Real-Time Visibility: the Foundation for Supply Chain Automation

real-time visibilityI’ve written previously about how I founded FourKites in 2014 to help shed light on the vast blind spots that exist throughout our complex and interconnected global supply chains. Our focus for the first several years was to build a state-of-the-art platform that would give the world’s biggest shippers, and their carrier and broker partners, real-time data about the location of their freight when it’s in transit. And I wrote about how sharing that real-time data across the enterprise, and externally with trusted parties, facilitates more efficient operations and better relationships amongst trading partners.

Yet even with all of that said, establishing pervasive access to real-time freight logistics data is really just the beginning in terms of the possibilities for further innovation. Real-time visibility is a platform. And as with any platform, it gets really exciting when the ecosystem starts to innovate on top of its core capabilities. In the case of the supply chain, end-to-end visibility will serve as the foundation for a new generation of technologies and applications that automate a host of different business processes.

How so?

What is freight visibility, at its core? One could say, it’s nothing more than dots on a map. Your freight is in X location, right now. As I’ve said, that’s really useful, particularly for a supply chain that has been plagued for decades by an inability to answer the “Where’s my truck?” question quickly or accurately. But I’d argue that’s the lowest common denominator.

True visibility is knowing what is happening in your supply chain, anywhere and everywhere, at any given point in time. That’s why it’s important for the industry to progress from offering in-transit visibility – e.g., “Where’s the ship on the ocean?” – to visibility into freight when it’s in the yard or the warehouse, too. You need to shed light everywhere in order to reap the maximum benefits of supply chain visibility.

You then want to apply intelligence on top of that – e.g., what’s the estimated ETA based on weather, traffic, lane patterns, road closures and a host of other real-time conditions? Maybe the customer wants to find the location of every load captured in a single purchase order. Then, what proactive recommendations can the system make after analyzing everything?

Now we’re ready to talk automation.

At a really high level, you can break down supply chain operations into three things: planning, execution and procurement. With a foundation of real-time visibility, the supply chain is now poised for the automation of so many different aspects of operations. Here are just a few examples of what’s on the horizon:

Supply planning systems are all about ensuring that a company has the right supplies at the right time so that production runs smoothly and on schedule. But supply planning operations don’t have visibility into the real-time status and ETAs of those supplies. They compensate for that lack of visibility by keeping a certain amount of “safety stock” on hand, which can be a significant cost of doing business. But if real-time supply chain visibility data were integrated with supply planning systems, you could automate and optimize the replenishment of supplies.

Consider procurement. Today, shippers typically issue RPPs and scores of carriers scramble to figure out the shippers’ lane patterns so they can determine whether they want to bid for the business. It’s a very manual and time-consuming process, but it, too, can be automated. AI can analyze the network data to ascertain which carriers are best equipped to service certain lanes frequented by the shipper, saving everyone time in the RFP evaluation process.

Warehousing and distribution, too, are ripe for automation. When facilities know the real-time status of freight, appointments can be automatically rescheduled to optimize dock turn times, labor, driver comfort and the like.

Similarly, by integrating their systems with real-time visibility data, retailers and merchandisers, who have historically been in the dark as to freight status, can easily optimize their store labor and on-shelf-availability rates for popular products.

These are just a few examples of what’s possible and what’s coming next. There’s so much room for innovation, and in turn significant ROI, as software and solutions providers in different supply chain functions begin to explore the many ways they can leverage real-time data to build a next-generation, intelligent and automated supply chain that serves everyone better – from planning, to execution and procurement, to managing nimbly when the unexpected inevitably occurs.

We’re very excited about what’s next. Please reach out if you have ideas for ushering in a new era in supply chain automation.

Matt Elenjickal is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of FourKites. He founded FourKites in 2014 after recognizing pain points in the logistics industry and designing elegant and effective systems to address them. Prior to founding FourKites, Matt spent 7 years in the enterprise software space working for market leaders such as Oracle Corp and i2 Technologies/JDA Software Group. Matt has led high-impact teams that implemented logistics strategies and systems at P&G, Nestle, Kraft, Anheuser-Busch Inbev, Tyco, Argos and Nokia across North America, Western Europe and Latin America. Matt is passionate about logistics and supply chain management and has a keen sense for how technology can disrupt traditional silo-based planning and execution. Matt holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from College of Engineering, Guindy, an MS in Industrial Engineering and Management Science from Northwestern University, and an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. He lives in Chicago.

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