Category Archives: Future Of Supply Chain Now

WARNING: Handling Dangerous Cargo

The lessons of poor transportation of dangerous or hazardous goods are obvious in hindsight. So what can be done about these supply chain failures?

This article was originally published on All Things Supply Chain on August 24, 2020 and is republished here with permission from the author and website.

On August 4th, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – equivalent to approximately 6 million pounds – that were being stored in a facility at Beirut’s port caught fire and exploded. The human toll of the blast was enormous; the accident killed at least 163 people and injured 6,000 more. Tremendous damage was done to structures at and around the port and surrounding areas. The fact that the storage location was facing the sea is probably the only thing that saved the city of Beirut from total destruction.

The shipment originally arrived on a vessel from the country of Georgia in 2013. Although it was just pausing en route to Mozambique, it was seized and held in the port because of outstanding debts that were claimed in the Lebanese court system. The ship was deemed un-seaworthy in 2014 and the cargo was unloaded into “Hangar 12” where it would remain for nearly 6 years.

It is clear to supply chain professionals that this was a supply chain fail but rather than being one huge failure, the Beirut port explosion was the result of a chain of failures:

  • The ammonium nitrate was being stored in a large, unsecured warehouse; a highly dangerous situation given the lure of the material for terrorist groups.
  • The storage building had multiple structural and condition-based issues, including a dislodged door and a hole in its southern wall.
  • A significant quantity of fireworks was being stored in the same warehouse.
  • Workers were called in to repair the building and re-secure the doors, but they were not supervised or warned about the contents of the building.
  • Sparks from repair teams welding the hole in the wall shut are what created the fire risk. They raised the temperature in the building enough to start a fire among the fireworks, and within one hour that fire reached – and detonated – the ammonium nitrate.

It would be easy to look at what happened in Beirut and think it was an isolated string of unfortunate events. Unfortunately, the same mistakes and examples of mismanagement that led to the port explosion happen regularly in supply chains all around the world.

The lessons associated with moving and storing dangerous or hazardous goods usually seem painfully obvious in retrospect, but they have been made before, and – sadly – they will be made again. Each of these sad incidents has a different level of impact, and a range of different causes, but given the critical role that people play in supply chain operations, they almost always have a human toll.

Take the following example from the United States:

In 2018, a can of aerosol bear repellant fell off the shelf of an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey. 24 employees were sent to a local hospital, one in critical condition. Since the problem with bear repellant had happened repeatedly in the past, action had to be taken. In 2019, Amazon announced that they would build a specialized warehouse just for hazardous materials such as nail polish remover, bleach-based cleaners, and (of course) bear spray.

In recognition of the danger associated with these products – either on their own or in combination – Amazon designed the warehouse to be smaller, include additional safety mechanisms, and keep specific materials separate. They will also no doubt have to provide regular specialized training for anyone working in and around the warehouse.

While the bear spray incident pales in comparison to the explosion in Beirut, it was just as preventable. It took multiple bear repellant incidents to cause Amazon to take action, since thinking an issue is a one-time problem is the easiest mistake of all to make.

Supply chain managers need to be aware of the potential danger represented by the materials moving through their own supply chains or adjacent supply chains that share warehousing and logistics capacity. Some examples – like bear repellant and ammonium nitrate – seem like they would obviously justify additional oversight, but in a busy, distributed workforce, even the most dangerous situations can be overlooked.

Knowing what materials are being stored where, under what conditions, and with what concerns is a key safety measure. As we observed in Beirut earlier this month, it can be a lifesaver as well.

The Christmas Supply Chain – But Not as you Know it!

Airmiles on a sleigh? Elves and Modern Slavery? Sustainable fur for Santa’s suit? Industry 4.0 technologies could change the very fabric of Christmas supply chains…

If you’re anything like the team here at Procurious HQ, it doesn’t feel we’ve recovered from last Christmas, let alone be ready for this year! While the festivities kick-off, we can’t help but think about the key role Procurement and Supply Chain play in making the holidays have all the joy and cheer you could possibly need.

However, it’s impossible to fail to see how the traditional Christmas supply chain will be altered in years to come and it’s all down to innovation and Industry 4.0 technologies. And there’s one organisation that might really see some changes. That’s right, we’re talking about Santa.

