Spot and fix supply chain problems with artificial intelligence
Most supply chain problems start small, which makes them easy to miss. Delayed paperwork at one company, a missed inspection at another, plus heavy traffic or bad weather somewhere else can eventually add up to significant service-level agreement (SLA) penalties and dissatisfied customers.
Tracking documents and data can help you understand what's happening across your supply chain, but the sheer volume of information makes it difficult for supply chain leaders to discern problems before they affect the business.
That's where artificial intelligence (AI) can help. AI can analyze vast amounts and diverse types of data in real time, recognize patterns, identify potential issues and offer insights to speed resolution. Also, AI can make technical information easier for business users to access, understand and use to improve efficiency and better serve customers.
For instance, IBM's Supply Chain Business Network (SCBN) is a cloud-based solution that digitizes and automates a full range of business-to-business (B2B) supply chain transactions. SCBN leverages AI capabilities from IBM Watson to make it easy and fast for staff in other departments – like accounts receivable, sales-order processing and customer service – to find and comprehend information about the supply chain, using natural-language search.
When someone in accounts receivable needs to follow up on a past-due account, they'll simply search SCBN using intuitive wording. SCBN then will guide them to the invoice in seconds. That "document" is really an electronic transaction record that includes an acknowledgment receipt, agreed payment terms and more. When accounts receivable calls the customer, having all that data on hand supports a quick resolution.
Without such capabilities, obtaining information from the deeply technical formats used for B2B transaction exchange with customers and suppliers is typically time-consuming. "Accounts receivable would probably need to call someone in IT, to piece together and translate the required data from across multiple documents," said Chris Hayes, senior product marketing manager for IBM. "That could take hours. But now, business users can self-serve that information."
AI-capabilities within SCBN can also proactively spot anomalies and trends. Watson learns what "normal" looks like for your supply chain, such as the typical volume and value of orders and invoices that you exchange with your supply chain partners. "When something strange happens, good or bad, Watson will tell you about it, so you can investigate and resolve any issues," said Hayes.
Beyond transactions and documents, many sources of information can be relevant to your supply chain. IBM's Supply Chain Insights (SCI) uses Watson AI to ingest and understand diverse data types, such as social media posts, weather, traffic, emails and more. This ability to leverage a much broader set of information sources can be especially helpful in spotting potential disruptions or delays — and also in projecting potential business impacts.
Such alerts can help your staff decide when to take action. "If you tell your logistics manager that there’s a delay, well, delays happen all the time," said Hayes. "The manager really wants to know whether that delay is important. Which customers will be affected, and how much revenue might be at stake."
When the system alerts your company to an emerging problem, key personnel inside your company, as well as from supply chain partners, can gather in a virtual “resolution room” to collaborate on a solution. Watson is an active participant in issue resolution.
Spotting and fixing individual problems can illuminate deeper or broader issues across your entire supply chain. Ultimately, this can yield benefits such as reduced fees and penalties, optimized warehousing and shipping, better contract terms, and more.
Introducing AI capabilities to supply chain management can seem daunting. AI can do so much, it’s hard to know where to begin. A good way to start is to identify a discrete supply chain challenge and then commit to a small-scale AI project to address that specific challenge. Success in one area tends to illuminate other aspects of your supply chain that might benefit from AI.
"Bite small, chew fast," said Hayes. "Deploy AI a bit at a time. Focus on how the results impact your business. AI is a journey, and like all journeys, the first step is the most important."
Take our guided tour to discover how AI-enabled insights can help you gain end-to-end supply chain visibility so that you can act faster with greater confidence and resolve disruptions in minutes, not days.