Supply Chains Are Ready for Change: Replacing ‘Scan it’ With ‘Sense it’
Supply chains across the globe are becoming increasingly complex, competitive, and under the scrutiny of existing and developing regulation. To date, the guiding solution has been elementary: scan it.
For years, scanning products have allowed supply chain professionals to keep track of every item in their supply chain, from warehouses to delivery trucks to store shelves. Workers in trucks, stores, warehouses and shipping centers increasingly wield scanners, tasked with scanning everything that moves in or out.
Though there’s no denying scanning has become the omnipresent and accepted cure-all for the supply chain industry, this doesn’t mean it should be preserved as the status quo. Technological advancements are automating workflows, supply chains, and fundamentally changing the way markets operate. It’s time to critically examine the age-old “scan it” norm and embrace new solutions.
Moving on From the Status Quo
“Scan-it” culture has reigned supreme for so long for a reason. Scanning has been transformative. The billions of dollars a year spent on radio frequency identification (RFID) readers have proven far more effective than the traditional pen-and-paper inventory tracking system. The RFID market continues to grow at almost 10 percent annually.
However, for scanners and tracking to be truly effective, workers must be onboarded to utilize the technology correctly and use it correctly every time they scan.
Millions of scanners are now in the hands of workers who: A.) must learn to use the technology correctly and, B.) must remember to use it correctly every single time if the benefits of tracking are expected to accrue.
All of this is happening at a time when supply chains are growing more complicated. In the U.S. alone, companies ship 59 million parcels each day, a number expected to rise to 110 million by 2027. The contents of these millions of parcels end up in people’s homes, in business inventory, or on retailers’ shelves — provided they don’t get lost along the way.
No wonder businesses are looking for solutions that allow them to better track products, from manufacturer to distributor, to retailer to customer.
Scanners have been a solution, but they're not the end game. We need a tracking technology with more accuracy and precision that eliminates manual scanning — and the inevitable human error.
So we need to pose this essential question: Is reliance on millions of scanners the best use of human resources? Or is today’s tracking technology, long established, merely yesterday’s step towards a more innovative solution?
The Evolution From ‘Scan it’ to ‘Sense it’
A better, more advanced low-cost tracking solution means that companies don’t need to invest in all those scanners or support the infrastructure required to use them. They can redeploy workers in ways that add new value to the business. And they can virtually eliminate supply chain and inventory tracking errors through 100 percent automation.
The tracking solution set to create the future of supply chain tracking has arrived. The ambient Internet of Things (IoT) is an innovative evolution from “scan it” culture and companies are already reaping the benefits.
Ambient IoT: The Key to New Opportunities
Case in point: A large retailer, in response to challenges posed by the e-commerce boom, seeks to overhaul its brick-and-mortar retail experience. It decides that products will be moved largely out of sight, into inventory, turning shop floors into experiential showrooms where customers can engage with the brand; discover products in a fresh setting; and interact with friendly, knowledgeable employees.
This model still requires inventory tracking, but at the same time, workers need to be freed from back-room scanning so they can move to showrooms and focus on the customer experience. The retailer is embracing ambient IoT in its effort to compete with online sales, connect with shoppers, and attract workers who are more interested in reimagining retail than in rote tasks like inventory management.
This model — as all retail stores do — still requires inventory tracking. Yet, with ambient IoT, employees' time and effort can be spent assisting customers instead of scanning.
The Tech Behind the Tool
Ambient IoT technology combines inexpensive, self-powered, stamp-sized compute devices (called IoT Pixels) that are affixed to products and packaging. These devices harvest energy from standards-based Bluetooth wireless communications and cloud-based data collection and analytics.
As a result, workers no longer need to "Scan It," eliminating the human error from inventory operations and freeing up employees to add value in other ways. Ambient IoT Pixels utilize an established mesh of existing wireless devices (e.g., smartphones) or easy to deploy, off-the-shelf gateways to communicate.
Ambient IoT technology also provides new insights. While scanning goods provides data at only certain checkpoints in time, ambient IoT allows for continuous information collection in real time, tracking goods and inventory throughout entire supply chain journeys. Moreover, ambient IoT technology includes sensors for monitoring conditions like temperature and humidity. Importantly, it also enables carbon footprint calculations in the moment vs. the current after-the-fact solutions.
Product tracking allows for better business practices, but it also allows for companies to comply with a growing number of traceability regulations and requirements. In the United States, the Food Safety and Modernization Act’s Rule 204 (FSMA 204) requires companies to share food product data with the FDA throughout the supply chain. For companies, this either requires a major investment into scanning tech or provides an opportunity to invest in ambient IoT for automated, real-time, end-to-end compliance.
Industries are reaching an inflection point in their supply chains where complete visibility will become a necessity — from a return on investment, regulatory and investor perspective.
Automation Supports Supply Chain Professionals
As companies take steps along the journey, they must decide: Do they continue to invest in a scanning infrastructure and undergo a hiring overhaul? Or do they invest in ambient IoT and re-allocate labor to help grow the business?
Ambient IoT clearly leads the way for the answer of which is the better investment. At a lower infrastructure and labor cost than traditional scanning solutions, the preference for ambient IoT also comes from its simplicity and seamless integration into the workplace, requiring no extra training.
In a 2022 study on the perks and pitfalls of warehouse technology, Harvard Business Review experts wrote that automation “could make workers’ jobs safer and more meaningful,” referencing technologies that minimize time spent in warehouses.
Interestingly, the researchers dispelled the myth that automation was at odds with worker satisfaction. “One area in which we saw optimism that automation would improve the quality of work was in customer experience,” wrote the HBR researchers. They found that taking human error out of the equation led to greater job satisfaction and therefore better outcomes.
The scanning we know today has digitized supply chains, but not automated them. We must recognize that only ambient IoT holds the key to true automation. With it, companies can track all their goods in real time, all the time, allowing their employees to focus on positive and profitable customer experiences.
Ohad Perry is the vice president of digital supply chain at Wiliot, a Sensing as a Service platform powered by IoT Pixels.