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Making Sense of Technology: Five Key Trends to Watch in Your Supply Chain

From Blockchain, AI to VR, these technologies are set to shake up supply chains

By CBR Staff Writer

According to industry analyst Gartner, almost two thirds of supply chain professionals believe technology holds the key to securing a competitive advantage. That can be easier said than done, as organisations must figure out potential use cases and how the technology will work in practice.

As such, many within the industry are currently experimenting with a number of technologies and seeing how they can enhance their supply chain operations. Here are five key trends that could impact supply chain:

Suresh Acharya, Head of JDA Labs

IoT and Connected Devices.

People are growing increasingly accustomed to IoT and connected devices, such as fitness trackers and digital locks, which play a part in their everyday lives.

However, the supply chain industry has not seen much IoT/connected device penetration beyond expo hall demos to date.

Yet, there are many great potential use cases across a range of industries: IoT could provide retailers with insight into which parts of their store have the most footfall, allow food producers to check that perishable food items are being stored at the right temperature and perform tracking functions within warehouses or transportation activities.

Machine Learning Technology.

Machine learning is starting to become a realistic prospect, with increasingly mature algorithms driving decision making and solving problems in a way that it couldn’t just a few years ago.

As the rise of IoT makes a growing amount of data available, from the location of shipping containers to the wear and tear in factory machines, there is an ever-greater opportunity for machine learning to make a positive impact.

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Whether that’s automatically detecting the potential of a delayed shipment, or alerting that a factory machine is about to fail, machine learning can play an ever-more important role in applying data and insights that are available, using them to make supply chains run as smoothly and seamlessly as possible.

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)

Having been hailed as the next big thing for the last few years, Gartner’s Hype Cycle reports that VR and AR have now ridden out the ‘trough of disillusionment’ on their hype journey, and are heading up the ‘slope of enlightenment’.

In short, businesses are now getting to work and realising exactly what the technologies could be used for. At a top level, these technologies have the potential to power enhanced employee and customer digital experiences.

Potential applications could include using AR to overlay video enabling people to perform repair/maintenance to factory equipment without having to spend time and money calling an engineer, or building models of potential new store layouts in VR, making it possible to consider the end-user experience it would create.


There is a real buzz about blockchain at the moment; the technology hit mainstream consciousness after underpinning Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and has been hypothesised as the next big thing for a lot of industry areas.

It could have a big impact on supply chains, with its ledger-based function providing the potential to track the movement of products with a digital record that cannot be tampered with.

Its impact on the integrity of supply chains could prove a real step-change by making it possible to trace food products back to source, or even make payments to international suppliers through bitcoin.

With the potential to underpin trust and reliability, blockchain can have a really important part to play in building the supply chain of the future.

Cognitive Robotics

People are beginning to get comfortable with the idea of robots performing set, pre-defined roles in the supply chain. Now is the time to build on that platform and take things to the next level, building to a scenario where a robotic device is able to have a full, interactive conversation.

This could take the form of a factory machine with the ability to receive and follow verbal instructions from a human colleague, or even a robot providing inventory information within a retail store.

It may be a few years off, but this is definitely something worth building towards: once robots can perform this kind of function within a supply chain, areas of it will be able to run by themselves, and humans will be free to move up to more high-level, strategic positions.


These five key areas hold a lot of promise, so now is the time to plan ahead, exploring what tangible difference they could make to a supply chain. Although the future possibilities are endless, progress could also be unpredictable, meaning an idea might not work in practice, so it’s important not to focus too much on short-term results.

The best approach is to explore with your eyes open, working in a continuous cycle, collaborating with customers, technology partners and academic figures; working together to learn and push the boundaries, technology can have a positive long-term impact on the supply chains of today and tomorrow.

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