Now, as none of us have been fortunate to venture into Santa’s workshop at the North Pole (not for the want of trying…), we don’t know what technology he already possesses. A veritable Christmas-load of magic, yes, but is it time for a Kringle 4.0 upgrade to make sure he’s staying up to date with current trends.

Let’s have a peer into the supply chain to find out…

Airmiles, UAVs and RPA

Global population growth may have slowed to around 1.05 per cent per year, but it is still on the rise and expected to hit 10 billion by the late 21st Century. What this means is that Santa is going to have to find a way to exceed the already blistering 650 miles per second he has to travel in 2020 to ensure that he completes his deliveries on Christmas Eve.

What does this mean for Rudolph and the other reindeer? After over 300 years of delivering presents, could reindeer be on the way out and be replaced by a more innovative solution to help Santa out? As technology develops further it might even be possible for the traditional sleigh to become an Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle (UAV), or perhaps for reindeer to be overtaken by RPA.

Both solutions come with their own drawbacks. The airmiles on the sleigh are gargantuan on an annual basis, though with it being powered by magnetic levitation (or magic) the carbon footprint is at least very low. There is a limit to the current technology on time in the air for UAVs, as well as how far away a pilot can be before the signal is lost. And if the sleigh is a UAV, who is going to eat all the mince pies and carrots and deliver all the presents?

Blockchain and Sustainability

There are few conversations around Industry 4.0 without some mention of Blockchain and traceability. But with the volume of gifts that are given around Christmas increasing exponentially, it’s something that is more important than ever to aid traceability of products, but also their source raw materials and the individuals who made or used them.

Now, we know that the Elves (more on them in a minute) make all the toys for Santa, but Santa still needs to source his raw materials from somewhere. When considering sustainability, we also need to look to a future where Santa’s suit is trimmed with sustainable fur and he’s using a sustainable, or Vegan-friendly, leather for his harnesses and boots.

Santa, of course, should be using blockchain to ensure that all his wood is grown in sustainable forests, all his electronics are free from conflict minerals, and his second, third and fourth et. al. tiers in his supply chain are free from Modern Slavery.

Which brings us back to the elves. We would hope that they are provided with the best of living and working conditions and countless sources have told us how much they enjoy their jobs. But we should still be able to request their employment contracts under a Freedom of Information request. Just to make sure…

Optimisation and Risk Mitigation

With the supply chain becoming increasingly complex, as well as the increasing number of deliveries, Santa needs to find a way to optimise his supply chain. He already has key stakeholders to provide input, as well as having access to the myriad data from global sources. Santa may be able to use technologies like IBM’s Resolution Rooms, which facilitate discussions and create references and knowledge for future problem solving.

A key risk in 2020 is COVID-19. Not only will Santa have to load his sleigh with presents, but he’ll need gallons of hand sanitiser and a face covering for each household. Crowdsourcing ideas or using Resolution Rooms would be a good way for him to set an effective strategy for how to handle this.

Finally, one key aspect of supply chain optimisation is focusing on your strengths and outsourcing other activities. Santa may well decide that his strengths lie in present delivery and bring in other stakeholders to provide logistical and technical support.

Who’s the Boss?

What has also become clear during 2020 is that organisations that don’t recognise gender equality are doomed to failure. You only have to look at the success of the Procurious Big Ideas Summit to recognise the role of successful female leaders in business now and in the future. Fortunately, Santa already has a female leader who can play a more critical role as the organisation’s CEO – Mrs Claus.

As the organisation grows and so do the challenges of the global supply chains, Mrs Claus will play a pivotal role in the smooth running of operations, ensuring Santa has the freedom to focus on delivering presents. Mrs Claus brings a strong leadership to the North Pole, making sure strategic planning begins in plenty of time and that the right decisions are made. It’s high time Mrs Claus got the credit she deserves from the rest of the world!

The Future is Bright…

No matter what the future of the Christmas supply chain looks like, we all know it’s in good hands and (hopefully) making best use of the Industry 4.0 technologies available. Take time to consider all the work that goes into this when you wake up on Christmas morning and find your presents waiting for you (we’re assuming you are all on the nice list…).

