In a business environment where the only constant is change, supply chain leaders find themselves at the crossroads of challenge and opportunity, contending with a myriad of factors that impact the flow of goods globally. From market dynamics and consumer demand fluctuations to the rapid advancements in technology, manufacturers must navigate more variables than ever to ensure efficiency and responsiveness in their supply chains.
Amidst this backdrop of relentless change and complexity, Tom Gregorchik, Vice President of Industry Strategy at FourKites, shares his thoughts on the global supply chain’s current state and future trajectory.
From a broad-based perspective, yes. Inventory levels have recovered, disruptions have diminished, and moderated consumer demand has helped ease the pressures on supply chains. However, this comes with the caveat that things are still delicate. With continued uncertainty in Ukraine’s agricultural export viability and the inevitable “hiccups” with reshoring in manufacturing supply chains, there is still a moderate chance of some localized disruptions either regionally or within specific sectors. That being said, the transportation side of the global supply chain has softened significantly.
A few key factors are posing potential challenges. 2023’s holiday peak season is still murky in terms of consumer demand. Many manufacturers have opted to reallocate capital expenditures to network development projects (e.g., reshoring), reducing their investment in new inventory purchases. While inventory levels have recovered following 2021-2022’s supply chain crisis, if consumer demand is higher than anticipated, there could be issues with fulfillment. In fact, FourKites data already saw a 28% reduction year-over-year in Home decor-related shipments in June, a month typically at the beginning of holiday season shipping.
Additionally, while reshoring and nearshoring – the act of relocating manufacturing from APAC countries closer to your primary market – is designed to de-risk supply chains, this movement will add new stress to North American logistics networks. While Class-I railroads have worked hard to improve connectivity between MEX-USA-CAN, it still hasn’t experienced the surge in volumes that are bound to come with heightened manufacturing output in North America.
AI is taking hold of technology across many sectors, supply chain management included. Taking the analytical and fact-finding responsibilities out of users’ hands allows for faster decision-making and reduced volatility. Rather than having to locate a disruption, find shipments currently impacted, determine which future shipments could be impacted, and derive a path forward based on multiple impact assessments and models, language-based AI changes how that decision process plays out. Tying environmental and external data to a logistics network for analysis allows for AI to conduct all of that analysis for a user, including impact assessments, serving up an array of options for a user to select in a fraction of time.
Digitization has been at the forefront of the logistics management revolution since at least the 90s. The latest wave has been focused on optimization, visibility and integration.
As supply chains have become more complex, inefficiencies have emerged that cause bottlenecks and elevated costs. An example is LTL shipping, where multiple inbound shipments from different shippers could be headed to the same destination. Bulk optimization conducted by a Transportation Management System (TMS) helps identify opportunities to conduct consolidations – or combining LTL orders from multiple loads destined for the same location into a single truck. This reduces the number of inbound trailers to a location.
When the ELD mandate went into effect six years ago, it created the opportunity to have highly accurate ETAs across your carrier network. Since then, real-time visibility has evolved from tracking and tracing trucks and containers to providing stakeholders with immediate insights into inventory levels, shipment statuses and potential disruptions, enabling proactive decision-making and optimized operations. As companies gain a repository of Big Data from supply chains, artificial intelligence and machine learning will continue to accelerate predictive capabilities beyond ETAs.
System interoperability has been the most important keystone in the hunt for supply chain digitization. Rather than having a stack of disparate systems – ERP, WMS, TMS, OMS, etc. – ensuring each system can pass information and use it in their functions seamlessly is what has created value.
If the disruptions over the last three years have highlighted anything, it’s how much different functions within an organization rely on supply chain data. While the steady flow of inventory before the pandemic was almost taken for granted by customer-facing teams (sales, customer service) and business functions (planning, finance), the need for precision has demanded better access to supply chain data by new functions.
New visibility tools allow different user personas to see relevant information about their supply chain for more proactive management, usually at the order level. When a customer query comes in about a delivery or if there is a production need is approaching, being able to view the supply chain at the order level (which can often be spread across multiple loads) can help detect issues faster and improve the customer experience — all without needing to involve the logistics team which is typically focused on broader-viewed projects.
The biggest challenge is the ability to see all inbound inventory. Inbound supply chains are broken into two distinct categories: vendor-controlled and receiver-controlled freight. It’s easy for a shipper to see their own loads coming into their facilities since they can easily set up proper tracking. Meanwhile, the vendor-controlled freight destined for their facilities is often an unpredictable blackhole in their critical flow of inventory. Sophisticated visibility providers are able to combine these two types of freight to serve up a single perspective of an inbound supply chain, allowing for better planning and mitigation strategies to avoid any lasting disruption.
While significant strides have been made, challenges await supply chain professionals as they continue navigating inventory costs, reshoring initiatives and technology adoption. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, the peak shipping season this year has started more quietly than expected, with retailers and suppliers continuing to work through excess inventories.
With so much uncertainty, it remains crucial for teams to observe, analyze and act as quickly as possible. Fortunately, as technology continues to revolutionize logistics and supply chain management, industry professionals have the opportunity to equip themselves with more tools and strategies to optimize operations, enhance visibility and make informed, proactive decisions.
Want to learn how? We’d love to show you.