Viewpoint: How mobile technology is transforming supply chain management
This commentary was written by Shipwell CEO and co-founder Greg Price. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates.
By Greg Price
Mobile devices are so commonplace in the personal and professional worlds of today that it can sometimes be hard to imagine making it through the day without them. It’s no longer noteworthy that people pay bills, buy products and services or do their banking using their smartphones and tablets. The wide range of apps and mobility options are now simply an accepted — and expected — part of daily life.
While this holds true for many industries, those in the supply chain have remained largely tethered to a computer for the majority of their work. However, these shippers and carriers now find themselves on the precipice of a mobile market disruption. Fully mobile transportation management systems will help the remote workforce be more effective, enabling them to do their jobs from anywhere.
Mobile tech transforming carrier side of supply chain
Truckers now have joined remote workers in other sectors who already use mobile technology. Truckers today use mobile tech to bid on and secure freight to haul. As these capabilities rapidly evolve, soon it also will become standard for those responsible for securing carrier capacity and staff overseeing scheduling freight. Mobile private networks, the internet of things (IoT) and 5G and 6G will be key to this evolution.
Mobile applications have supplemented traditional workflows, enabled greater flexibility and enhanced communication. Many devices also have become viable IoT sensors that open up new gateways for business, even without specialized hardware. Those devices already include sensors like cameras and GPS that reduce the need for excessive paperwork by assisting in real-time tracking and uploading delivery data to the cloud.
The power of implementing mobile technology, and reaping the benefits of what that unlocks, may be seen in how companies have used it in their trucking operations to expand their businesses. These companies are taking advantage of a white-space market opportunity in a sector worth more than $700 billion.
California-based Trucker Path, for instance, founded in 2013, achieved a successful exit five years later by focusing on mobile services for truckers. Twelve years after its founding in 2000, Connecticut-headquartered XPO Logistics went public, in part due to its effective use of mobile technology. After becoming one of the first load boards on the internet, Idaho-based Truckstop.com, founded in 1995, used mobile technology for truckers. That strategy paid off handsomely in 2019, when it was acquired at a $1 billion valuation.
And San Francisco-headquartered Motive, formed in 2013 as KeepTruckin, attained unicorn status in 2019. The company was intentional in how it applied mobile technology to enhance the supply chain management experience. Its founders launched the business by creating a free mobile app aimed at a logbook. It followed that up with a superb electronic logging device. Now Motive is a platform.
The next step: Shippers
Mobile technology for shippers is the next logical, evolutionary progression to drive supply chain communication efficiency. Mobile technology enables different functions within a company to perform and manage base workflows and responsibilities. Shipping managers, warehouse technicians, sales and account executives, for example, will be able to log on to their TMS platforms and quickly respond to customer inquiries, track sensitive shipments and address problems in real time from wherever they are — being at their desks or computers is no longer required. A logistics manager can receive an alert when a shipment has been delayed and respond instantly from his or her mobile device.
Mobile technology will allow actions including booking, as well as provide the ability to see shipments — and any respective delays — along with notes for shippers and additional paperwork. Expanding its focus from the trucker side of the equation to a more holistic supply chain management tool, mobile technology will enable collaboration and communication among shippers, carriers and brokers in one place. Visibility improvements that mobile technology will yield include messaging, location ratings and the capability to check in and out of locations. Mobile technology also will enable the faster creation of shipments and allow those shipments to be passed along to warehouse workers more swiftly. An on-the-go warehouse and logistics planner, say, armed with current factory floor data, may use mobile technology to rapidly manifest a shipment or change the itinerary of a shipment once on the dock.
Mobile and emerging technologies
While the rollout of 5G has been slow due to network-provider costs and challenges with implementation, its arrival will usher in a new era of mobile applications, including sensing, mapping and real-time machine learning. The vast majority of the world’s mobile users remain on 4G networks. At 20 times the speed of those networks, 5G ultimately will connect people, machines, objects and devices in ways that were previously impossible. Ultra-low latency — the time it takes for data to travel from one wireless device to another — is just one bonus this next-generation network will provide supply chain management professionals who use mobile technology.
Building on the possibilities of 5G networks is the ongoing development of 6G networks, set to become commercially available by 2030. Experts project that 6G speed will be about 100 times faster than 5G, with even more reliability and more network-coverage reach. IoT, some say, will enjoy device-connection expansion per square kilometer 1,000% greater than what it will be with 5G.
Enabled by the increased speeds that 5G and 6G networks provide, edge computing — the deployment of computing and storage resources at the location where data is produced — will enhance mobile’s power to transform the supply chain. Rather than relying on the cloud at a data center, edge computing does all the work at or near the data’s location. Edge computing will enable applications to detect demand spikes, for example, to ensure the necessary inventory adjustments may be made. Edge computing also will spur expansion of workflows in the dockyard, gatehouse and for shippers on the go.
The imminent mobile revolution
Once mobile technology is fully integrated into supply chain management, companies will have the ability to expand their businesses. Paperwork itself, along with the task of its management, will be reduced. Most information will become digital or live in the cloud. Trucking, shipping, port and warehouse operations — and company staff members whose responsibilities intersect with the supply chain — will have the ability to incorporate planning tasks, improve communication and data processing speed, provide optimized pricing and routing options and enhance other workflows.
Mobile technology enables all those actions to be done remotely. Eventually, mobile technology will bring real-time machine learning, the ability to detect unexpected supply chain disruptions and the capability for shippers, carriers and brokers to collaborate.
Mobile technology soon will have us wondering how we ever managed without it.
Greg Price is CEO and co-founder of Austin, Texas-headquartered Shipwell, a cloud-based shipping and logistics company. He was a consultant at McKinsey & Co. and spent seven years working at Lincoln Labs at MIT, where he earned master’s degrees in engineering and business.
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