IotIt wasn’t long ago that Apple was lauded for its finesse in managing its supply chain. Getting its bazillions of iPhones from China to the US and everywhere else required some groundbreaking advances and a lot of tight controls. Those lessons have gone mainstream as the world took notice and of the company’s strategies and success. And partly because of that expansion, the supply chain now extends to areas as unexpected as social media.

Some of these areas make perfect sense in light of new technologies. An article in Forbes Business lists several areas. Here are the ones that I think are already making a difference.

3D printing is interesting in itself. The idea of creating a physical object by simply plugging in a computer to a printer lets children print their own dolls and other toys for an investment of $300. And a slightly higher investment lets people print their own designs of pretty much anything they like. But as these printers become less expensive and more capable they will act more like a StarTrek tranporter by allowing one person to scan an object and have a duplicate printed at a friend’s house. There will be items that can be ‘purchased’ online and printed locally, completely avoiding shipping.

Today, printing a product still takes hours, so until 3D printers become much faster Amazon and others are upping their delivery game to deliver in much shorter timeframes. Their Amazon Prime Hubs are set up to deliver within 60 minutes and their Drone delivery project is slated to deliver within 15 minutes. These changes to the supply chain bring together all the technologies we have so carefully honed over the years and supercharges them with technologies we didn’t envision just a few years ago.

The same kind of high speed customization is being applied to apparel. 3D printed shoes, bathing suits, and dresses are being created but are still just interesting experiments. The ability to deliver finished goods directly to retailers from designers’ studios will be a reality when the technology is able to rival standard fabrics. Add to that the ability to delivery clothing that incorporate designer skills with perfect fit based on 3D scanning performed in the dressing room and the problems associated with shipping delays and overstocks change dramatically.

The IoT (Internet of Things) is projected to become a population of 30 to 40 billion ‘things’ by the year 2020 and add intelligence to everything from consumer goods to industrial equipment. The data sent by these things already constitute a supply chain in themselves. But as the data being sent is incorporated into enterprise ERP systems that trigger orders for supplies, replacement parts, maintenance, and upgrades, the supply chain is beginning to supply itself.

If your supply chain dreams are limited to increasing the visibility of your orders between your suppliers and their final destinations it’s time to step back and get a better understanding of the forces shaping the global supply chain that’s emerging all around you.
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