It truly is a technologically driven Christmas miracle!

5 Ways To Separate The Successful Supply Chains From The Rest

New computers can analyse a million rows of data in minutes. So why not let the computer do the heavy lifting? As a supply chain professional of the future, you won’t be manually processing data.  You will have data you can trust at your fingertips, as well as meaningful insights.  The rest will be up to you! IBM’s Takshay Aggarwal explains.


In the future, what will separate the successful supply chains from the rest? 

Procurious Founder Tania Seary sat down with Takshay Aggarwal from IBM to get his take on where we are, and where we are going.



Everything has changed

In 20 years of supply chain experience, Takshay has never seen a supply and demand shock at the same time.

“It’s completely changed how supply chain planning is done,” Takshay says.

Before, people used historical data to project demand – usually with a 5-10% variability or 1-2% percent for really mature organisations.  

But even with a high level of accuracy, too many companies were unsure which supplies were coming when. 

“Processes were so monthly and weekly orientated,” Takshay adds. “There was no sense of response; it was all about, ‘We’re used to this stepwise process and will get to it when we get to it.”

The result? Slow response time and lost sales. And reaction time was seriously hampered by years of cost cutting.

“An easy analogy is that you can cut and cut the fat to the bone, but when you need to run, where is the muscle?” Takshay says.

Sensing the market

That’s not true for all organisations, of course. Some companies invested in the right technology to detect changes in the market, which enabled them to respond quickly.

Takshay uses the example of two big retailers during the early days of the pandemic.  

“One retailer had sensing and response capabilities,” Takshay explains. “They secured all the available supplies in the market. Their shelves were stocked and their sales were booming.”

On the other hand, the second retailer’s supply chain officer was slow to respond. “They had traditional ways of doing stuff and their shelves were empty.” 

The difference between the two? “One supply chain officer is now promoted to the board and the other is finding a new job.” 

That’s why it’s so crucial to have the tools in place to detect market fluctuation and respond.

Looking at data differently

Going forward, how will you prepare for disruption – not only for your suppliers, but your suppliers’ suppliers?

The solution is incorporating non-traditional data for demand planning, Takshay says.

“Let’s say a discretionary spend category like electronics or fashion; you need to understand how unemployment is panning out in certain areas because that determines the footfall in your store,” Takshay says.

Non-traditional data includes areas of demographics like looking at unemployment or how a disease is spreading.

“You will start seeing a lot of what we call demand sensing in the near term, and driver-based forecasting which is trying to understand larger drivers in terms of promotions, in terms of macroeconomic factors,” Takshay explains.

“I think that’s where we’ll see demand sensing capabilities, like trying to understand the near term impact of weather or demographics and how they affect demand.”

Spreadsheets won’t cut it

Technology will also change how you use that non-traditional data, Takshay says.

That’s because higher computational power creates the ability to process data at lightning speed.

“The basic math hasn’t changed, but what has changed is how fast you can ingest that data,” Takshay says.

Think of it this way. How long would it take you to analyse a million rows in an Excel spreadsheet? Yet for some of these new models, a million rows is nothing.

Artificial intelligence can quickly process large amounts of data, making it easier to extract meaningful data. 

It will also be easier to bring in different sources of data – as and when –  they’re relevant.

For example, data about the pandemic spread might be a big consideration now, but six months from now it might not be relevant (fingers crossed!)

Instead, you may be more interested to ingest data at scale about economic recovery. AI can help you make sense of a huge amount of data and understand correlations – something that used to take an army of data scientists to uncover.

Welcome to efficiency

That ability to analyse vast quantities of data will also make demand planning a lot easier.

“If you ask any demand planners, 60 to 70% of their work today is about cleansing and harmonising data, and 20-30% is figuring out what it’s saying,” says Takshay.

Now, technology can eliminate much of that manual processing. In fact, Takshay says IBM estimates around 40 to 60% of that work will be covered.

“Now imagine if you’re a demand planner and you don’t have to go through those daily tasks to get the data cleansed,” Takshay says. 

Making it personal

So what does the future hold for supply chain?

Takshay predicts consumer demand is moving toward mass personalisation. The challenge for procurement teams will be supporting that personalisation in production, without losing efficiency or driving up costs.

