Fourth Industrial Revolution

B-I-R-D: 4 digital technologies that can help supply chains take flight

You know what they say about the early bird

You know what they say about the early bird

Tarek Sultan
Vice-Chairman of the Board, Agility
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Tech for Good

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The number of potentially disruptive technologies in logistics is daunting.
  • This makes it difficult for supply chain businesses to know where to look.
  • Blockchain, IoT, automation and data science should be first on their list.

Astute business leaders discipline themselves to be on constant lookout for disruptive new technologies.

They foster an internal business culture that is able to evaluate promising technologies through a continuous cycle: Watch > pilot > partner > adopt or discard.

In logistics, as in many other sectors, the number of potentially disruptive innovations is daunting. It includes everything from augmented reality and big data to autonomous vehicles and 3D printing. Even the most agile businesses can’t test or pilot everything, so what’s the right approach?

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For companies with goods to move, there are several technologies that bear watching and four that every party in the supply chain should be testing at some level. These four are the BIRD technologies – blockchain, the internet of things (IoT), robotic process automation (RPA) and data science.

The BIRD technologies are inter-related and mutually reinforcing. Blockchain, or distributed ledger technology, establishes trust in data. The IoT provides a vast quantity of relevant data points. RPA improves the accuracy of data. Data science extracts value.

1) Blockchain

Blockchain has its skeptics, including many who believe the technology has already fallen short and might be too inherently problematic. Some skepticism is justified, but it’s premature for blockchain to be written off.

The idea behind blockchain is that all of the information required for completion of a transaction is stored in transparent, shared databases to prevent it from being deleted, tampered with or revised. There is a digital record of every process, task and payment involved. The authorization for any activity required at any stage is identified, validated, stored and shared with the parties who need it.

In ongoing pilots of this technology, shippers, freight forwarders, carriers, ports, insurance companies, banks, lawyers and others are sharing “milestone” information and data about their pieces of an individual shipping transaction. What’s missing today is agreement by all the relevant parties in the supply chain – including regulators – on a set of common industry standards that will govern the use of blockchain.

Absent a consensus on standardization, blockchain offers little. But with a common framework and set of rules, it could make shipping faster, cheaper and more efficient by increasing trust and reducing risk. It would shrink insurance premiums, financing costs and transit times, and eliminate supply chain intermediaries who add cost today but who would become surplus to requirements.

2) The internet of things

As a platform for sharing trusted data, blockchain is ideally suited to the internet of things. IoT devices can be attached to almost anything. As 5G technology evolves and spreads, tiny IoT chips embedded in products will enable businesses to track and monitor shipments of pharmaceuticals, high-tech goods, consumer products, industrial machinery and garments.

That data can be encrypted and shared through the blockchain so that customers and suppliers have a real-time record of the transaction. An IoT-enabled supply chain would be both leaner and less risky. It would allow for true just-in-time production by guaranteeing inventory accuracy and, in turn, reducing working capital requirements.

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3) Robotic process automation

Of course, data is no good if it is inaccurate - and in the supply chain, the leading cause of inaccuracy is human error. Robotic process automation, or RPA, is the artificial intelligence used to allow software to handle many of the steps involved in a shipping transaction by understanding and manipulating data, triggering responses and interacting with other digital systems.

Use of RPA can ensure accuracy in customs declarations, safety certificates, bills of lading and other paperwork. It can reduce reliance on the manually entered data, emails and digital forms that produce errors, create delays and add cost all along the supply chain. RPA frees up workers to be more productive by doing what humans do best: solve problems, react to the unexpected, think creatively and deal with customers.

4) Data science

Thanks to data science, we are in the midst of seismic change in the supply chain. We are getting more data from more sources; it is the right data; and it is accurate. Tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud computing enable us to analyze and use that data in powerful new ways.

Rather than using information to sound alarms when there are “exceptions” – problems or anomalies with an individual shipment or in the supply chain – we can use it to prevent them. Data becomes about managing the future, not the present.

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The risk, of course, is that only large, well-resourced supply chain players will be able to take advantage of BIRD technologies and other advances that involve harnessing data. That would create a dangerous new digital divide between large and small, haves and have-nots.

Thankfully, data is having a democratizing effect by making the global economy fairer and more inclusive in important ways. Small businesses and firms in emerging markets who aspire to go global aren’t piloting blockchain or developing their own RPA applications. But they are already the beneficiaries of new, inexpensive, data-informed tools and platforms underpinned by artificial intelligence and machine learning: online freight booking, instant financing, automated marketing, cheap cloud computing and remote advisory services.

The BIRD technologies generate trust in data, ensuring accuracy and giving users the ability to predict and act. In a data-driven world, they can help businesses of all sizes take flight.

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Related topics:
Fourth Industrial RevolutionForum InstitutionalSupply Chains and Transportation
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