How IoT can help manage your supply chain
Blog|by Mary Branscombe|13 January 2022
From connected logistics to in-store analytics, you can track how your products and assets move through your supply chain, and keep them moving.
Whether it’s chip shortages, the Evergreen getting stuck in the Suez Canal or the backlog of container ships building up outside the port of Los Angeles before Christmas, the last couple of years have been an education in the importance – and potential fragility – of the supply chain. IoT sensors, analytics and AI models can help you can track down the step in a process that’s failing, whether that’s a bad batch of components, a shipping route you have to work around, a faulty machine or storage space you might be able to organise better. With the right information, you can make some changes and maybe still hit some record numbers.
Improving operational efficiency is one of the top reasons for adopting IoT, and asset management and tracking are important in almost every industry, whether you’re manufacturing, storing, shipping, delivering, selling or maintaining products. Using sensors and a digital twin, you can model the processes and the physical systems that make up your supply chain – and see that in context. That means retail staff and field service engineers can see when they’re talking to a customer when the products or parts they need will be available, making this useful far beyond the logistics experts and finance teams who are usually the supply chain experts in a business.
IoT devices and sensors are a big part of this, but the real value comes when you feed that data into systems that show how the state of the supply chain affects your business.
For deliveries, you can collect GPS data that shows you where a truck is and correlate that with maps and traffic data to predict when it will arrive, so you can adjust production schedules or notify customers of delivery times. Paper forms are probably still a big part of your shipping process: Azure Forms Recognizer makes it faster to extract the data you need from labels and waybills so you can use that for tracking your supply chain.
You can use sensors that show if a refrigerated shipment has stayed at the right temperature, humidity and pressure, accelerometers that show if the package has been dropped or tipped over on its side and light sensors that help you track if it’s been opened in transit or in the warehouse, so you can react to damage or tampering before it’s too late. If a shipment is at risk, you can even reroute it for repairs (generating a ticket and arranging an appointment for maintenance or scheduling a replacement vehicle).
Using Azure IoT for fleet management, you can track shipments and see real-time alerts from telemetry like an overheating refrigerator. Source: Microsoft
In a retail store, you can track stock levels down to the number of products on the shelf using cameras and image recognition, alert staff through Teams or by buzzing their smartwatch when the checkout line is slow or there’s a queue building up outside the fitting room, and correlate all that with sales levels and even the pattern of customer traffic in the shop. With the continuing pandemic, you might want to show more supply chain information to customers, letting them browse for products and check online for availability in store, so they can choose between delivery, scheduled curbside pickup or visiting the location with the shortest queues.
Or you can extend your supply chain all the way back into manufacturing, using IoT and image recognition with cameras monitoring a production line and detecting defect rates so you can spot problems with components or materials that might affect shipments weeks or months in the future and address them in time. If you have seasonal workers or you need to enforce social distancing to keep employees in the warehouse safe, you can use air quality and occupancy sensors as well as using computer vision to enforce safe spaces around machinery.
A typical real time asset tracking architecture built on Azure services that can feed information all the way to employees. Source: Microsoft
Azure IoT Hub and IoT Central integrate with Azure services so you can create a solution that covers your specific supply chain needs, sending time series data to Event Hubs and on to Azure Stream Analytics for aggregation, generating alerts through Azure Notification Hubs, doing real time visualisation in Power BI, seeing data on Azure Maps and in Dynamics 365 where you can work on solutions to a real-time problem, or moving it into a database or data lake to analyse later and use for machine learning.
These features are already built into a number of Microsoft services and they underpin the new vertical clouds like the Microsoft Cloud for Retail.
Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Insights can help you predict changing demand from customers, issues in your supply chain and equipment downtime, creating a digital tin of your supply chain by pulling information from IoT devices, Manufacturing Execution Systems and ERP systems into Dataverse, where it’s augmented with external information like political news and weather data from around the world, plus environmental risk information from reinsurers like Swiss Re. Machine learning and what-if analyses simulate the risk of disruption and the likely results of what you might do to fix the problem. You can send the insights to Teams, feed them into Power Apps and Power Automate work flows or use them for automation in your ERP, stock ordering and supply chain management system.
Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Insights can warn you about problems affecting shipments of supplies or finished products that might affect your orders. Source: Microsoft
Dynamics 365 Connected Spaces uses cameras, IoT devices and integrations with supply chain, stock management, point of sale and ecommerce systems to help you understand how people move and interact in a retail store, warehouse or factory floor. The initial features can optimise retail: you can generate real-time predictive insights about store layout, customer buying patterns and where and when staff are needed. In future it will include anomaly detection for manufacturing and help you manage tools and materials so they’re in the right place for manufacturing and distribution processes.
The more information you have about your supply chain, the more chance you have to keep it flowing and deal with any holdups and interruptions quickly. IoT helps you bring physical objects and spaces into digital business processes and that information can help you keep everything moving.
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Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things in between.
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