“Ten years from now, we will be talking more about how we can better understand the consumer,” Takshay says.

“Everything will be done by machine. Supply chain may become irrelevant. It all becomes about mass personalisation so that’s where we start putting our efforts.”

That’s why human empathy will be an even more essential skill. Quantum computing could eliminate 80% of today’s procurement tasks, so our greater contribution is using human emotion to meet customer needs.

Hear Takshay’s full talk with Tania Seary in our exclusive webcast series The Future of Supply Chain Now.

What Will The 4 Hot Topics In Procurement Be In 2030?

Look at your latest supplier contract. Does it specifically mention Zoom catch-ups? If not, why not? Sally Guyer from World Commerce & Contracting talks with Procurious about getting the most from suppliers and technology.

Have a look at your latest supplier contract. Does it specifically mention communication like regular Zoom catch-ups or phone calls? If not, you’re missing a trick.

Procurious Founder Tania Seary recently spoke with Sally Guyer, Global CEO of World Commerce & Contracting on getting the most out of supplier relationships and predictions about the future of procurement. 



Hide or take action

It’s been a wild year, but disruption isn’t unique to 2020. 

“I think it’s really interesting because there have been numerous supply chain upheavals inflicted by disaster in the last decade,” Sally says.

“You’ve got things like the volcanic eruption in Iceland, Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Thailand floods, numerous hurricanes, not to mention the global financial crisis which also needs to sit on that list; yet we don’t seem to have learned very much,” Sally explains. 

“Most companies still found themselves totally unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic.”

After this crisis is over, companies will fall into two categories: those that don’t do anything and hope that a disruption like this never happens again, and those that map their supply networks.

Supply networks

You should know how your suppliers (and your suppliers’ suppliers) fit together, which is why mapping out your network is so useful.

Companies who already made the effort to document their network acted quickly when the pandemic spread. Other companies were floundering and reactive. 

“We know from our research that many organisations typically don’t see beyond the first tier of suppliers, or possibly tier two,” Sally says.

“If we ever doubted the importance of visibility, the pandemic has provided a dramatic example of why it’s absolutely essential to have insight into sources of supply.”

Sally is seeing leading organisations require suppliers to participate in supply chain mapping efforts as part of their contract.

And it serves an important part of rebuilding.

“[We’re] moving away from the linear and much more to a recognition that supply networks’ supply ecosystems are a huge number of organisations all interacting with one another where there needs to be fluidity amongst them all. 

“And that’s essential to accelerate and support recovery.”

Sustainable cashmere

Companies are also investing more heavily in technology to help them gain end-to-end visibility.

Blockchain technology is particularly noteworthy.

Sally gives the example of tracing Mongolian cashmere production. The country is famous for its luxurious fibres – producing nearly a fifth of the world’s raw cashmere

And even though cashmere is considered natural and sustainable, soaring consumer demand is fueling overgrazing and damaging the land. 

So Toronto-based Convergence.tech and the UN teamed up to create an app for Mongolian farmers, backed by blockchain technology. 

Now the UN is able to interact with over 70 different herders and eight cooperatives through a simple app.

Farmers use the Android app to register and tag their cashmere. Then their location is pinned on a map to allow for end-to-end tracking. The UN works with the farmers and other producers along the supply chain to improve sustainability.

“Farmers are willing to have their goods marked in return for training on better practises, and then open markets pay fair prices for truly sustainable and high-quality cashmere,” Sally explains.

“Everybody benefits. Everybody wins.”

Better contracts, better relationships

Another way technology is transforming the supplier/client relationship is through communication.

Sally advises all clients to include communication obligations in supplier contracts.  

“It comes down to simple things like if we want to do video conferencing does your organisation support Zoom or not, because if I do and you don’t then [that’s an issue],” Sally says.

It’s not rocket science. All good relationships hinge on good communication, says Sally.

“Fundamentally, partnerships are founded on robust and clear communication, and you know I always talk about professional relationships in the same context as I talk about personal relationships,” Sally says.

“If you don’t have clear communication with your friends, with your partner, with whomever is around you, then you are not going to have a very successful relationship.”

