Supply Chain Visibility

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Supply chain visibility, also known as real-time transportation visibility, or simply real-time visibility, is poised to become one of the most transformative and disruptive technologies in the global supply chain space over the next several years.

Though the technology has existed in some form for decades, the latest generations of supply chain visibility tools are finally reaching maturity, and rising to the top of industry leaders’ radars. Already, companies within food and beverage, pharmaceutical, retail, manufacturing, automotive and many other industries have been

Whether you’ve never heard of supply chain visibility before, or you’re actively looking for ways to implement it throughout your organization, this page will tell you everything you need to know about all the ways that this rapidly-maturing software category is being used by some of the biggest players in the supply chain space.

What is Supply Chain Visibility?

In its simplest form, supply chain visibility collects and presents the real-time location and status of assets throughout the supply chain, allowing logistics professionals to know in an instant where their trucks, trailers, ships and containers are — and by extension, to keep a closer eye on the precious cargo they’re carrying than ever before.

This in turn allows them to carry out a number of different tasks that they were previously unable to do, such as:

  • Make informed decisions about disruptions when and where they occur
  • Know in advance when a shipment is in danger of falling behind schedule
  • Identify trends in lane, partner or facility performance and make improvements

Though this technology has taken several years to evolve into a reliable and effective tool for the supply chain industry, visibility technology is quickly reaching maturity as a technology category, and rates of adoption are growing rapidly throughout all major industries.

Why is Supply Chain Visibility Important

Amid massive global disruptions and changes to the rules of modern business and supply chain, uncertainty is growing more troubling than ever before. Many companies feel they are operating in the dark, unable to control the many unseen, moving pieces of their supply chains, with an adequate degree of precision.

In the midst of all this change, rising customer expectations remain a stark constant for many businesses. Customers and consumers alike not only expect to know exactly when their shipments will arrive, but also to be able to keep a close eye on them every step of the way. They demand not only cheaper shipping and faster delivery, but more precise ETA’s and a higher degree of control as well.

Supply chain visibility is the tool that supply chain leaders have turned to in order to solve these difficult challenges. Visibility allows them to view their entire supply chain in one single place, to know immediately when things are not going exactly to plan, so that they can react quickly, decisively and with an adequate level of information.

The History of Supply Chain Visibility

Historically, supply chain visibility has been addressed using methods that are not only outdated and inefficient, but inaccurate and error-prone as well.

For decades, logistics managers relied on track-and-trace systems and check calls — teams of people who, when the company received a request from a customer asking why a shipment was late, were forced to call the carrier, broker or driver for an update on the shipment’s location and status. In addition to being highly time-intensive, this manual process was also slow, inaccurate and retroactive. In other words, it only could tell a shipper where their shipment had been, not where it was going to be. Instead of alerting a company immediately when a problem occurred, it was only capable of confirming that a problem had, in fact, occurred.

Early attempts to remedy this situation were largely reliant on suboptimal technologies such as cell phone tracking, which, in addition to often being highly invasive of operators’ personal privacy, was also highly inaccurate and prone to errors.

With the passing of laws like the ELD Mandate in the United States and the requirement of GPS transponders on maritime vessels, a new era of precise data availability began. In order to comply with new legal requirements, carriers and logistics providers began to equip their assets with onboard GPS systems capable of providing  accurate, up-to-the-minute visibility into the real-time location of an asset or shipment.

Since then, other telemetrics tools have emerged to track temperature, altitude, loading status, and many other attributes of individual shipments and loads, further painting the picture of an organization’s supply chain in motion.

Supply Chain Visibility Terms to Know

Visibility is, by its very nature, a complex subject made up of many abstract and interconnected parts. Because of this, a few critical terms are important to know when researching the impact supply chain visibility technology might have for your organization:

API: Application Program Interfaces, or API’s, are the language of the internet. API’s are how applications talk to each other, exchange information

ELD: Electronic Logging Devices, or ELD’s, are GPS-equipped recordkeeping devices placed on industrial trucks and trailers to track the location and status of that asset. ELD’s were made mandatory by the U.S. government in December 2017, though still face a slower rate of adoption in other parts of the world.

RFID: Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, is a technique for transmitting digital information about physical objects through the application of scannable tags. Bar codes are one common example of RFIDs, as are the scannable chips in credit cards and passport documents.

Telematics: The raw data from Electronic Logging Devices, RFID’s and other visibility-related devices are collectively referred to as telematics.

RTTVP: Real-Time Transportation Visibility Platforms, or RTTVPs, are technology tools used by shippers, carriers, and other logistics organizations to gather, analyze and interpret telematics information from a variety of sources, presenting that information in a single, actionable view.

5 Examples of Supply Chain Visibility

A growing number of shippers and logistics organizations are turning to supply chain visibility to help them address inaccuracies and inefficiencies within their operations.

  1. C&S Wholesale Grocers: One of the United States’ leading grocery supply companies, C&S Wholesale Grocers, rolled out supply chain visibility among their workforce with the goal of creating a digital twin for their supply chain. In other words, they wanted to create an accurate, complete digital model of their operation, which would allow them to monitor performance and simulate changes to their logistical practices from anywhere in the world. Using FourKites to track supply chain performance across the company’s 8000+ individual facilities, C&S was able to reduce transportation-related customer service calls by 65% in just four months.
  2. 3M: At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, 3M began to drastically ramp up supply chain operations in order to keep up with the skyrocketing demand for N95 masks. In addition to ramping up manufacturing and consolidating their internal processes, 3M added all of their now-critical loads into FourKites, allowing them to control and coordinate the delivery of millions of masks with the ease and agility that had once used to deliver a fraction of that number. Having a scalable visibility platform, which was capable of handling the added volume, was critical to 3M’s successful efforts to provide personal protective gear to those who needed it.
  3. Pixelle: One of North America’s top paper and packaging corporations, Pixelle witnessed a rapid reduction in track-and-trace calls after implementing FourKites to provide real-time visibility across the supply chain. Within less than a year of investing in the new technology, Pixelle’s leadership observed that emails sent by load planners, carriers and customer service groups trying to locate a particular shipment had been cut nearly in half.
  4. Michaels: Michaels consolidated its supply chain management team into a single, centralized control tower, enabling them to empower a small, agile team to quickly and decisively manage operations which once required many times the number of personnel. In doing so, they quickly achieved 91% load tracking, improved on-time delivery, streamlined internal communication and reduced reliance on manual updates.
  5. Kraft Heinz: Packaged goods manufacturer Kraft-Heinz uses supply chain visibility to boost performance and improve efficiency over outgoing shipments, bound both for customers like grocery and convenience stores, and also to philanthropic organizations such as food banks. Over the past year or more, Kraft Heinz has used supply chain visibility to take a closer look at the efficiency of shipments being dispatched to their partner Feeding America,  working to optimize their process for getting food to those most in need even as demand for such assistance grew to unprecedented levels in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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