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How to Leverage Mobile Apps for a Better Supply Chain

I recently purchased an {complink 379|Apple Inc.} iPad and must admit that I’ve been blown away by this device. It’s not merely the iPad’s advertised functionality, but more the opportunities and possibilities the iPad enables in the future — and where this technology might take us.

The entire world of mobile applications has been a new experience for me. Since my iPad purchase, I’ve downloaded my fair share of apps; some are amazing, while many are mediocre or worse. But what’s really caught my attention with some of the better apps is the intuitiveness and ease with which information can be consumed. These apps, and the device itself, are user-friendly to all types of people and not solely for the technology-centric community.

Naturally, being a supply chain guy, I started to wonder how this technology could be leveraged, and how the growing area of commercial apps, versus consumer apps, might apply to the supply chain. Logically, commercial apps (e.g., sales force automation) that support a remote and mobile sales force are intuitive to most of us who have used a mobile device, but what about the more complex and specialized area of supply chain management?

Over the past few weeks at various cocktail parties, industry conferences, and meetings with clients and colleagues, I broached this topic and partook in many lively discussions. The question I posed was: “How could the iPad and mobile applications be applied to improve supply chain performance?”

Yes I know what you’re thinking… I must be a hit at cocktail parties. The conversation generally started with how supply chain information could be consumed and disseminated more easily. One example was conveyed to me by a kitchen appliance distributor in California that armed its entire sales team with iPads and an inventory app. When an account manager is meeting with customers, he or she can quickly and easily look up inventory quantities and locations across the entire supply chain in real time.

The same app is also being used by their field technicians with spare parts inventory to improve service and repair performance. On the surface, this may seem very trivial: We as supply chain practitioners look up inventory positions all the time, and we can slice and dice that information in many different ways — and we do.

What’s different here is this information is being pulled by non-supply chain practitioners — employees without any formal SAP, Oracle, JDA, or BI training. In fact, there’s no training required at all. There are no complex reports, filters, hierarchies, elaborate spreadsheets, and certainly no requests to IT for a customized report. It is a simple and an effective way to get supply chain information to the people who need it.

Another point in my discussions centered on how supply chain performance information could be gathered. Instead of “read only” apps like the one I described above, what about “read and write” apps? The elusive last mile of the supply chain, stock-outs and shelf performance, and retail promotion execution were all addressed, too. With more and more everyday people getting mobile devices and apps (and Apple isn’t the only player here, obviously), could “crowdsourcing” be a mechanism to help the supply chain? Crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing a task or activity via an open request to a large group or community for information.

These conversations generated even more questions. Could a crowd (e.g., end consumers) be motivated via mobile apps to report retail shelf stock-outs in the supply chain? What about factories with thousands of employees or warehousing and distribution operations? How could mobile apps be used more efficiently than existing commercial handheld technologies to address supply chain performance?

I’m very intrigued by the possibilities of the developing mobile app space and how this technology may address some of the challenges facing supply chains. Consumers may one day soon play a more important role in the supply chain, not only as the inherent buyer, but also as the “crowd” that helps deliver information into the supply chain and ultimately shapes a supply chain’s performance.

What do you think?

This is my first blog submission with EBN, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts and insights with you, as well as reading your comments and engaging in lively discussions.

8 comments on “How to Leverage Mobile Apps for a Better Supply Chain

  1. AnalyzeThis
    November 1, 2010

    Welcome to the site, Steve, hope you're a bigger hit here than you are at cocktail parties! 🙂 Anyhow…

    These conversations generated even more questions. Could a crowd (e.g., end consumers) be motivated via mobile apps to report retail shelf stock-outs in the supply chain? What about factories with thousands of employees or warehousing and distribution operations? How could mobile apps be used more efficiently than existing commercial handheld technologies to address supply chain performance?

    I agree that this is where things are heading. Maybe not with the iPad specifically (due to the cost), but the tablet form factor could prove to be tremendously useful specifically in some of the examples you cited. In a warehouse, for example, trying to lug around a laptop while accessing inventory is impractical on NUMEROUS levels. Small tablets could easily replace the modest and in many cases antiquated hand-held devices currently in use, providing a much greater range of functionality. And consider the advantages from an IT standpoint of potentially having your warehouse workers, your sales people, your distributors, and possibly even your consumers all on the same platform.

    Anyhow, I agree that there are many exciting possibilities! I think we're still about 5-10 years away before many of the more ambitious ideas become feasible, but I certainly anticipate seeing some dramatic change within the next couple of years, absolutely.

     

  2. DataCrunch
    November 1, 2010

    Hello Steve, very nice post.  I may be a little biased in my response as I run an international supply chain software company and founded a successful mobile technology company as well.  For some time I have been an evangelist in the convergence of wireless technologies in business environments, specifically in the supply chain and logistics spaces.  Currently more of the applications on the typical smartphone devices (not the ruggedized with built-in scanning devices) have been mostly limited to, as you say, “read-only” applications, such as inventory lookup, order shipment stats, notifications and alerts.  Prior to the iPhone when all the hype was on BlackBerry in the enterprise, these apps were typically menu driven with mostly just text.  Now we are seeing more apps written to take advantage of the graphical capabilities of the new smartphone devices out recently.  These apps are now displaying data in highly graphical dashboard with drill-down capabilities and split-screen functionality.  They actually can look very slick and are great for field workers, supervisors, managers and executives.

    As for the iPad, I have been seeing some real interest in utilizing these devices, specifically at the store, where they may be used as mobile kiosks or as mobile checkout stations.  As for the warehouse operations, I do on occasion get asked about my thoughts on using an iPad for functions such as receiving, but at this point it is more a novelty rather than necessity.