While you can’t provide for every eventuality in your contracts, you need a robust framework to support the relationship which means communication needs to be at the top of the agenda.

Predicting the future

The year is 2030. What are the hot topics in procurement? Here are Sally’s predictions:

1) Sustainability

“We’re still a long way from creating our sustainable planet and it has to be something that we all continue to champion,” Sally says.

“We need to be promoting best practises to reach the next level where we’re actually starting to give back. Not just to seek neutrality but actually give back.”

2) Social inclusion

“I can’t imagine that social inclusion wouldn’t be important in 2030,” Sally says. “Perhaps a scorecard of corporate performance on social inclusion and social value.”

3) Technology

“Numbers suggest we’re only using 30% of the data that we are producing,” Sally says. 

“And if organisations are genuinely on a journey of continuous improvement then they need to be using data and the likes of artificial intelligence natural language processing if they’re going to continue to advance.”

4) Integration

“We need to organise for integration,” Sally adds. “We need to break down the internal barriers that exist.

“We all operate in silos. We’ve got organisations who have a buy side and sell side and they have no idea what’s going on on either side of the organisation. So those companies are starting to look at how they create an integrated trading relationships function.”

Sally Guyer can be seen in our exclusive series The Future of Supply Chain Now.

6 Ways To Keep Supply Chain On The Executive Agenda

Supply chain is firmly on the executive agenda (at last!). But how can we keep our seat at the table? Procurious talks to Kearney partner Kate Hart about the burning issues in supply chain – from attracting new talent to co-creating with suppliers.


Supply chain is firmly on the executive agenda (at last!). But how can we keep our seat at the table? 

Procurious Founder Tania Seary recently sat down with Kate Hart, Partner at consulting firm Kearney, to talk about the state of supply chain and what’s coming.



Change, pivot, attract

Supply chain management is increasingly about dealing with disruption, says Kate.

“Recent events have highlighted how susceptible our global supply chains are to disruption, from the pandemic to ransomware attacks to global trade wars,” Kate explains.

So how do we cope? It all comes down to two critical capabilities.

The first is the ability to sense the changing environment and pivot. And the second is the ability to attract and retain core talent. 

That need hasn’t changed for a decade, says Kate. So why is it worth mentioning now? 

“What it means today is very different to what it meant 10 years ago in regards to the importance of being able to sense a change environment and pivot,” Kate says.

That’s because the demands on supply chain professionals have changed dramatically – and certain industries adapt quicker than others.

“Some global geographies are a lot more mature than others so far as their uptake of e-commerce and some geographies have really been lagging,” Kate says. 

Why technology means survival

If retailers were hesitant to adopt new technology, they have an extra incentive now. It’s their key to survival.  

“Amazon has been a trigger for some of those geographies to uptake, but obviously the pandemic has just increased the proliferation of retailers offering e-commerce platforms,” says Kate.

Companies are also becoming more innovative in the way they handle the actual distribution of their supply chains, particularly in the business-to-consumer route.  

“We’ve seen a proliferation of sort of rideshare ‘uberisation’ of that last mile,” Kate says.

“What we’re seeing is those companies that invested in the technology and got ahead of the game really have thrived during this. Now it’s going to be a matter of, you know, catch up or who survives, so it’s going to be quite interesting.”

Understanding the risk

So what are smart companies doing now to avoid future disruption? Supply chain network mapping.

Kate has seen a huge influx of companies not just looking at supplier risk, but looking at suppliers’ suppliers risk and building that information through their supply chains.

Interestingly, this is largely driven by senior executive interest. Never before has supply chain resilience enjoyed such a prominent position on the c-suite agenda.

“It’s beyond just enterprise risk. There is reputational risk, there is financial risk, there are lots of different risks that are inherent in the supply chain and that is very much front and centre in many of our board conversations at the moment,” Kate says.

“The key question that we’re getting asked by boards is how they get visibility in their end-to-end supply chain risk and how they manage that resilience.”

Making it automatic

Companies are also investing more heavily in automation to improve resilience.

‘It’s been quite extraordinary. Some global areas, particularly in the US and in the UK, are seeing a lot of advantage from automation,” Kate says.

