April 30, 2019
Column | outbound

Catch a wave

The long-anticipated wave of disruptive supply chain tech has hit the beach.

By Mitch Mac Donald

For what seems like more than a decade, these pages have been filled with stories about the emergence of technologies that held great promise for transforming supply chain operations. Whether it was blockchain, drones, the Internet of Things, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence (AI), or robotics, it was clear these advances had the potential to usher in untold efficiencies. It was also clear they had yet to deliver on that promise.

Figuratively speaking, it seemed as if everyone in the profession was standing on a beach facing the open Atlantic. We knew there were some rogue waves out there beyond the horizon. We also knew they would someday slam into the beach and potentially disrupt almost everything in logistics and supply chain—but in a good way. The question was, when?

It took just a few hours on the show floor at ProMat '19 in Chicago last month to realize the tide has indeed come in and these disruptive enabling technologies are now hitting the figurative shore.

While always a big show (in fact, the biggest logistics-focused trade show in the U.S.), the 2019 ProMat exposition was even more jam-packed with exhibitors and attendees than any in recent memory. And it felt different. You could hear "oohs" and "aahs" everywhere as attendees came face to face with some of the transformative technologies they'd been reading about for years. It was clear the wave had hit the beach.

There was genuine exuberance about those new robotics projects that are taking the concept of automation to new heights. There was genuine awe among those who saw "decisions" being made in nanoseconds by AI-powered systems.

There was so much exciting stuff on display that it was impossible to take it all in. Over three days, DC Velocity's team of seven print and video journalists (the largest in the market!) conducted nearly 100 interviews and booth visits, yet we barely scratched the surface. There was so much happening and so many things to see, we could have doubled our team and there still would have been more innovations to explore.

The excitement over all these new technologies was also evident in the findings of the 2019 MHI Annual Industry Report, which were presented at the Wednesday morning keynote session. This year's edition, titled Elevating Supply Chain Digital Consciousness, represented the trade group's sixth annual study of emerging disruptive technologies and innovations that are transforming supply chains around the world. The survey was conducted among 1,052 supply chain professionals by MHI and Deloitte Consulting LLP in late 2018.

This year's report indicated that not only are logistics and supply chain executives excited about these new technologies, but they also see tech as the key to future success. Eight out of 10 survey respondents believe digital supply chains will be the predominant model within five years.

What's more, they are apparently going to back up that belief with dollars. The survey showed that investment in supply chain technology has reached an inflection point: After a four-year decline in tech spending from 2015 to 2018, the trend line has abruptly reversed course. The report predicts a 95-percent increase in projected spending in 2019 over 2018. Some 57 percent of respondents are planning investments in new technology that will total more than $1 million over the next two years (up 10 percent over last year's survey). Thirty-four percent plan to spend more than $5 million, and a full 22 percent plan to spend more than $10 million.

That should be more than enough to inspire us to wax up our figurative surfboards and catch the technology wave that clearly has arrived.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has more than 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered the logistics and supply chain fields since 1988. Twice named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S., he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC VELOCITY and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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