Written by Wendy Kent, COO, Matrix

As 2016 draws to an end, it is natural to reflect on the past year, and speculate on what the next will bring. It’s safe to say that it has been a year for transition, and the technology sector is no exception. Companies around the globe are increasingly training robot armies and fleets of disruptive technologies to combat inefficiencies at every point of the supply chain. Investment in tech is a necessary step to ensure survival in a trend-driven market.

This is evident from adidas unveiling the first shoe to come out of its robot factory, an AI collaboration between Fanuc and Nvida, and Unilever experiencing prototype production time cut by nearly half after investing in 3D printing.

Disruptive technologies have been becoming more influential in the supply chain for a few years now. 2017 will be no different; there will be a noticeable move towards incorporating these more broadly. Factories are intensely competitive environments, and technology is essential to keeping pace with burgeoning retail demand. There is no place in the modern working environment for factory owners to continue relentlessly pushing staff harder to meet these targets.

The likes of AI and 3D printing enable tasks that were once carried out by humans to be done by machines far more efficiently, conveniently and cheaply. In addition to near-continuous production, once established, these technologies can eliminate the possibility of human error, and enhance employee wellbeing.

2017 will mark the start of a new working relationship between the human workforce and AI. After all, technology needs to be managed by someone. This presents an opportunity for workers to be focused and productive in their roles with the support of technology, and take a step away from menial tasks to completing work that is more fulfilling.

Technological innovation will also begin to directly impact employees’ quality of life, including working hours and pay throughout the supply chain. Worker wellbeing is incredibly important and working standards have historically been unregulated and varied across supply chains. Whilst there have been many efforts over recent years to rectify this, 2017 will see a step up in the consistency of concern for employee wellbeing.

Utilising elements of the technology that monitors worker output, we’re developing a new app which users will be able to use to log responses to questions about the quality of their working lives. Accumulated information, gathered in real time, will help build a picture of each factory’s performance and staff happiness. Data will also reveal how to make improvements to equipment, greatly boosting efficiency and quality.

Moreover, encouraging an open, transparent environment where people can share their opinions will help factories improve and grow, also helping bring the working standards in line with contemporary worker ideals.

In terms of offering a sheer competitive advantage, many forms of technology are helping supply chain processes shift from being simply reactive to become far more proactive, even predicting potential potholes before they throw plans and strategy off-course. In fact, through trial, we’d estimate that the incorporation of technological developments could help cut production times from three months to three weeks – a mind blowing prospect for key players involved in product supply chains.

The latest robots have the ability to learn how to complete multiple jobs, so they can be plugged in practically anywhere along the supply chain. Its ability to be flexible, particularly in manufacturing processes, will take AI to the mainstream as its return on investment (ROI) will be transparently clear to people.

Historically, there has been limited means to survey individual workers, but these networks and sensors are making insights visible that would have been less visible in the past. Aggregated, personalised data on workers will allow factory bosses to make tweaks to processes for all staff, opening opportunities to increase productivity even further. Additionally, one small sensor could provide accurate, real-time data to inform buying decisions, helping factories to operate on a leaner business model. This is a game changer, and while it’s a priority focus for us at Matrix, it will be increasingly present throughout global supply chains.

It will also help address the issue of falsification in the auditing process. An incredibly common problem in factories, bought on by fear of failure, falsified audits mean that real issues can remain perpetually unresolved and compromise the ethical standards of a supply chain. This sort of automated data will give retailers greater power to weed out suppliers that fall short on quality standards and worker welfare and train these factories where possible.
This information can then be communicated to the consumer. Consumers are increasingly mistrusting of brands and retailers, placing a high value on integrity and ethics. In 2017, a world of political change and uncertainty, full-disclosure and trust will become more and more important to consumers. Access to core data and heightened connectivity will provide buyers and consumers with important product information, from how the product was created to its environmental impact. Supply chain partners must work together to make product information far more accessible.

Technology is the vehicle to change for supply chains in a transparent age. Now is the time to consider it to ensure advantage on an increasingly competitive global stage, without sacrificing the people working within it.