos allows you to gain a comprehensive view of the supply chain — anytime. With the capability to understand any aspect of supply chain activity — from manufacturing, through kitting and ending with shipping — you can inform forecasts with the utmost accuracy and strategy.

You can also translate these on-demand insights to planning across the entire organization, from finance to human resources.

What’s YOUR ideal real-time visibility?

Download our FREE ebook to discover how the right IT stack can help you determine your ideal real-time visibility throughout your supply chain.

Discover real-time visibility


Chapter 4

Supply Chain Visibility Benefits: Where can it take you?

Achieving organization-wide visibility into your supply chain is more than just putting the right technologies and processes in place. The final step is discovering how to use the data to make the supply chain strategic to impact business performance.The more visibility you have into your supply chain, the more you can sync your supply chain and value chain. With an optimized, data-driven supply chain, your business will be prepared to maximize emerging trends and technologies.

IoT for Supply Chain: Seeing past the warehouse.

End users are adopting smart technologies and devices that extend the supply chain far beyond your organization. The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) can quickly deliver to your supply chain more data than ever before.

Sensors, controllers and other IoT-connected devices will be part of everything in the supply chain, giving you a much more granular view into the supply chain.

With the IoT, you can track data on smart devices in consumers’ homes, look at utilization rates, trace supply chain movements and capture events around products as they progress through the supply chain.

Being able to tap into these insights will allow your company to deliver the competitive services it needs to get ahead—whether that’s through constant connectivity with consumers, subscription and automatic replenishment models or faster-than-ever customer service.

Since every transaction is recorded on a block and across multiple copies of the ledger that are distributed over many nodes (computers), it is highly transparent. It’s also highly secure since every block links to the one before it and after it.

How Blockchain Will Transform the Supply Chain and Logistics Industry — Forbes, March 2018

Blockchain in the Supply Chain: Gaining confidence.

As shared data becomes more integral to the success of supply chain visibility, blockchain is emerging as a potential breakthrough to improve visibility and data security.

Blockchain is a digital ledger containing a growing list of records called blocks that are replicated across multiple locations (nodes), making unauthorized changes essentially impossible and validating the authenticity of the data.

This enhanced record integrity is a key enabler to increasing the confidence to share more data across organizational boundaries.

However, rather than just hopping on the blockchain bandwagon, organizations must understand how the next generation of technology will transform with blockchain.

As data sets build, you will likely look to invest in machine learning and AI to help discover patterns and bottlenecks. This knowledge will help you re-engineer the supply chain to better meet your growth strategies.

Supply Chain AI: Know More Before the Fact

As data quality improves, the largest obstacle impeding seamless, responsive supply chains is people.

To build the adaptive supply chain the future demands, you need to implement precise forecast and planning procedures to drive your production schedule and your deployment to the appropriate locations in the network.

This task may outgrow human capabilities as big data swells and an increasingly complex data sets are reflected in decision making. As companies store data in warehouses both on premises and in the cloud, they will need to leverage technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to help process and drive real-time decisions.

For example, some companies review their safety stock calculations quarterly and on a family level (rather than an SKU level). In theory, you can optimize your inventory safety stock levels on a near minute-by-minute basis.

These optimizations would be based on patterns and predictive insights into how that inventory will move based on production delays, shipping delays, etc. Such real-time planning discussions can be accomplished more comprehensively by AI and ML.

Businesses with optimal supply chains have 15% lower supply chain costs, less than 50% of the inventory holdings and cash-to-cash cycles at least three times faster than those not focused on supply chain optimization.

Logistics Bureau

An Adaptive Supply Chain

Achieving complete visibility is a necessary and challenging goal, though it should not be the end goal for your organization. Visibility provides a better view of supply and demand, laying the groundwork for a greater end: delivering value to your customers.

By implementing the tools and processes that visibility demands, you are also building an adaptive supply chain that can leverage emerging tools like AI, ML and blockchain to adjust in real time.