“But the investment in automation needs to be deliberate, with a very sound business case, otherwise organisations are investing but not necessarily seeing returns in some areas.”

Technology, like automation, is providing supply chain teams with new levels of influence, Kate says. 

“We’re seeing supply chain organisations use digital tools to create a triage process with a front door to supply chain – a self-service functionality,” Kate explains.

“[It] enables their internal talent team to then work with their business stakeholders to drive extraordinary value.

“So, supply chain is really being impacted positively by digitisation and automation. It’s all part of a focus on resilience which elevates the conversations and, in turn, the value that supply chain can deliver.”

Working as partners

That’s why Kate says the future will be all about human decisions facilitated by technology.

“What does that mean for partnerships across your supply chain?” Kate asks. “It means that the problems that need to be solved are increasingly complex. It requires a very strategic view of your supplier base.”

The strategic view increasingly means changing the relationship to a close partnership.

“In some of the scenarios that we’re working on at the moment, the clients don’t know what the solution is and actually need to engage the suppliers to co-create solutions for problems that are new to both of them,” Kate says. 

That means seeing suppliers as extensions of your own organisation, which is positive.

But as Kate points out, companies still need to maintain “control and visibility so you are not anchored to them in perpetuity. So getting that balance of control versus collaboration right is going to be really, really important.”

The right people

As Kate puts it, the bright future of procurement isn’t possible without the right people.

“All of that is very contingent on the ability to attract, retain, and grow talent – the conundrum of supply chain management for aeons,” Kate says.

“But never is it more important than now. For supply chain management to have a seat at the table it needs to be attracting the core talent that we’re seeing coming out of the universities.

“There needs to be a very strong talent pool that’s feeding into the industry.”

Kate Hart – Partner at consulting firm Kearney, overseeing the supply chain practise within Asia Pacific – can be heard in the webcast series The Future Of Supply Chain Now.

Supply chains are changing. Here are 5 things we know now.

8 Ideas To Have In Your Procurement And Supply Chain Tool Kit

Supply chains are under intense scrutiny right now. That increases pressure on supply chain leaders, but also creates new opportunities to do things better for everyone: companies, customers, and the planet. Top influencer Rob O’Byrne gives his take on where we’re at and what’s coming next.


Procurious founder Tania Seary recently talked with Rob O’Byrne, CEO of Logistics Bureau, and a top 10 supply chain social media influencer.

Here’s his take on where we are, how we got here, and what’s next.  



“Now, everyone knows how toilet tissue gets from factory to store.”

Not long ago, many of us struggled to explain supply chain management to our friends and family.

Now? The pandemic hit and suddenly everyone’s a supply chain expert, says Rob.

“Now, everyone knows how toilet tissue gets from the factory to the store, and it’s really put supply chain in the spotlight,” Rob says.

With that extra awareness comes an expectation that supply chains should work more efficiently — and that will change the way we all operate.

“We lost touch with local markets.”

Before we can make impactful changes, we need to understand how we got here.

Rob says the two biggest trends that shaped the pre-Covid era are centralisation and rationalisation.

Increasingly, large global players were centralising their supply chains through regional or global hubs.

Why? To improve management, visibility, and consistency — all of which are important for optimizing supply chain operations. But centralisation comes at a cost.

“The challenge is [these companies] are a lot more remote from their markets and sometimes you actually need to have a finger on the pulse,” Rob says.

“[You have] headquarters in one part of the world trying to dictate what happens in a supply chain in another part of the world. Sometimes they lose touch a little bit.”

Rationalisation led to similar challenges.

For all of the cost savings and visibility benefits, rationalising led to less contact with markets.

“[Companies] are tending to rely a lot more now on AI-based communication systems to talk with customers,” Rob explains.

Great for the bottom line, but frustrating for customers who often want to speak to an actual human instead of a bot.

“We can be in danger of alienating our market.”

“Companies still don’t understand the ‘cost to serve’ in their supply chain”

One of the greatest challenges right now in supply chain management is managing costs, says Rob.

And it’s more than “total cost of ownership.” It’s about knowing the end-to-end costs.

“So many companies still don’t understand the cost to serve across all the different channels in their supply chain. And that’s become even more critical during the pandemic because our distribution channels have changed,” Rob says.

