Future of the Supply Chain: Technology, Sustainability and People
Lessons From ICON 2023
This blog was written by Judah Reynolds, with Panasonic Connect’s Marketing Planning & Capabilities Group. He attended ICON 2023 and shares his key takeaways.
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began roughly three years ago, we’ve all heard a lot in the news about supply chains, more specifically about disruptions to global supply chains. Supply chain has become a buzzword. Now, even if you’ve never thought about a supply chain before, everyone has experienced the effects of such disruptions, for example at the start of the pandemic when you couldn’t find toilet paper or face masks at the store or online. More recently we hear about the lack of or inability to supply semiconductors due to lockdowns in areas that produce them, which means we couldn’t get the electronics we want, such as new smartphones or even cars, or that the prices of those had risen significantly. I think most of us can confess that in this day and age, we expect to find what we want in a store or online and to have it delivered within a day, if not faster. We rarely think about it, but there are extremely complex supply chain networks working behind the scenes to ensure our expectations are met.
I wanted to learn more about supply chains, so recently I attended Blue Yonder ICON 2023, a three-day conference, where practitioners and decision-makers exchange insights on the future of global supply chains. This event is put on by Blue Yonder, which is the leading supply chain software company. As I said, supply chains are extremely complex, so increasingly companies around the world rely on advanced software and technology to help them run their supply chains more efficiently and mitigate the range of disruptions that are becoming more and more frequent.
What I learned at ICON is that while the pandemic brought to light fragilities in supply chains and made it into a buzzword, actually the underlying issues were long known to professionals in the field. Typical supply chains are vast networks affected by a multitude of factors ranging from things like weather, labor shortages, congested shipping ports, geopolitical situations, etc. Those who work in supply chain spend much of their time reacting to problems and coming up with countermeasures to ensure goods are available and delivered on-time. One of the words I heard a lot at ICON was “reactive” — just trying to basically play whack-a-mole with supply chain disruptions.
On a separate theme, if run inefficiently or without accurate information and collaboration with trading partners on basic supply and demand, companies and their supply chains create a large burden on the environment; for example via CO2 emissions in shipping or when too many products are produced and eventually have to be trashed (think perishable food or seasonal clothing items). This is not only an environmental risk, but also creates undue costs and losses for companies.
Now having attended ICON, watched various speaking sessions and speaking with people during breaks, the thing that impressed me the most was how intelligent, experienced and passionate people are that work in the supply chain field. While they are focused on how to solve business problems and operate their supply chains better, what I heard more often was: “How can we make the customer experience better,” “How can we eliminate inefficiencies to drive sustainability goals,” and “How can we make the world a better place.”
During his keynote speech, Blue Yonder’s CEO Duncan Angove referenced a famous phrase that a Facebook engineer used, which was: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click on ads.” Duncan highlighted how Blue Yonder is working towards the “Good Quest»: a quest to use their collective expertise along with their partners to use the latest technology including the Cloud, generative AI, and robotics to make people’s lives more abundant and the world a more sustainable place through a reimaging of how supply chains run.
Blue Yonder laid out a vision of how supply chains can take advantage of recent breakthroughs in technology to shift the work of supply chain management from “reactive” to predictive. That means by using predictive and generative AI technology, instead of playing whack-a-mole with disruptions, planners can see issues coming and make rapid adjustments in advance. By using a common data cloud, suppliers, manufacturers, shippers, and retail partners can easily and rapidly share vast amounts of data to collaborate and enable each other to run more efficiently. And through the proliferation of robotics, the supply chain can help automate processes and thus mitigate issues caused by labor shortages.
That was the product pitch part of ICON, but what I found was that it linked directly to the sustainability side: Businesses running supply chains need best-in-class products to first enable them to balance profit and loss and mitigate risks, but equally I saw that they believe it’s important to put environmental metrics on par with traditional metrics as they look to the future.
Meaning sustainability is a factor that’s helping to power every part of a business, powering operational excellence in a supply chain allows businesses to make good decisions through planning and forecasting, predictive analytics, operational efficiencies, transparency, and even workforce excellence. This in the end will decrease carbon impact and help towards net zero goals. Well run supply chains can contribute to decreasing energy waste and overproduction that ends up in landfills, including less packaging and use of natural resources.
Two things I heard at ICON really stuck with me: The first was, “Nobody wants to buy new software, what they want is a solution to a problem.” However, technology and software is what will enable people to solve problems, and the latest advances in those areas are set to allow humanity to take leaps and bounds forward. The second thing came from a conversation I had with another attendee who said, “The supply chain field is all about people.” The impression I was left with was that these are people that are truly passionate about solving problems and supply chain issues that affect everyday people like you and me, as well as making the world better.
In the end, supply chain professionals are a closely knit group that is working together to promote sustainability and the creation of a better world via a reinvention of the supply chain.