What Will My Supply Chain Look Like in 10 Years?

Supply Chain Technology Evolves as Quickly as Other Technologies

The Future of Supply Chain
Supply Chain Technology. Getty Images

What did the world look like a decade ago? 

  • Smart phones were barely a thing. 
  • Your parents hadn’t figured out Facebook yet. 
  • Electric cars were only found on go-cart courses in amusement parks. 

The ubiquity of social media wasn’t a given. Google was mostly just a search engine. And the television show “Knight Rider” was the closest most of us had been to a self-driving car. 

Supply chain — while it was a thing 10 years ago — was a thing that seems cumbersome and clunky as compared to today.

 Supply chain optimization was measured in cost of goods reduction and contract negotiation. Most of us were still (or just had just started) looking to low cost manufacturing countries — to re-source away from higher cost suppliers. 

We looked like heroes (to our bosses, CFO’s and shareholders) when we brought home that product that had cost $10 to make in the Midwest United States and could now cost 43 cents when made in China. 

Will our present-day supply chains look as quaint and old-fashioned 10 years from now?

While certain real-world, but science fiction-like inventions might still be decades away (I’m not sure we’re going to be pull asteroids into a lunar orbit so that we can mine their resources for Earth, for example) — we are on the cusp of changing the way supply chains operate.

If you’re not sure you’ll still be managing supply chain in 10 years, then feel free to read this with a wisp of whimsy — like it's some Isaac Asimov-penned soliloquy to supply chain.

 

But if you’re just starting your supply chain career or are in high school or college and are thinking about a supply chain career (or know someone who is), steel yourself for the revolution. 

Six technologies that are being used today will become more integrated in every day supply chain:

  • Global Positioning Systems (GPS)
  • Real-Time Metrics
  • Autonomous Trucking
  • Autonomous Warehouses
  • 3D Printing
  • Artificial Intelligence

Global Positioning Systems (GPS)

Sure, we use GPS every day and it’s even used in supply chain to track deliveries (trucks, ocean carriers, flights). For some high cost items, companies are even using GPS to track individual items — which helps not only to keep an eye on your supply chain but also helps to prevent pilferage. 

So where else can we go with GPS? Where, indeed. 

It wasn’t that long ago that you needed a component about the size of a very large (by today’s standards) laptop computer in order to use GPS effectively. And that only got you so close. 

Then, as the technology got smaller and cheaper, you could mount a handheld device on your dashboard and slip it into your backpack. But it was still a discrete device. And it tracked you (or your target) within a few feet. 

Nowadays, your phone knows when you turn in your swivel chair at work. 

Imagine someday, all you’re going to need to track an item is to have a digitized ink stamp on it. 

You’re going to be able to track the flow of goods — starting at your Tier II suppliers, across the globe (if you’re still sourcing from overseas in 10 years) and through every work cell at your company.

You’ll be able to tell where a product is — anywhere on the planet (and beyond, but maybe not in 10 years) — by checking your contact lens’ MRP pop-up display. 

Real-Time Metrics

This is happening now. There are MRP systems and bolt-on applications that will give you a real-time performance metric. 

You want to motivate shop employees? Tell them that their daily goal is 100 units and have the flatscreen on the shop floor ticking off their productivity in real-time — for their managers and peers to see. 

The proliferation of GPS is going to help to more radically integrate real-time metrics into every aspect of supply chain.

Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) used to be presented in quarterly or monthly reports. More commonly today, our dashboards reflect weekly or daily results

But real-time metrics — especially once real-time metrics reflect on-time delivery, quality, logistics performance, Tier II and supplier throughput — will change the way you supply chain managers plan in 10 years.

 

Ten years ago, making a change to a supplier’s production plan was like trying to make a 90-degree turn with an aircraft carrier. Soon enough, you’ll have the information so fast that you’ll need a fighter pilot’s (another job that might not be here in 10 years, by the way) instincts and twitch speed to make changes on your supplier’s production floor. 

Autonomous Trucking

The writing is on the wall. Economists are already concerned about what to do with the 3 million or so people who call long-haul trucking their profession. We’ve all seen it. In the 2017 movie Logan, Hugh Jackman plays the eponymous hero. The movie is set in 2029 and the autonomous trucks were already there. It’s coming, guys. 

But what does that mean for you? If you’re not a long-haul trucker (or a mutant on the run), how will the disappearance of the trucker impact your supply chain? Trucks will still haul your goods from Point A to Point B, just without the Willie Nelson blaring from the cab. 

It’s a fair point. In 10 years, we may not all be riding around in autonomous cars, so what’s the big deal if trucks are driverless? 

Other than the one time that my cargo destined for Europe missed its flight because the trucker took an extended lunch — there may not be that big of an impact to your daily supply chain activity. 

(Although logistics costs should go down, since autonomous trucking is assumed to be far more effective than the human kind and they won't stop for lunch.)

But autonomous trucking goes hand-in-hand with…

Autonomous Warehouses

It all started with Roomba. And then someone thought, “Hey, if these robots can keep track of where they’re cleaning, why can’t they keep track of inventory locations and pick items and put away items and even package those items?”

Warehouses are becoming increasingly automated and, in 10 years, no one will be surprised if autonomous trucks roll up to autonomous warehouses. Robots will be able to unload trucks, break down cargo, put the cargo away and then pick it and pack it when it’s ready to ship. 

The integration of real-time metrics will allow you — the supply chain manager 10 years from now — to track all of this autonomous warehouse activity from your floating holographic egg, high above the melting polar ice caps.

3D Printing

My kids are making 3D-printed widgets in elementary school. In a hundred years, we might be 3D-printing human organs and cities made of gold in outer space. 

But in just 10 years, don’t be surprised if you’re managing a supply chain that consists of only the “ink” needed to 3D print all of your parts. 

Imagine going to The Home Depot or Autozone and finding them essentially empty. You tell them what you need (or you order it online) and they 3D print it on the spot (and a drone delivers it to you). In today’s world, those companies would need to execute robust demand management, pay suppliers, pay freight movers and pay employees to stock those items — you know, supply chain stuff. 

In 10 years, that screwdriver or that carburetor won’t exist until you ask for them. 

As 3D printing becomes cheaper, faster and more exact — that’s going to be how we make the things that factories make today. And your supply chain job in 10 years is going to look appreciably different.

Artificial Intelligence

I’m nowhere near smart enough to predict how A.I. is going to change supply chain. All I know is that today I can talk at a smallish cylinder or my phone and it can respond with answers that used to come from encyclopedias, juke boxes, weather stations and typing words onto a keyboard. 

What will Supply Chain Siri do for us? 

“Hey Siri, find me the fastest, cheapest source of 3D printer ink that I need to build tomorrow’s sales and have it delivered by 3pm.” 

That used to take weeks or months and was rolled into a sourcing project, a supplier negotiation, a logistics plan, a production plan and demand management. In 10 years, that’ll be 30 seconds of your afternoon.