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As I think about what’s next in terms of leveraging technology to better manage our incredibly complex network of global supply chains, I start with three suppositions.

  1. More frequent—and more severe—supply chain disruptions are inevitable.
  2. Actionable insights from data and artificial intelligence (AI) afford us the best way to navigate this quagmire.
  3. Unlocking first-mile and last-mile data represents the next big leap in supply chain efficiency.

Regarding the first point, don’t just take my word for it. A recent New York Times article cites the White House Council of Economic Advisors, summing up the situation this way: “Climate change, and the increasing frequency of natural disasters that comes with it, will make future disruptions inevitable.”

As to point two, I’ve been chanting it like a mantra for years: When it comes to the digital transformation of global supply chains, more data equals more value. Layer on the breakthrough capabilities of machine learning and AI, and we now have the capability to anticipate and mitigate disruptions as never before.

When I founded my company, FourKites, seven years ago, leveraging supply chain data and AI to create a more efficient supply chain was new. No longer. The White House recognized this new reality recently when it announced FLOW, “a novel data partnership” between the federal government and a founding group of “private businesses, warehousing and logistics companies, ports and more.” The mission: “to develop a proof-of-concept information exchange to ease supply chain congestion, speed up the movement of goods, and ultimately cut costs for American consumers.”

This brings us to point three.

Private companies must unlock first mile and last mile data to the benefit of all.

If you think about global supply chains right now, we have “first mile,” we have “middle mile,” and we have “last mile.”

My company’s core business initially focused on providing real-time visibility into the “middle mile.” Think trucks. Think rail. Think less-than-truckload shipments. By assembling the world’s largest network of shippers, 3PLs and brokers and sharing and analyzing the community’s data, we can now answer with incredible accuracy the “Where’s my truck?” question that has bedeviled transportation logistics for decades. Even better, we now have real-time insight into more than just location across multiple nodes and modes, ranging from sustainability data and dwell time to critical information about movements within yards and facilities, temperature data and much more.

But the majority of the strains that are happening in the supply chain now are happening in the first mile—for example, when products are moved from a manufacturer’s warehouse to a fulfillment center—and the last mile (i.e., delivering to people’s homes). Thousands of supply chain companies are sitting on mountains of first- and last-mile data supply chain data that could be leveraged and analyzed to benefit the ecosystem.

The more data the supply chain community shares and analyzes, the better AI and machine learning algorithms become at predicting delivery times for consumers or optimizing fulfillment centers—and lowering costs in the process—for businesses.

Another example: First- and last-mile data are particularly critical to ensuring the integrity of high-value product shipments, such as medical devices and Covid-19 vaccines. Imagine if we could unlock congestion data at airports, facilities’ scan data, aircraft maintenance data and customs clearance data, such as HTS (harmonized tariff schedule) codes. That would allow pharma or medical device companies to anticipate potential air delays and quickly reschedule the shipment of a crucial medical product.

The potential is literally life-saving.

Data can reduce supply chain chokepoints.

Every touchpoint along a shipment’s route presents an opportunity for delay. In other words, every touchpoint is a potential chokepoint. One missed window can cause a cascading variance in delivery time.

Supply chain technology built upon machine learning algorithms autonomously logs hundreds of relevant data points on every shipment. This data enables the algorithms to become more powerful and predictive with each and every load, eliminating chokepoints along the way.

More than two years of unprecedented supply chain disruptions have significantly accelerated industry efforts to digitize the supply chain, but most of that progress has been in the middle mile. The next leaps in supply chain transformation will come as private companies begin to open up and share their first- and last-mile data to benefit the entire ecosystem.

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