IoT And The Supply Chain Revolution
The digital age has seen many new entries our everyday vernacular, from “world wide web” to “quantum computing”, from “big data” to “omni-channel”, and where one man’s “pivot” is another’s “disruption”. We have all become technophiles to some degree, whether by visible enthusiasm or simply through our everyday practices.
Today, we all carry what were once defined as “supercomputers” in our pocket or handbag. By virtue of our personal devices and small-screen dependencies, we are all connected. The internet is rarely more than an arm’s reach away, and we are essentially walking, talking components in the internet of things.
The IoT is really a bundle of ideas and conceptual possibilities that arrives ahead of any later reality. Like most ideas, particularly those in the technology space, it is presently a half-invention – partly happening, but mostly yet to happen, an idea that invites others to latch onto and riff off. Sometimes the invitation inspires, and mainstream embrace follows, sometimes the ideas don’t take hold.
But the term IoT isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, we’re only on the cusp of it becoming truly realised and part of our daily lives. Once just a shorthand for “things” such as smart fridges able to text you a reminder to buy more milk, the IoT is now a means to evolve the World Wide Web into a truly physical-digital operating system.
That might sound grandiose, so let’s anchor ourselves with a quick, simple and accessible definition from Wikipedia:
“The internet of things (‘IoT’) is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.”
If you can tag any physical item with a “unique identifier” – and if that tag or “label” can transmit and connect to the internet – then the “internet of things” moves from concept to reality in a single step.
What does this then all mean, both in literal and far-reaching terms?
A printed piece of paper, either applied to a product or integrated into a piece of packaging, has the potential to now also be an IoT-enabler. Take our historic understanding of what a printed paper label actually is, but build in a microchip and antenna. Immediately, the “label” becomes the thread by which any physical item can be cloud-connected.
Simply, the right kind of label can make almost any physical thing part of the IoT – and it’s when you then consider all this through the lens of production, manufacturing, ingredients, retail, consumer experience and global supply chains, that things become eye-opening.
“I worry about the gaps. The passages of time that are unknown. A consignment arrives in the dock, could be sitting there for an hour, five, a day, before then being loaded for the next leg of its journey. What happened in that gap? Maybe nothing. But it’s unverified. The fear is anything from theft to contamination. I don’t want to trust and hope. I want certainty. I want a logistics solution that removes doubt. No more gaps, no more unknowns.” – Helen Priestley, Summer 2019
A prediction: the next term to cross the divide and become a matter of mainstream concern (and mainstream parlance) is “supply chain”.
We might recall supply chains as fleeting moments in an economics or geography class, long since cranially filed away as relating to “global manufacturing practices”. But the doors get blown off the filing cabinet the moment you consider the truly big issues and global concerns of our times. Sustainability, ethical sourcing, corporate responsibility, brand safety and product integrity are vast, complex, down-the-rabbit hole concerns. But they could be addressed through a combination of old-fashioned supply chain best practices combined with intelligent labels, transforming the supply chain into an IoT ecosystem that can be tracked, traced, interrogated and held to account.
While supply chains have typically been somewhat “behind the curtain” concerns, it doesn’t mean they should be hidden from view or accountability. And now they don’t have to be. Digital innovations can now make direct customer engagement a more profound reality. Intelligent labels suddenly serve as a portal into richer consumer encounters, from branded content to value-based experiences, where the possibilities are arguably limitless.
Intelligent label technologies such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) make it possible for global supply chains to be sustainable and trusted by design. They also make it possible for the “who, what and where” of every physical product to also become data-points of irrefutable fact and absolute visibility. Where, for example, proof of provenance, or proof of ethically sourced materials and manufacture are assured through a guaranteed data trail.