Today’s supply chain leaders are facing a perfect storm of new disruptive technologies that will transform the management of supply chain operations. Over the years, we have seen cloud, mobile, and big data technologies enter the supply chain, but today IoT, AI, drones, 3D printing, blockchain, and augmented reality (AR) are all jostling for the attention of CIO budgets. These new technologies will require investment in new network infrastructures. More importantly, new enterprise solutions can leverage the information and insights provided by these technologies and apply it across the supply chain. We are seeing the supply chains of today evolve into the connected and intelligent digital ecosystems of tomorrow. For the purposes of this article, let’s see how augmented reality could impact tomorrow’s supply chains.
Electronic data interchange (EDI) based transactions allow companies to exchange business documents such as purchase orders and invoices in an electronic format. However, EDI documents can be difficult to understand to the untrained eye, but what if you could visualize your trading partner community in a 3D, virtual representation of your business network and then show the EDI transactions flowing across the ecosystem? As analytics starts to be deployed across more supply chains, there will be an increasing need to visually represent this data in a meaningful way, for anyone to understand. AR technology could potentially be the solution to help and the primary goal of AR is to overlay a real-world environment with highly detailed and interactive 3D models of information.
In the image below, a supply chain director is standing in front of a conference table, wearing an AR headset, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, and is preparing to view and interact with a 3D representation of the supply chain.
By leveraging certain spoken commands, they can interact with their virtual supply chain in a number of ways:
- “Overlay virtual supply chain on conference table.” – A virtual representation of the supply chain appears in front of them.
- “Display key trading partners to US and EMEA factories.” – Factories are represented on the left and key trading partners are overlaid on the right of the virtual supply chain.
- “Run transactions flows from 14th September 2018.” – All transactions from a specific date or period of time can be displayed with animated documents flowing between the trading partners and the customer.
- “Display this purchase order to Supplier 1.” – The user can reach out and point to a specific transaction. The details are shown as a virtual representation of the physical document, whether it be a purchase order, invoice, advance ship notice, or acknowledgement transaction.
Once the supply chain has been displayed and trading partners with transaction flows have been overlaid, the supply chain director could run a number of queries:
- Run ‘what if’ scenarios across the interactive model – For example, if a new plant opens in China and a company needs to connect new trading partners to their Business Network, running the transaction flow simulation in AR could help them analyze what impact it will have on the volume of B2B transactions moving across the ecosystem.
- Allow supply chain information to become more pervasive across the enterprise. – For example, senior executives could take part in supply chain review meetings as the information presented in the AR environment would be easier to access and understand than through a traditional supply chain review process.
- Review shipments transported by 3PL providers. – In addition to reviewing transaction flows in AR, you could also review the associated shipments being transported by 3PL providers. It is one thing running a simulation of transaction flows, but being able to watch shipments as they leave their point of manufacture and proceed to their point of delivery across a virtual model of a supply chain with 3D models of lorries, trains, planes, and ships presented in AR could be quite powerful.
- Leverage AR for disruption management. – After a natural disaster has impacted a supply chain, AR could be used as a virtual situation room to analyze the effect of the disruption on a supply chain. “Overlay latest supply chain disruptions” would highlight which suppliers or 3PL carriers are likely to be impacted and alternative plans can be made. Different disruption types can be represented as 3D models and this would be updated by ingesting information from various news, social, and weather feeds.
Improving end-to-end visibility is one of the key challenges facing supply chain leaders today and even though this is being achieved in the literal sense by AR, it still offers a unique way to visualize and interact with supply chain related information. As supply chain control towers and war rooms are becoming more of a common place, AR will allow companies to take this to the next level.