Knitting the DATA fabric for e-commerce and life sciences

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The riddling nature of data, which tends to compound with any new information, has saddled the supply chain and logistics community with a never ending assignment of coping from delays, disruptions, and risks. Adapting to the process of scavenging knowledge or making sense from the unceasing information, the industry seem to have retreated under a shared ecosystem of internet of things (IoTs), leveraging tools like AI and, meekly understood, blockchain. 

Global trades are collecting ever more know-how; combining technologies and spectacularly pushing the overall speed of operations. And as the digital sphere thrives to increase the speed at which information is delivered, aviation industry is getting more done each day by connecting people and delivering goods at a speed unimaginable a decade ago. By highlighting the technologies that cannot responsibly be avoided, a part of acclaim for this disruptive increase in the freight operation’s efficiency goes to e-commerce sector. 

The ‘e’ in the e-commerce stands for evolution
With the amelioration of ecommerce, a consumer stands at the center of forces like manufacturing, finance, and logistics. The global online marketplace has enabled a consumer to shop at any time of the day, which has driven the supply chain and logistics industry to respond competitively, economically and innovatively.  

“As part of an integrated customer-centric business model, customers expect that goods can be delivered or picked up wherever they are located. They want their orders consolidated, they want shipping bundled with service, and they want to be able to return things easily. In order to meet these growing demands, companies need either better distribution systems or partners that can do it better for them,” said Julio Hernandez, global customer lead, KPMG International in a KPMG report.

Anyone who has shopped online in the past year seconds Hernandez’s view and is not a stranger to the listed services. As part of the service, solutions to these elaborate problems lie in 'DATA', which could be effectively tamed using the decentralised ledger solution, blockchain. 

The ledger can successfully regulate data pertaining to bills on landing of cargo shipments and monitor each stage of the supply chain – from tracking the shipment along its journey to verifying the shipment information at every step. The integration of blockchain eliminates the possibility of human error, and it does so by being entirely transparent and secure. However, the information circling around blockchain gives it a leaden appearance of an independent system that demands a complete abandonment of any existing system. 

Notwithstanding the challenges and getting lured in by the value of transparency, a few companies are already positioning their services like payment, tracking etc. in the blockchain without owning the system. For now, the safe way to navigate through these uncertainties, including its legal implication in cross-border trade, would be to use small models and develop knowledge base on what works.    

2020 is predicted to be the tipping point for fast and free shipping, birthed by Amazon’s Prime Now. And responding to such proliferation of e-commerce, freight and warehouse operations are incorporating contemporary services like chatbots and delivery through drones; and tuning handling operations using autonomous vehicles pegged with automation and AI. 

Data collected through these novel services need to provide actionable insights. Without lugging manual interventions, artificial intelligence can autonomously mine information, from services offered through freight operations, and serve relevant insights directly to the consigner and consignee or anyone who has been granted an access to the network, keeping everyone better informed; eliminating blind spots. While for a consumer, shopping at Amazon, AliExpress etc., live tracking and safety of the package are important, a substantial amount of shipping, comprising of cost intensive products such as life science and medical supplies, needs extensive monitoring at every step of the freight operation.

From Air to Aid
Medical supplies surrounding any unprecedented event bottleneck to one affair, logistics. As China and the US are muddling through a public health crisis due to the coronavirus epidemic, Wuhan, which is the epicenter of the epidemic in China, is dreadfully experiencing a shortage of medical supplies. With quarantine measures in place and tightened vehicle traffic, logistics operations have to adapt and carefully circumvent the situation and deliver the supplies without compromising drug potency. Sped up customs clearance process, for imported and donated supplies, is demanding new channels to be put in place at airports. This unfortunate outbreak is likely to become a case report on how well integrated and equipped the supply chain and logistics industry is for life sciences.

The world of supply chain and logistics for pharma needs to be no less ready compared to e-commerce in delivering medical supplies that demand active care while in the air. Therefore, putting greater reliance on sophisticated ULDs, sensors and data analytics has become increasingly important in delivering the needed overall efficiency of logistics operations pertaining to pharmaceutical products.

Utopian vision of providing end-to-end visibility for the lifesaving, temperature sensitive products is now perhaps close to achievable with the integration of advanced software and hardware infrastructures, which can monitor and record temperature or humidity excursion, impacts and vibrations, and effects of light. This can be achieved using data logger devices. However, service providers need to enable access to these recorded data by effectively communicating with the gateways configured at many airports and key locations, globally. 

As these data are recorded and while the AI technologies make sense of the information, cognitive automation, which extends and improves AI’s range of actions, connects transportation and logistics to supply chain processes such as demand forecasting, production and inventory management. This helps the logistics team to modulate upstream operations and downstream delivery schedules. 

The air of emergency around medical supplies is pushing the industry in exploring radical ways of storing and handling the supplies. The emergence of pop-up, semi-automated warehouses; end-of-runway pharmacy, which enables manufacturers to reach patients in hours, are a few examples of adaptations worked on by the industry to address the rising demands of the connected world.

This feature was originally published in February 2020 issue of STAT Trade Times.

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