Today’s supply chains are no longer simple Point A to Point B networks. They’re a digital, on-demand, and always-on ecosystem of complex, interconnected relationships. Every link relies on a coordinated, non-stop exchange of data in order to meet customer expectations for flexibility, visibility, and transparency —regardless of available workforce. Addressing these challenges requires next generation (NextGen) technologies like robotics and automation, predictive analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), wearable and mobile devices, as well as driverless vehicles and drones.

For five years, MHI has annually monitored the effects of NewGen tech on supply chains. Our surveys asked 1,100 business leaders how their supply chain operations, security, and workforce are affected by these technologies. Findings are released in the MHI Annual Industry Report. (You can download “Overcoming Barriers to NextGen Supply Chain Innovation” at

Two technologies — Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence (AI) — will significantly impact supply chains.

  • Blockchain (distributed ledger technology) is a continuously expanding list of records linked across a decentralized network and secured via cryptography. Within the next five years, 54% of respondents anticipate adopting it (yet 88% of them have little to no understanding of it).
  • AI (machines that learn problem-solving and perform tasks that typically require human intelligence) will do decision-making, speech recognition, visual perception, and language translation. It's anticipated by 53% of respondents to effect competitive advantage or industry disruption.

These two technologies alone will directly address what supply chain leaders say are their top two operational challenges: Increasing customer demands on supply chains (73%) and hiring qualified workers (64%).

Blockchain’s encryption and consensus mechanisms make the data trustworthy and safe, as each trading partner is assigned a unique access key. It also lets trading partners track and trace products with pinpoint accuracy. Product recalls can be addressed quickly and discreetly — minimizing brand damage, costs, and customer inconvenience. This would alleviate some supply chain partners' fears of cyberattacks due to customers' growing demand for transparency.

Survey respondents also say the top skills needed are strategic problem solving (49%) and analytics/modeling/visualization (43%). Front line warehouse workers are also scarce. Thus, companies expect more automation. Seventy-three percent say in the next five years they will adopt robotics and automation, while 47% will embrace AI to handle a wide variety of continuously changing products. Administratively, AI helps automate verification, analysis, simulation, and forecasting processes, reducing the need for people with those skillsets.

In the coming years, MHI will continue to monitor and showcase advances in robotics, sensors, augmented reality wearables, automated storage and retrieval systems, self-guided and autonomous vehicles, driverless trucks, drones, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and predictive analytics. Our association remains committed to promoting those innovators and purveyors of technologies that make the global supply chain more efficient and productive.

George Prest is CEO, MHI.

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