“In the current climate, it’s really challenging because there’s so much expediting going on. We’re having to use different transport modes than perhaps we would normally.” 

Visibility is also a struggle.

“That really came to the fore during the pandemic because everything was moving so much more rapidly,” says Rob.

“Supply and demand peaks and troughs have been so much more severe. The visibility of that real demand was so important, so there’s a much greater need for improved demand planning and inventory management.”

“Forecasts are always wrong”

To illustrate that need, Rob points to the huge demand for one specific medication during the pandemic. 

Patients who used the drug to treat symptoms of a specific disease,  were stocking up, while other people were buying it because they thought it might fight the virus. Hospitals also stocked up because people who needed the drugs would need more if they caught the virus. Demand skyrocketed.  

“So I think that’s part of the challenge in terms of inventory visibility,” Rob points out. “It’s separating the true demand from the noise…that’s where we’re going to see much more sophisticated inventory management tools coming in the future.”

Although some companies still use spreadsheets for forecasting, “on the other end of the scale, there’s some really, really advanced tools being used and all of that is giving us much greater visibility of our supply chains.

“We can use the weather to predict food sales.”

One example is creating demand forecasts based on weather, not previous sales.

Companies can actually predict food requirements at a shopping mall food court by analysing parking spaces and the weather.

They harness data on parking space occupancy, (from those red and green lights) combine it with the weather forecast, and predict how many people will turn up at the shopping centre.

“That’s real forecasting,” says Rob. “It’s not looking at what we sold last month or the month before.”

“Less lean and more fat.”

Along with smarter forecasting, what does the future hold?

Rob says a rapid retreat from lean management might be on the cards for many businesses.

“Lean was all the fashion for the last 10 years or so,” Rob recalls. “And at the time it was probably the right thing to do for the right businesses and the right products.”

But that’s all changed now.

“I just wonder for a lot of supply chains whether it was a step too far when we’ve seen the fragility of our supply chains over the last six months or so,” Rob says.

Where you have the traditional supply chain like an automotive factory, lean and ‘just in time’ works really well, but where you’ve got volatile markets we’re starting to see the cracks appear.”

“I think we’re going to see a little bit more fat, certainly in terms of inventory, just to buffer for uncertainties.”  Because it will be a long time before market demand becomes anywhere near normal, and it may never look like pre Covid demand again, as alternative distribution channels become more popular.

Rob also says we can expect the decline of ‘traditional’ third-party logistics. 

“There are a lot of companies around that ‘uberised logistics’ – whether it be transport or storage, and I think we’re going to see third party logistics particularly moving much more towards the gig economy. There’s no reason why not.”

“There are people delivering to my home at the moment who are doing it a few hours a day, and that’s where third-party logistics is going.”

“Let’s not waste packaging.”

Rob also predicts swelling interest in circular supply chains.

“We’ve got to wake up and start making our supply chains much more sustainable in every element of the supply chain,” Rob says.

“We’ve paid lip service to it and there are companies around the world that we hold up and say, ‘Look what they’re doing; they’re amazing.’

“But I think generally as an industry we’re just not really very good at it. People think it’s about reverse logistics but it’s not. It’s about removing waste in our products too.” 

“Let’s not waste transport; let’s not waste packaging.”

“Supply chains aren’t competing against each other.”

Finally, Rob says supply chains have the opportunity to work together.

“We’ve been very slow in collaboration,” Rob says.

“I think in supply chain, a lot of companies have been fearful of sharing warehousing sharing transport – that physical end of the supply chain – because their competitors are going to see what they are doing.”

“We’ve had that mantra for years that supply chains compete, not companies. I don’t know that they do anymore.

“I think it’s more about brands and it’s about service. I really don’t see a reason why we can’t see a lot more collaboration in our supply chains.”

Rob O’Byrne is CEO of Logistics Bureau and one of the top 10 supply chain influencers on social media.

This interview is part of “The Future of Supply Chain Now” – a week of webcasts with the fresh opinions from the most influential people in supply chain. Brought to you by IBM Sterling Supply Chain and Procurious. Read more on Digitally Perfecting the Supply Chain and How Inventory Visibility will Drastically Effect the Customer Experience.