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  December 4th, 2023 | Written by

The Solution Leading Supply Chains into the Future

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As supply chains have become increasingly opaque as a result of growing global transport and competition, a simultaneous need for increased transparency and efficiency has developed in order to meet increasing regulatory requirements. 

To date, the solution has been simple: Scan it. 

Warehouses, transport vehicles, shipping centers, workers, and end-users have historically relied on manual scanners to determine what items are where, how quickly they’re moving, and when they’re due at their final destination. 

It’s undeniable: scanning is ubiquitous for supply chain management. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best solution. As the labor market tightens, technological advances mean that retailers can implement new tech to change the fundamental ways the market operates. 

Is it time for a supply chain technology revolution? 

Scanning has been transformative for many businesses and retailers. It was demonstrably superior to the old, paper-and-pencil method of tracking inventory, which is why billions are spent each year on radio frequency identification (RFID) readers — a market still growing at almost 10 percent a year. Even more is spent on barcode readers. 

Despite this, there is a downside to scanning, which leads us to our primary question: Is the supply chain industry ready for a new solution? 

Millions of scanners are in use everyday, though they rely on the a human’s ability to work effectively and with a 100% accuracy rate.  

All of this is happening at a time when supply chains are growing more complicated, not less. 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 are 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 ‘Scan It’ to ‘Sense It’ Evolution

With a better, more ubiquitous, and low-cost tracking solution, companies won’t need to invest the billions of dollars into scanners or the infrastructure required to use them. Workers can be redeployed in ways that add value to their business. Additionally, 100-percent automation means supply chain and inventory tracking errors can be virtually eliminated.

The ambient Internet of Things (IoT) is the solution we’ve been looking for. 

Ambient IoT is an innovative evolution from scanning culture, and whether you know it or not, companies are already reaping the benefits.

The Tech Fueling Ambient IoT 

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. 

With this revolution in place, workers don’t need to scan anything, virtually eliminating human error from inventory operations and freeing them to add value in other ways. Ambient IoT Pixels communicate via an established mesh of existing wireless devices, such as smartphones and wireless access points, or through easily deployed, off-the-shelf, standardized gateways installed in retail stores, warehouses, delivery trucks, and more. 

What’s more, scanning goods provides data at just a point in time. The ambient IoT provides continuous information in real-time, tracking goods and inventory as they move through warehouse, shipping infrastructure, and the entire supply chain.  Wherever things are, Ambient IoT is. 

Moreover, ambient IoT technology includes sensors for monitoring conditions like temperature and humidity.  Importantly, it also enables carbon footprint calculations in the moment, versus the current after-the-fact solutions. 

Not only does better product tracking make companies more efficient and successful, it makes it fast and efficient for them to comply with a growing number of government traceability regulations. In the U.S., for example, the Food Safety and Modernization Act’s Rule 204 (FSMA 204), requires companies to track food products through the supply chain and share data with the Food and Drug Administration. For small and large companies, this means either a lot more scanning, or a golden opportunity to use ambient IoT for automated, real-time, end-to-end compliance.  

No matter how you look at it, industries are reaching an inflection point in their supply chains where complete visibility will become a necessity – from an ROI, regulatory, and investor perspective. 

Automation Helps Workers, Too

As companies reach the inflection point described above: an opportunity arises: do they continue to invest in a scanning infrastructure and attempt to hire all the workers required to execute? Or is it more effective to embrace ambient IoT technology and invest in re-allocated labor to help grow the business?

With ambient IoT, that decision just became a whole lot easier. 

With both a lower labor and infrastructure cost, the technology works simply due to its integration into the environment. Additionally, the tech requires no added training or human intervention. 

In a 2022 study, Harvard Business Review identified the perks and pitfalls of warehouse automation technologies.  HBR experts wrote, “Automation could make workers’ jobs safer and more meaningful,” in reference to technologies that minimize time spent in sprawling warehouses.  They noted that tools that “enable workers to do their jobs better,” could lead to better results. 

Interestingly, the researchers dispelled the myth that automation was at odds with worker satisfaction.  

With scanning as our primary inventory tool, businesses have cracked the code to digitalization, but not yet automation. With this critical distinction in mind, we must recognize that only ambient IoT holds the key to true automation. With the new technology, companies can track all of their goods, all of the time, allowing their employees to focus on positive and profitable customer experiences.