Making the Physical, Digital
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Making the Physical, Digital

Mike Wilson, Global Head of Logistics, Panalpina
Mike Wilson, Global Head of Logistics, Panalpina

Mike Wilson, Global Head of Logistics, Panalpina

In four to five years, the typical working day of an employee of a third-party logistics provider (3PL) will look quite different from what it does today. By 2020, we’ll be living in an environment where automation, connectivity, visibility and agility have advanced considerably–thanks to information technology. In the coming years they will be perfected, as digitization in the freight forwarding and logistics industry continues to make great strides. 

Here are five major trends that have been  shaping the freight forwarding and logistics industry today–all of them linked to digital transformation.  


1) Improving operational efficiency and productivity with modern IT systems 


Transportation from A to B – be it on the road, in the air or at sea –is a commodity with an increasing price transparency and razor-thin margins. There are two fundamental ways to address this: Gain cost leadership or differentiate through value-added services. Or do both. In order to gain cost leadership, modern IT systems are crucial.  

For global transportation and logistics providers that have been in business since long before the Computer Age, systems processes have often evolved haphazardly, leading to piecemeal computerization, with a proliferation of systems, each specialized in a different role. Automation has been equally piecemeal–each shipment handled by transportation and logistics providers still requires human intervention. Having recognized the importance of operations productivity, 3PLs are making massive investments into modernizing their systems landscape to digitalize operations. 


2) Managing exceptions and steering goods and inventories with real-time visibility 


Customers want to know where, and in what state, their goods are in the supply chain. Modern technologies, such as wireless communications in local and global communications networks, can deliver this information in real time. 


If anything is about to go wrong, automated alerts are sent out and action can be taken. Companies, then, need only focus on the exceptions; while everything else runs smoothly in the background. This means greater agility and more efficiency in the supply chain  and greater peace of mind for the customer. 


Visibility–access to information at all times from everywhere–is also used to steer inventories. Logistics is about the constant flow of products, not storage. Things need to be moving–and fast. Asset velocity is the key. The overall goal is to have the right inventory at the right place at the right time and, most importantly, at the right levels.  


3) Optimizing inventories, transport networks and facilities with data analytics 


3PLs are in an ideal position to help steer their customers’ inventories because they have many touch points with their products over long periods of time. This provides 3PLs with a wealth of data that can be systematically mined and put to use with sophisticated algorithms.  


The layout and processes of a logistics facility can be improved, an entire supply chain network can be optimized, and inventories can be mapped across a product’s lifecycle. Mapping the product lifecycle helps 3PLs understand at what stage the inventory changes in order to better estimate minimum and maximum inventory holding – which, in turn, can help predict the space needed, where to position facilities and what services to offer.  


Big Data and in-memory computing will allow us to move from descriptive analytics (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen) to predictive (what is likely to happen) to prognostic analytics (what should I do about it). 


4) Moving production closer to the end consumer and getting products to market more quickly 


Product life cycles are getting ever shorter, especially in the fashion and technology sectors. With ubiquitous social media channels promoting the hottest products, consumer demand can sometimes take on a life of its own, leaving brands scrambling to produce enough stock and get it where it needs to be before the hype dies down. E-commerce enables customers to place an order one day and receive their items the next–or even the same–day, further accelerating the life cycles of these items. Throw in a customer base that’s increasingly demanding of customized and personalized products, and there’s a clear case for moving production closer to the customer. 


With their global footprint of warehousing and distribution facilities in major markets, 3PLs are ideally suited to assist with the tail end of the manufacturing process, before the products are shipped out to customers. When 3PLs invest in production expertise, they can assemble goods, run software updates and tests for technology customers, or add the finishing touches to apparel. This drastically reduces overall lead time for customer orders, reduces inventory levels and improves on-time delivery service levels. 


5) 3D printing: Shaking up the manufacturing and logistics industries 


This brings us seamlessly to 3D printing, one of the most exciting frontiers of digital transformation. 3D printing literally stands for the convergence of the real with the virtual world–and it has the potential to shake up the manufacturing and logistics industries like nothing else we’ve seen this century. 


While 3D printing has been around for some time, its recent surge in popularity makes perfect sense in the context of the previously mentioned trends: not only is it ideal for bringing production closer to the end user, it can also aid in mass personalization and decreasing inventories. 


Products not only make it to the market faster; they can also be personalized or customized at the latest possible stage.

A must-win battle 

The day may come when the flow of information is more important than the flow of goods. 


As the real world and the digital world converge, 3PLs–despite their largely physical work –have the opportunity to come into the Digital Age with new technologies to make their businesses far more efficient and effective–and to ensure that customers receive their orders on time, with total transparency along the way. 


Digitization isn’t an option for the logistics industry–it’s a must-win battle for 3PLs.

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