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From the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to the July riots and even the Suez Canal ship blockage, these and other unforeseeable events in recent years underscore the critical importance of cultivating a resilient supply chain. Now, more than ever, in a world where everything is connected and customers are more discerning, businesses need to take advantage of technological advancements and have electronic, and as far as possible, automated systems in place to monitor daily processes and assets within the supply chain environment.

In the past, many logistics organisations have relied on manual sorting and planning of product distribution. While human intelligence and intuition can be beneficial, manual processes are tedious and prone to inefficiencies, including increased sorting and delivery time. This poses an issue for time-bound deliveries and customers with exacting standards.

Technology can minimise a dependency on people, and allow resources, processes and vehicle monitoring to be managed and monitored centrally, providing full visibility regarding all aspects of the supply chain. A technology-enabled business can now establish “control tower” capability via a digital twin for holistic supply chain management.

A supply chain digital twin is a virtual simulation model of real-world supply chain activities. Management can access real-time analytics with drill through capabilities to analyse supply chain dynamics, review performance based on various metrics, and predict process success through a comparison between planned and released work and sales orders, deliveries, pickups, ePods and approvals. Processes can then be further optimised to achieve all business-critical key performance indicators and reduce time, distance and operational costs.

The data is gathered from various technology sources, including:

- IoT devices like telematics, sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) cameras to provide real-time transport analytics and insights;

- logistics and transport databases that are integrated between business partners;

- business-to-business operational databases that share order-related and electronic deliveries in near real-time;

- automated and integrated vendor information; and

- user experience feedback, online reviews, customer service tickets, social media platforms and real-time messaging platforms.

These resources supply companies with a staggering amount of data that, when processed through artificial intelligence-based software, can deliver analytics that provide valuable insights and full visibility at an operational level across all aspects of supply chain management. With a feature-rich control tower dashboard, driver application and customer-facing tracking interface, such platforms can enhance visibility from origin to destination.

Digital twins in the supply chain environment can assist in risk mitigation by aiding in the planning of transportation and facilities while optimising inventory.

Planning of transportation and facilities

Various technology platforms can be effectively utilised to establish a digital twin of the supply chain environment, offering multifaceted benefits. These platforms can assist in planning demand from customers and help systematise supply chain decisions, providing an integrated approach to managing the complexities of modern logistics.

Easy to implement, understand, and use, the technology empowers supply chain managers to make immediate decisions based on automated, real-time data. The real-time data harnessed by these platforms plays a pivotal role in monitoring a multitude of variables within the supply chain, including physical assets, personnel and locations. This comprehensive monitoring enables supply chain managers to better plan and respond to variable demand, facilitating the seamless dispatch and management of resources on the ground. The result is optimal usage of assets and assurance of on-time delivery in full (OTIF) to customers.

Geocoding functionality within these platforms ensures precise mapping of addresses, even those poorly written, obtaining precise coordinates to enhance delivery accuracy and minimise failed deliveries. Furthermore, the technology's capabilities extend to optimising delivery routes, increasing deliveries per driver, and doing so at scale. Real-time visibility and tracking of the movement of delivery vans and individual deliveries adds an extra layer of control for management.

Beyond operational enhancements, these automated and integrated technology platforms can help businesses better minimise risks in their supply chains. Real-time alert functionality provides immediate notifications for deviations against the plan. This includes, by way of example, new on-demand orders that require fulfilment, drivers running late due to traffic congestion, vehicle breakdowns and loading or off-loading variances against the schedule.

The automated processing also enables a delivery business to optimise delivery at scale. Therefore, an entire logistics chain can be streamlined. In the case of mass delivery to stores, the digitalisation will optimise overall operational efficiency which will benefit the end customer, ensuring products are on shelves in a timely manner. The data collected can also provide a greater view of sales in each delivery location and future delivery schedules can be based on historical data of demand.

The end-to-end visibility achieved through these platforms, coupled with dispatch management and optimisation capabilities, imparts a substantial boost to organisational agility. This boost ensures that businesses are not only keeping pace with the dynamic nature of the supply chain industry but are consistently staying ahead of the game. The comprehensive integration and automation provided by these platforms form a cornerstone in achieving operational excellence and resilience in the face of ever-evolving challenges.

Optimising inventory

The supply chain digital twin platform can utilise data from the demand forecasting function to avoid stock-outs and assist in minimising overall warehousing costs. It can also help address challenges experienced in “single-echelon” – optimisation of inventory in a single warehouse – and “multi-echelon” inventory systems – optimising inventory across the network.

The greater visibility can enable seamless interactions with shippers and warehouses. Other use cases that can benefit from this technology depend on the supply chain demands and needs.

However, there are challenges around the establishment of successful supply chain digital twins, including data quality and technology adoption.

Data quality

First and foremost, the data quality of the real-time data feed needs to be trusted. As the precursor to the success of the planning and execution functions, the reliability of both technology and vendors is paramount to data integrity. Various artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies exist that can assist supply chain managers to ensure that usable information is indeed correct and reliable.

As the old saying goes “garbage in, garbage out”.

Technology Adoption

Even with such advancements available, various industry verticals may be hesitant to embrace these new technology platforms. Complexity can be a hurdle, but with a credible vendor as a business partner, a move in this direction can be leveraged to assist supply chain managers in optimising processes and minimising risks within existing supply chains.

“Correctly configured and optimally utilised, technology can very quickly pay for itself and contribute not only to risk mitigation but immeasurably to revenue growth, cost minimisation initiatives and positive customer sentiment. With a supply chain digital twin, you can derive additional value from your traditional telematics solution and optimise the delivery process. There is no time like the present to partner with a trusted technology vendor to vitalise and streamline your supply chain,” says Kobus Visagie, Executive: Business Solutions at Tracker South Africa.