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Harnessing Technology

  • Jennifer Proctor
July/August 2017
Technology is changing the way supply chains run and supply chain management professionals work. It also plays a significant role in how societies are evolving around the world, another key element of The Rise. As this department continues its exploration of The Rise — a strategic framework based on future-casting — this article delves into the rise of technological autonomy and intelligence and the rise of data.

In the 2015 McKinsey article “Manufacturing’s Next Act,” Cornelius Baur and Dominick Wee explain that Industry 4.0 is the next phase in the digitization of the manufacturing sector. It is driven by four disruptions, which are

  • the rise in data volumes, computational power and connectivity
  • the emergence of analytics and business intelligence capabilities
  • new forms of human-machine interaction, such as touch interfaces and augmented-reality systems
  • improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world, such as advanced robotics and 3D printing.

Baur and Wee warn that manufacturing leaders aren’t aware of emerging technologies. A related survey confirms that only 48 percent of manufacturers and 78 percent of suppliers consider themselves ready for Industry 4.0. Supply chain management professionals clearly must strive to understand these technologies so that their power for the future can be harnessed.

Technological autonomy and intelligence

Technological autonomy and intelligence occur when technology doesn’t require human input to react. Self-driving cars — currently being pursued by companies as varied as Amazon, Tesla and Uber — are one example. In fact, The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon recently hosted a Radical Transportation Salon to discuss the future of transportation, including autonomous vehicles. The article quotes Dave Sullivan, an automotive analyst for AutoPacific. He says, “Amazon has a plan in place to shake up the entire supply chain as we know it today.”

Authors Laura Stevens and Tim Higgins write: “Over the past few years, Amazon has been building out its supply chain and logistics network, aiming to deliver more of its own packages. It also envisions transporting goods on a large scale for other companies.”

Artificial intelligence itself is reaching manufacturing and transforming it, preparing business for Industry 4.0. “The fourth industrial revolution … will be built on robots that are more brains than brawn,” writes Jim Lawton for Forbes. “These robots integrate physical and cognitive abilities to do more than heavy, highly repetitive tasks.”

Big data

Connecting workers to robots, mobile phones, surveillance cameras and other machines around the factory and throughout the supply chain enables companies to capture immeasurable lines of data. Translating that information into something useful is the key to unlocking the new levels of insight offered by big data. The APICS Dictionary defines big data as “collecting, storing and processing massive amounts of data for the purpose of converting it into useful information.”

In recent months, big data has come of age. Corporations, governments and entire industries are starting to put to work large data sets. Additionally, the kinds of data that are collected and the new tasks that can be completed are poised to change significantly over the next decade. It is clear that businesses must learn to harness data or risk drowning in an abundance of trivial information.

“As we move from simple analytics to more nuanced operations that recognize culture, business and politics, we could see an entirely new tool kit for the supply chain,” says APICS CEO Abe Eshkenazi, CSCP, CPA, CAE. “Big data will influence every segment of the supply chain.”

One last point: As the technologies described continue to evolve, APICS will explore new approaches to educating professionals. “One of the reasons APICS is committed to The Rise concept is that our role and responsibility as a supply chain organization have become broader,” Eshkenazi says. “Supply chain has migrated into a strategic imperative for organizations. We at APICS have to help businesses lead the way.

Jennifer Proctor is editor-in-chief of APICS magazine. She may be contacted at

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