The nimbler your supply chain is, the more effectively you can react to obstacles, provide excellent service and reduce costs. Enhancements to your supply chain ensure that you optimize visibility.

And better visibility means you can optimize your supply chain to differentiate your business and gain a competitive advantage.


Is real-time visibility needed for everything?

Most companies have a long journey ahead of them to achieve full real-time visibility. Before you jump into an expensive upgrade of processes and infrastructure to enable that capability, you need to develop a well-thought out plan, keeping in mind a few caveats.With all the positive press about real-time visibility for your supply chain, it’s important to consider that providing constant updates across the entire supply chain may not be necessary.

Enabling real-time updates for millions of data points requires significant cost in terms of systems, software and tracking, and not every item requires this type of constant monitoring or immediate action. Every business is different and has different needs. These differences depend on many things including your industry type, where you operate and how you do business.

For example, what time zone do you operate in, and what role do time zones play in when you need data?

You should consider what data you need on a continual basis. Keep in mind who needs to see certain types of data, and what are their needs relative to the freshness of it. For example, maybe you don’t need to update your calculated stock levels every five minutes, but you may indeed require continual updates of your inventory levels.

It’s important to understand what real-time should mean for the metric you need to watch. And regardless of the update intervals, you should sync timing updates across the supply chain to ensure data accuracy. If one branch is updating its inventory levels in real-time, but the other does so every 24 hours, the collective view of inventory will be inaccurate.


One size doesn’t always fit all – even with real-time visibility

As you move forward toward in your goal to improve visibility in your supply chain, real-time updating is important. But before you jump into an expensive and time-consuming revamp of your entire supply chain, take some time to plan. Define what real-time means for your organization and your customers’ expectations.It’s time to change the concept of real-time to better meet the needs of each business. Your supply chain provider can work with you to understand what you need and provide you with the information from their IT infrastructure in a time, form and way that makes the most sense for you.

In a hurry? Click here to learn the best practices for real-time supply chain visibility by downloading our free ebook.

Big Picture: Why real-time visibility matters

Let’s recap at the 4 primary benefits of real-time data in your supply chain, and how it improves your organization’s visibility. These 4 reasons alone ought to be enough to make any organization work toward the ideal supply chain IT stack for real-time visibility.

Increased agility

With real-time supply chain visibility, brands can be alerted to delays, slowdowns or changing trends – and make the necessary changes before it’s too late and their bottom line is affected.

Conversely, if a product is doing particularly well, additional build orders and shipments can be expedited to take full advantage of a product’s popularity.

Better inventory tracking

By tracking inbound and outbound inventory, supply chain managers can follow where and when inventory will arrive and better prepare for potential delays.

Having a close connection to inventory and real-time visibility assures brands are never caught low on stock and unable to fulfill orders (or worse, need to list an item as back-ordered).

Efficiency

With real-time data capture, interpretation and even prediction, brands can identify, prevent and fix any inefficient processes as they’re happening, rather than months after the fact.

Precise shipping estimates

Being able to track a product, no matter its location, offers great insight into estimated delivery dates. It also allows for seamless rerouting or expediting to avoid potential weather or natural disasters – ensuring on-time delivery.

Today’s consumers expect faster shipping times and better communication, making this capability critical.


Digital + Physical Supply Chain

ModusLink Corporation provides digital and physical supply chain services to many of the world’s leading brands across a diverse range of industries.We service consumer electronics, telecommunications, computing and storage, software and content, consumer packaged goods, medical devices, retail and luxury and connected devices industries, among others.

With a global footprint spanning North America, Europe and the Asia Pacific, our adaptive approach to supply chain services helps to drive growth, lower costs, and improve profitability.

We are a wholly-owned subsidiary of Steel Connect, Inc. a publicly-traded diversified holding company (Nasdaq Global Select Market symbol “STCN”).

What’s YOUR ideal real-time visibility?

Download our FREE ebook to discover how the right IT stack can help you determine your ideal real-time visibility throughout your supply chain.

Discover real-time visibility

 

 

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