iot diagramThe more I read about how smart items are evolving, the more I'm convinced that the supply chain needs to be at the front of the line in devising strategies for dealing with, enabling, and making use of these technologies. The triad of technologies that I see most important to the efforts are digital tags, 3D printers, and mobile communications.

The first of these is the tags used as identifiers and communicators. While RFID tags are currently the least expensive options and well established as data holders, I expect they will eventually be supplanted by more intelligent tags that can participate more actively in being 'smart' components of the IoT or Internet of Things. I posted my take on the viability of RFID and IoT tags a few weeks ago and think we are still several years from a full scale deployment that will make a difference in in-transit tracking. But the move toward 'smart' and 'connected' is already underway.

Mobile communications, or rather ubiquitous mobile communications is the second part of this movement. We are nearing the point that cell phone connections are available in a majority of highly populated regions. The expansion is driven by ROI for the carriers, and is supplemented by WiFi access points where companies have incentive to enable their own communications. As this combination closes the gaps in coverage, the ability to connect to and communicate with IoT tags will eventually become continuous and enable item level visibility throughout the supply chain. 

The third technology is 3D printing, or 3DP, and it is exploding both up and down the spectrum from industrial manufacturing to children's toys. Gartner's press release explains more of its assumptions here. As the capability expands to include the order to delivery process, the increase in shipment of raw materials (rather than finished goods) will become more important. Orders for 3DP printable items will be manufactured (printed) on demand at or near their destinations. As products are created, IoT tags will be embedded in them rather than added to them and will remain part of the product throughout its useful life, collecting and disseminating information.

This data itself will become a point of contention for privacy advocates and a new source of research and analysis for manufacturers and social observers as the trend escalates.

For now, I recommend keeping a close eye on and participating in all 3 of these technologies. They will become significant over the next few years and those companies that understand them will be positioned for competitive advantage.

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