The disruption caused by COVID-19 is nothing new. Daniel Kohut looks at some of the ways manufacturers are future-proofing their supply chains against the next crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been wrought with supply chain disruptions. From the worldwide shortages of toilet paper at the start of the pandemic, to the ones that continue to occur as a result of situations such as the Suez Canal blockage or the Port of Yantian shutdown. Recent headlines have highlighted shortages of timber and of the semiconductor chips that are needed for cars and other electronics.

But supply chain disruptions are nothing new – they have just been exasperated by the pandemic. Organisations should have been readying their supply chains long ago to respond to disruptions and, now they are scrambling to do so to prevent future disruptions.

To prepare for the next disruption, manufacturers are looking at five key trends to future-proof their supply chain.

Automation is necessary

The amount of data available these days can be overwhelming to manage, so that is why many companies are turning to machine learning (ML). ML can provide insights in near real-time, helping identify where delays may occur and rerouting deliveries that might otherwise not make it on time.

Solutions powered by ML can anticipate demand and stock levels and analyse typical production and delivery schedules to recommend changes that will avoid product shortfalls. With ML this type of analysis and decision-making takes a few hours, when it would normally take human workers days to gain an overview of the situation and make the right decision. Human emotion and error are always a significant factor, but they are removed from the equation when ML is utilised because it ensures that decisions are based on data.

Cloud migration

Migrating to the cloud allows for automation and the ability to use solutions powered by ML. Manufacturers should look to migrate to cloud-based solutions, which can be integrated and customised with little effort thanks to advanced application programming interfaces (APIs). As more cloud services are employed, the level of automation will only further increase.

Seek data scientists

Good, accurate and accessible data are the key to automation, ML and predictive analysis. Traditionally, data has been siloed across the company, which makes it challenging to gather, format and harmonise this data. This is especially true in the manufacturing sector, where data has traditionally been spread across multiple departments. In order to enable the tools that support supply chain management, optimisation and real-time decision making, this data needs to be unified.

This is where the need for data scientists comes in. While the data science field is growing, it is important to find the right people to help you successfully manage and optimise your supply chains.

Business apps with the user in mind

Technology is constantly changing and the supply chain domain is not immune to this. As the workforce changes, so too will the technology and how it is used. Millennials, and soon Gen Z, are entering the workforce, and they have grown up in an online world, interacting daily with applications of all kinds that have been designed with user-friendliness as a top priority. Old-fashioned apps, with text and table-based interfaces will be considered non-user-friendly and thus will be phased out. Those coming into supply chain management roles will increasingly demand graphical user interfaces that are intuitive and enable their staff to easily access and interpret the information they need to do their jobs.

The solutions that will be successful will have intuitive graphical user interfaces that use dashboards and diagrams to provide a quick overview of what is happening along the supply chain. This will be important as legacy, on-premise solutions are being replaced by new cloud solutions.

Single source of truth

While supply chain management and supply chain execution have traditionally been siloed, bringing them together will be an important factor for a single source of truth. The other important factor will be speed. Bringing planning and execution applications together is necessary, allowing you to quickly analyse data using automation and ML-enabled solutions. This results in more informed decision-making, less disruption and greater customer satisfaction.

Future supply chain disruptions are inevitable, so manufacturing companies must invest in emerging technologies to enable greater visibility over their supply chains. Those who do will be able to catch and manage disruption quicker to remain competitive and meet customer expectations.

Daniel Kohut is Vice-President – ANZ at Blue Yonder.