May 16, 2011
Column | techwatch

Three technologies that will change the logistics game

What technologies will have the biggest impact on logistics and supply chain management? Mobile computing, analytics software, and social media, say the experts.

By James A. Cooke

What technologies will have the biggest impact on logistics and supply chain management in the coming year? A panel of information technology experts offered their thoughts on that question at eyefortransport's 13th annual Logistics CIO and Supply Chain Technology Forum in Chicago this past April. The experts agreed that three technologies in particular bear watching: mobile computing, analytics software, and social media.

Mobile computing devices, whether in the form of smart phones or tablet computers, could have a more far-reaching impact on logistics than anyone ever imagined, according to the panelists. The appeal of these devices lies largely in their flexibility. With a tablet or smart phone in hand, managers no longer need to return to their desks to obtain essential operating data; they can pull up the information wherever they are—whether in the warehouse or on the road. That's a powerful draw, noted Mark Ohlund, vice president of technology strategy for PLS Logistics Services. "We want [access to] information anytime we want it."

As for which of these devices—tablet or smart phone—is better suited to distribution operations, Ohlund said the jury's still out. But at the very least, he expects all trucking companies, even the smallest ones, to equip their drivers with smart phones—if not smart phones with global positioning systems (GPS)—in the future.

One panelist went so far as to suggest that the end of the personal computer era may be upon us. The computing power of cell phones will soon equal or exceed that of desktop computers, said Brent Baker, chief information officer of STI Delivers. Microsoft Windows 7 may be the last operating system IT managers have to roll out for corporate use, he said.

Another development that could change the logistics game is the emergence of analytics software, applications that sift through mountains of data to identify subtle patterns, anomalies, and associations that can provide new insight into operations. "As firms get better at collecting data, they use the data more for analysis," said Michael Watson, ILOG supply chain solutions leader at IBM. (ILOG is a software company owned by IBM.)

While there are many different types of analytics software, Watson said, two are particularly relevant to logistics operations: "prescriptive" and "predictive" analytics. Prescriptive analytics tell a manager what's going on in his supply chain now, Watson explained. The manager can then use that information to take any actions needed to keep the operation running smoothly.

Predictive analytics, on the other hand, help managers assess future risks—for example, a jump in oil prices—and weigh the pros and cons of alternative responses. "It will come up with a range of options," Watson said. "For example, you could see what your supply chain should look like with oil at $70 a barrel versus $150 a barrel."

As for social media, the panelists agreed that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like are changing the way information is exchanged in the logistics community. They noted, for example, that it's becoming common for companies to use social media to find and recruit younger supply chain professionals—those under the age of 30.

They also acknowledged that a lot of companies are still feeling their way around the new social media landscape. Steve Olender, vice president of information technology at Comprehensive Logistics, said his employer initially blocked employees' access to Twitter and Facebook. But as social networking started to take hold in the business world, it reversed its position.

Although it now allows employees to visit these sites during office hours, the company isn't totally sold on the value of social media, Olender said. It's still debating whether access to networking sites is more likely to enhance efficiency or drag down productivity. To help sort things out, he said, the company is keeping a close eye on usage and performance.

About the Author

James A. Cooke
James Cooke is a principal analyst with Nucleus Research in Boston, covering supply chain planning software. He was previously the editor of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly and a staff writer for DC Velocity.

More articles by James A. Cooke

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