Serving Society Through Digitalized Responses

171114 November cover

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the ubiquity of supply chains is again apparent. In the days and weeks following both disasters there were stories in the mainstream news about ports opening to bring much needed fuel for vehicles, while on social media, heart-warming posts highlighted the power of the human spirit, as groups were banding together to send care packages and donate money to aid in the recovery of impacted areas.

In these situations, human nature drives the desire to help, but the ability to respond to societal needs is increasingly dependent on digitalized capabilities. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued “a total of 132 airspace authorizations as of (September 15, 2017) to ensure [that] drones can operate safely” in affected areas of Florida. The drones acted on behalf of government entities, as they surveyed areas that people had yet to reach, as well as businesses, with the flying machines providing data to assist in expediting insurance claims.

However, the potential of a digitalized future may be even more beneficial in places like Puerto Rico, where drones showed the world a view of the devastation, and where now, almost seven weeks after Maria made landfall on the island, millions are still without power and communication. Even as expert crews arrived with generators, food, and other supplies, imagine how technologies such as Facebook’s Aquila drone could provide internet access to those unable to communicate. By implementing the goal of a network of drones that can, as Facebook describes, “distribute the web down to the earth like a sort of makeshift data center in the high skies,” Aquila could reopen lines of communication and allow for more focused recovery efforts.

In fact, some companies responded to Puerto Rico’s crisis by fast-tracking products and services that are still in early stages of development and release. Tesla shipped hundreds of its Powerwall backup batteries to the island, along with equipment to generate solar power. And Google’s parent company, Alphabet, obtained approval from the FCC to provide emergency cell service to Puerto Rico using its Project Loon balloons, which function as high-altitude, solar-powered drones.

Digitalized Responses Are Not Singularly Focused

The topic of drones may fall on deaf ears for some. After all, despite the many anecdotal human interest stories that include these machines, the specific technology is not directly applicable to daily life. But is that really the case? Our annual Future of Supply Chain survey explores the disruptive and impactful nature of a variety of technologies, and the percentage of respondents who find drones to be disruptive has nearly tripled from 2014 to 2017. That sentiment is leading, but the examples already discussed are even more telling.

In each case, drones are just one of the digitalized technologies used in a networked supply chain. Video surveillance, for example, provides real-time visibility to those on the ground, helping them to mobilize more efficiently. Furthermore, the drones act not only as physical vehicles used in transportation, but they also provide opportunities to explore emerging technologies, such as testing solar panels to help develop new and affordable energy solutions that can be applied in the air and on the ground.

By employing a networked mind-set to technology, supply chain leaders can create solutions that reach beyond singular functional improvements. For instance, the respondents to our 2016 survey who self-identified as working in logistics/transport and distribution were more bullish on specific technologies than the general respondent population.

 The increased impact of digitalization on logistics and distribution

Each of these has individual merit, but what about when companies combine technologies to better serve society? Two examples are:

  • Getting patients to their appointments for non-emergent care is a growing need within the U.S. By combining cloud-based platforms with the sharing economy, the integration of Uber and Circulation offers a smart, digital transportation platform for healthcare that customizes rides around patients’ specific needs and ensures they get the care they deserve.
  • DroneSeed sits at the intersection of the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles and cloud computing, providing what CEO Grant Canary describes as “Precision Forestry — forestland analysis, planting, and care by drone.” By bringing these capabilities together, trees and agriculture can be planted to grow as efficiently as possible, providing both a food source and a positive impact to the environment.

This isn’t just talk, and it’s not limited to start-ups, either. Companies such as Caterpillar and General Mills are among the many whose innovations serve their customers, and also create opportunities for broader societal impact. Whether these initiatives are aimed at providing affordable and accessible healthcare, feeding the world, or driving environmental sustainability, our survey data shows that supply chain practitioners are increasingly investing in them “because it’s the right thing to do and has functional payback.”

As the book “Supply Chain Saves the World” tells us about the prospect of making money and saving the world at the same time, “the supply chain revolution is making all of this possible — and profitable.”


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Author Patrick Van Hull

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