In an era where more goods and raw materials are shipped for greater distances than ever before, tracking has become of paramount importance.
Whether the item being tracked is a huge shipment of steel from China to the US, or a single paperback book delivered to a reader in rural Norway, everything is tracked from the moment it leaves the production facility to the moment it arrives.
As tracking has become more important, new technologies have sprung up to facilitate the process.
When discussing supply chain tracking, it's necessary to define what we mean. The supply chain is the entire network of people, companies and organisations involved in bringing a good or service from the producer to the consumer, as well as the resources, information and activities involved in the whole process.
Supply chain tracking involves keeping tabs on whatever is being provided at every stage along the way.
Supply chain tracking is important as it helps both suppliers and consumers plan more efficiently; it also allows for improvements in the chain (for example, identifying bottlenecks and points at which waste occurs) and improves customer service. In addition, effective tracking is also necessary for visibility in the supply chain.
There are several terms related to supply chain tracking which we will need to define along the way, as they're often used interchangeably despite having different meanings.
Procurement, for example, is often conflated with supply chain management; however, they're not quite the same thing.
Procurement refers to the process of purchasing and acquiring raw materials, products or services, from identifying the best supplier to agreeing terms and taking delivery of the items at the other end.
Track and Trace
Although related to terms such as monitoring or real-time tracking, track and trace is more general.
It refers to the overall process of following goods along your supply chain.
Tracking suggests following an item that's in transit, while tracing goods usually refers to looking over the path that the items have already taken.
Real-time tracking is one specific type of track and trace. Track and trace is distinct from monitoring, which refers to the real-time process of following an item while it's in transit.
Supply Chain Visibility as a Competitive Advantage for Procurement Teams
Supply chain visibility, often abbreviated to SCV, refers to the degree of trackability or traceability where product orders or product shipments are concerned.
It refers to the availability of information on the entire supply chain, from the source (for example, a factory) to the intended destination (such as a retail outlet or a consumer's home). Supply chain visibility looks at transportation and other logistic activities. It includes the ability to check in on the current state of events, and to observe when the product or material reaches particular milestones both before and during transportation.
The principal objective of supply chain visibility is to improve the supply chain and empower all the entities involved.
This is accomplished by creating easier access to information for every stakeholder in the chain, including everyone from producers to customers. Integrating SCV systems and tools allows for better and more detailed information for every division along the supply chain.
SCV makes it possible for everyone involved to access precise information on stock, orders and completed deliveries in real time.
Supply chain visibility creates competitive advantages for procurement teams in various ways.
One benefit is that unexpected issues can be resolved more rapidly; for example, if the end consumer makes a late change to their order, procurement teams will be better placed to respond in an agile and effective way.
Another example is the problem of a production bottleneck interrupting the supply chain.
Procurement teams with access to real-time information about the issue will be much better placed to come up with a solution, finding an alternative suppliers or coming up with another way of averting the problem.
See also Rethinking Procurement Processes.
SCV tools and systems give organisations the ability to manage unanticipated situations and events, creating the opportunity for an immediate response and offering a cohesive overview of the entire supply chain.
This boosts productivity in three ways:
- By enhancing the connection between demand and supply
- Maximising channel visibility
- Improving visibility and communication for providers
Real Time Supply Chain Tracking
In the past, real-time tracking was difficult to achieve.
Once materials or products were packed and shipped, it was often a matter of pure guesswork as to when -- or even whether -- they were on their way to the next point in the supply chain.
That has changed with the advent of technologies such as RFID tagging and GPS location. It's now possible to get a much more accurate and detailed picture of your supply chain in real time.
There are several compelling reasons to implement real-time supply tracking.
Firstly, it can help identify points where delays occur and mitigate them.
Secondly, real-time tracking improves supply chain visibility and transparency, allowing everyone involved in the chain to access current information on the progress of the order.
Thirdly, real-time tracking makes it easier to spot inefficiencies in the supply chain. This creates opportunities for improved speed and productivity.
Another benefit to tracking in real time is that theft and loss are easier to identify and manage. If goods go astray at some point in the supply chain, real-time tracking makes it easier to zero in on the weak spots where materials or products can be abstracted by unauthorised personnel.
In the case of fragile or perishable goods lost through improper handling, real time tracking can identify the points in the chain where the damage is occurring. In some cases -- for example, when the items have been tagged with RFID -- it may be possible to recover the goods.
The Internet of Things (IoT) has changed many aspects of modern life, including supply chain tracking.
It is now possible for many items to be equipped with internet connectivity via GPS sensors and RFID tags; alternatively, solutions such as QR codes read by internet-connected robots can be used. This has multiple benefits, with asset tracking being perhaps the most obvious.
IoT technology facilitates "floor to store" tracking in a way that wasn't really possible before. IoT technology allows for a greater degree of detail and transparency regarding the passage of goods through the supply chain, not just when and where they were shipped but the conditions under which they were stored and how long they were in a particular location.
IoT technologies are invaluable for inventory and forecasting, providing far more accurate information than would be possible using traditional methods.
Vendor relations is another area where the IoT can have an impact.
Research conducted by IBM suggests that as much as 65 percent of a product's value to a company may come from the suppliers and vendors elsewhere in the chain.
How vendors deal with supplies and how they handle the finished product on the way to the consumer can make a big difference to the product's value.
The Potential Impact of of Blockchain
We've established that effective supply chain tracking is vital in today's world. It's clear that information from the supply chain needs to be transparent, accurate and reliable. One way to ensure this is through the use of blockchain technology.
With the best will in the world, it's possible for errors to creep into any record. Data can be incorrectly recorded, deleted or simply lost. There's also the possibility of deliberate falsification; unscrupulous suppliers or vendors could theoretically edit the tracking data to make it look as if goods had been shipped when they hadn't, for example.
There's also the possibility of interference by bad actors from outside the supply chain who want to alter tracking information for their own purposes.
The blockchain offers an effective way to resolve all of these concerns.
A blockchain consists of a strong of "blocks" (individual records) that are taken as an input and run through a cryptographic process called a hashing algorithm.
The output of the algorithm is always a fixed number of bits in length. This means that if any one of the blocks is changed, the output will also change dramatically, making any alteration immediately apparent.
Blockchain information is immutable; it can't be altered, only added to, which means that records remain intact and can't be erased or amended.
Because blockchain information is decentralized, no one entity along the supply chain has control over the data.
The data is also distributed, with everyone able to access an identical and accurate copy at any time regardless of where they are in the world. This, of course, improves transparency.
The promise of blockchain technology is to speed up transactions, reduce human error and decrease costs.
Supply chain tracking will only become more important in the future, as consumers become more demanding and technology improves.
Businesses wishing to remain competitive going forward would be well-advised to embrace new developments such as blockchain and the IoT. For those who do, the future is a bright one.
Don't Get Left Behind
Schedule a free consultation with Visichain to ensure your supply chain and procurement operations continue to evolve and remain competitive in today's dynamic environment.