    But I do see these tablet devices playing a much bigger role in the supply chain enterprise in the future, say 2-3 years from now.  I can see a rugged iPad/tablet in the future with built-in scanning (or utilizing the camera for occassional scanning type apps) capabilities.

  3. tioluwa
    November 2, 2010

    Awesome post,

    it's like a pick into the future, a not too distant future if you ask me.

    The posibilities are truely enormouns. the use of iphones and most realistically, tablet PCs has the advantage of mobility and ease, which is a great advantage.

     

    This is opening a whole new market just for tablet PCs and smart phones, and its application will go beyond supply chain, to other areas of life.

    and Dave's response shows that the ball is already rolling.

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    November 2, 2010

    Had a chuckle over the cocktail party conversation–well done!

    This is a fascinating subject, actually. My first thoughts were about a bill of material that has hundreds of SKUs and how that would be handled and Facebook's privacy breach. Then I thought about Digi-Key's app that lets buyers check their orders and inventory and relized this vision is not that far away. Thanks for a well thought-out article!

  5. Hardcore
    November 2, 2010

    The potential for this kit is stunning:

    Unfortunately it will be undermined to a greater degree by the control that  Steve Jobs insists on forcing onto users, in the name of 'security'

    Consider anyone in the supply chain/Medical/library/shoppers/schools being able to use their mobile phone/computer/blackberry/Ipad to utilize RFID or barcodes at any time without the need for 'specialist' equipment, then have that information on the corporate system/home user system/ 'body' network or have the external systems information available on the device.

    This is relevant because Apple dictate with absolute authority what software and what environments you can run  both on their phone and ipad systems.

    looking at current apple trends there is an indication they are going to attempt to monitories this revenue stream across their desktop platforms.

    So why is it such a big problem:

     Cross platform functionality (Not the jobs way).

    Currently Java was one of the best cross platform tools available for developing software, “write once run anywhere”, there are millions of libraries available for java, with tens of thousands dealing with supply chain analysis/ graphing/optimization etc. 

    This is critical, because  for the supply chain industry it could mean:

    1. write the app in java

    2. run on a desktop machine (windows/Linux/Apple)

    3. Run on ANY phone java enabled

    4. Run on pad devices

    5. run the application over the internet from a web browser

    As a result It is one application, significantly less work for developers, less bugs, less security risk = less money wasted+edge over competitors+ higher stock prices+happy staff because they only need to learn one system.

    But it is not/will not be available with apple kit…., apple have 'depreciated' Java and Mr Jobs has made it 100% clear that  no outside system will be allowed to run within his companies equipment, starting with Adobe, and all without any consultation with developers/users.

    Result:

    Apple out on its own, with incompatible systems that require custom software to be written independently of the corporate kit.

    Yes the Ipad is a fantastic device, but how it will integrate into the corporate network below the management level is another matter.

     

  6. Ashu001
    November 6, 2010

    Hardcore,

    I agree and understand where exactly you are going with your line of thinking here(The Developer point of view).

    But we also should'nt ignore the installed base of Apple products out in the market today-Ipads,Iphones and Ipods not to mention Macs.

    I can very easily say that more than 50% of all Americans have atleast one Apple product as their personal belonging.Now that is a huge installed base for which a Developer designing apps can gain access to a lot of interested consumers(depending on the quality of the product of course).

    Whether we like it or not Apple products are a massive success in America and we have to learn to live with it.

    Its a different issue that in the smartphone world,Iphones are slowly getting surprassed by Android enabled phones.So Java and interoperability are not entirely dead.

    Its just going to two-three camps.

    You develop for Apple or you develop for Google/Microsoft.

    Regards

    Ashish.

     

  7. Hardcore
    November 9, 2010

    Hi tech4people,

    Don't get me wrong I have 6 apple computers and an XServe (god rest its soul— dead product—)

    I'm an Apple developer, but I also 'dabble' in  Linux, + embedded equipment, GPS + RFID, security etc.

    I will not touch a Microsoft programming language, since the 'foxpro' fiasco.

    unlike my other menagerie of apple products, I will not have an IPhone or IPad, specifically because I feel if I buy a product then it belongs to me (i'm less worried about the IPhone being locked out because there Apple has to consider the security of the phone network system.)

    Having developed  systems in an 'anti' apple corporate environment, my issue is  that we need cross platform functionality if  advancements in  supply chain functionality is to take off in a big way. (consider what would happen if RFID was like barcode systems, with upward of 20 different formats and encoding methods, at least barcodes are optical and we now see  phone apps that can read barcodes via the camera)

    I personally see the future more about integration than being about independent operating systems that are locked down to the n'th degree.

    For the corporate supply chain, i see more of a 'cloud' operating system, where each person in the supply chain has access to ' signed' applications, irrelevant of platform these 'applets' would provide the information in a format for each group Engineers use the system as an engineer would, sales as sales , procurement as procurment, etc.

    But we cannot move forward with such global integration, if people keep throwing spanners in the works. (destruction of major programming languages, lockdown etc)

    Also the issue is that current  supply chains are 'global', so the fact that maybe 50% of americans have a mac, does not really matter from a global perspective, there are over 2 billion people in China, how many are involved in the global supply chain?

     

  8. Steve Puricelli
    November 10, 2010

    Thanks to everyone for your comments and thoughts on the subject – as well as for welcoming me to the site.  Based on the replies, it's certainly an area that has a lot of excitement and how the market develops will be interesting to watch.

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