Supply Chain is No Longer a Chain – It’s a Network

To start mapping through the market challenges the various nodes face, here’s a quick punch list.

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Editor’s Note: Akash Gupta is the co-founder and chief technology officer of GreyOrange


I don’t want to interrupt the supply chain’s moment in the spotlight.

And it is quite a moment. Listening to or reading the news, the supply chain has become a hot topic, with consumer and business media alike pointing to supply chain issues to explain the fits and starts of goods availability, mini-inflationary bubbles, and the series of shortages twirling through the economy.

In boardrooms, fulfillment has become a primary topic of concern. Even the White House has taken notice of the supply chain, with President Joe Biden announcing the formation of a task force to strategize about supply chain disruptions.

Of course, “supply chain” has always been such a ubiquitous term and concept for those of us who actually work within the supply chain itself – manufacturers, logistics and fulfillment operations, transportation providers, and the myriad of suppliers, vendors, and software makers that service those industries.

However, it’s time to say — the supply chain is no more. We as a society and fulfillment industry are post-“supply chain.” Or post-chain, at least. The term simply is no longer valid today, and likewise, neither are the terms for the traditional links that made up the chain itself — warehouses, distribution centers, stores, and so on.

This isn’t just semantics. Examining our terminology is important, because instead of envisioning our supply chain as a linear system connected one link at a time from a product’s raw point of origin to the end consumer, we need to be envisioning an interconnected mesh of nodes — with each node serving the broader goal of consumer fulfillment.

Traditional fulfillment and logistics of course used to be a chain — an inherently linear sequence. When the term “supply chain” became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, that’s exactly what it was — one link in the chain to the next. A linear process that connected manufacturers to consumers, with a product or service stopping at one point along the chain, then moving to the next. People looked around and that’s what they saw — a chain. Hence, “supply chain.”

But look around today. Look at your company. Look at all the various connections and touchpoints of the movement of goods within our economy. Look at consumer expectations for the myriad of fulfillment options available. It’s impossible to think about what we see today, and what we should envision for tomorrow, in our manufacturer-to-consumer network as a linear chain.

Thus, all of the various aforementioned components within this new mesh of nodes (manufacturers, warehouses, stores, etc.) must take on new roles and new capabilities to create this omnichannel fulfillment network. Stores are no more. Warehouses are no more. Distribution centers and terminals are no more. Every point in our supply network now is a fulfillment node — at least, that’s the goal we should be working toward. And that’s why examining and redefining our terms is so important.

It’s clear that this is how the modern fulfillment network needs to operate. The challenge now is building out this network between brands and consumers that’s demanded by modern commerce.

So what’s required of each node in this mesh?

To start mapping through the market challenges the various nodes face, here’s a quick punch list.

They need to be able to plan and execute in real-time, continuously evolving the plan when discrepancies in execution arise. They need to be balanced in automated robotic and manual capabilities. Nodes need to be interconnected and aware of what’s happening across the entire network. Lastly, they need to be capable of serving multiple channels and be consumer inclusive.

Regarding real-time planning and execution, there will no longer be a scenario in which you can, for example, plan eight hours’ worth of work at any given node and then set about executing it. That’s unrealistic, because you might get an order and set about executing it and shipping it, interrupting your previously planned tasks.

To interconnect and communicate effectively, and thus attain network awareness, nodes will need to have access to inventory data and know where products are, where consumers are, and have real-time access to order information. And they need to interpret and act upon this information in real-time.

If the consumer is included in all of these processes, and not simply updated in the gaps between the nodes, they can be provided with fulfillment options based on the real-time data and progress, rather than simply told that their preferred fulfillment option is now delayed or unavailable. For example, you can give them an indication within your app that says their preferred SKU is missing, but here are three other options, either for the product or the delivery method. You can do that while you’re executing the order, which builds trust with your consumer and works toward the broader goal of streamlined fulfillment.

Within the supply chain’s evolution, we’re at the point of the arc where the need for having an enmeshed node fulfillment network is clearly established. We have the customer demand and the business demand. Now comes the time where we refine the technology to prove out this network and build in the functions to shift the “supply chain” to its next iteration — that is, freed from the chain itself.

GreyOrange (www.greyorange.com)

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