12 smart supply chain technologies and how they collaborate

Supply chain management rarely got much attention until the COVID pandemic exposed the inherent fragility of supply chains worldwide. The pandemic forced businesses worldwide to enhance the resilience of their supply chains. As a result, they started evaluating and adopting new supply chain technologies and techniques to assure business continuity.

There are many recent innovations that have proven to be highly applicable to sourcing, purchasing, tracking, warehousing, and using parts and materials. These advances were not necessarily aimed to improve supply chain management, but have proven to be beneficial in this area.

The phrase Supply Chain 4.0 was coined to describe the application of some of these techniques to supply chain management. There is a lack of consensus on which innovations or groups of innovations that should be covered by this phrase. However, what follows is a rundown of the most prominent supply chain technologies.

Innovations applicable to improve supply chain management

  1. Additive manufacturing / 3D Printing
  2. Artificial intelligence
  3. Augmented reality / Virtual reality (AR / VR)
  4. Autonomous systems
  5. Blockchain
  6. Cloud computing
  7. Cybersecurity
  8. Data analytics
  9. Digital twins / Virtual twins
  10. Robotics
  11. System integration
  12. The internet of things (IoT)

Building blocks of efficiency: A closer look at the 12 innovative smart supply chain technologies

3D printing / additive manufacturing in supply chains

Additive manufacturing is an attractive option for companies that use a variety of parts made from the same or similar materials. Instead of purchasing and stocking all the various parts, it can be more efficient to purchase the base materials that can be combined to build any of them on an as-needed basis. This reduces inventory overhead costs and storage space needs, making additive manufacturing a space- and cost-saving solution. Digital/virtual twins, robotics, autonomous systems, and AI can all enhance additive manufacturing.

Artificial intelligence in the supply chain

AI is a versatile tool, applicable in many ways to improve supply chain management. This tool offers the ability to gain insight into various operations. It constantly analyses patterns in ordering, shipping, and other activities.

Companies are leveraging these insights to create more efficient supply chains in several ways. AI has the ability to identify alternative suppliers with lower cost or lead times. As well as, enhancing negotiation strategies with existing suppliers using historical data, and automate routine purchasing tasks.

This allows human resources to focus on more complex tasks. Such as, strategic supplier relationship management and risk mitigation planning.

Augmented reality / Virtual reality

AR helps to guide stockers efficiently through large warehouses. VR is becoming useful for remote monitoring and management of distant facilities.

Product design is often associated with manufacturing, but the two are intrinsically linked in a smart supply chain. While VR allows for remote collaboration and design reviews, AR can empower designers in unique ways. For instance, AR headsets can help designers to visualise products in 3D within a real-world environment. Therefore, it enables them to make quick and informed decisions about form, function, and fit.

In smart supply chains, the speed and efficiency of product design are greatly improved by the seamless integration of design and production.

Autonomous supply chain systems

Creating autonomous supply chains is still an ambitious goal, but the essential elements exist and are waiting to be integrated. An autonomous supply chain would be capable of processing and planning, executing those plans, and supervising the execution.

It would encompass creating and modifying orders based on real-time demand data and pre-defined algorithms. This would eliminate the need for manual forecasting and ensure optimal stock levels. As well as, updating all master data, such as supplier lists and lead times. Autonomous supply chain systems would be built on AI, robotics, the IoT, cloud computing, and communications systems that might include 5G.

Blockchain technology in supply chain management

Blockchain is fundamentally a secure and distributed ledger. As a result, anyone who shares data on a blockchain can trust it. This data can range from inventory numbers to legal contracts. Each change and update is recorded and can be verified.

Blockchain is a tool increasingly used for everything from inventory management to relationship management. This allows for secure and transparent communication between partners for a more efficient supply chain.

Cloud computing for supply chain management

The cloud represents wide and nearly immediate access to all the compute power and storage that an organisation can afford. Major cloud services make a wide variety of software applications available, including AI tools.

Supply chain managers have the option to automate their operations by switching to the cloud. This shift can be seen as a significant advancement towards the implementation of autonomous systems. Therefore, it paves the way for a more intelligent and self-regulating and efficient supply chain.


Cybersecurity is critical to improve supply chain management. There is no system that is hackproof, but blockchains add mightily to cybersecurity. Their distributed ledger technology ensures the integrity of data by making it nearly impossible to tamper with. Any changes would be immediately apparent to all network participants.

Cloud services invest heavily in cybersecurity so it is important to assess the security capabilities of cloud vendors. Employing AI can help detect and stop malicious hackers. AI-powered systems can learn and detect patterns that suggest hacking attempts. These systems can then take proactive steps to prevent any potential damage from occurring.

Data analytics in supply chains

Everyone involved in supply chain management is investing in analysis tools of one sort or another, including AI. One of the goals is to achieve close to real-time data collection and processing. This will allow for the application of appropriate procedures and policies.

Businesses greatly benefit from having reliable, up-to-date data processed in near real-time. This allows them to automate supply chain operations and improve efficiency with confidence.

Digital twins / Virtual twins

Digital twins are more than just collections of digital schematics, plans, and specifications. They aim to be functional representations of complex products, even if they exist in virtual form.

Digital twin solutions have the ability to show the functional effects of any alteration. This is regardless of whether it involves a small screw or a complex microcontroller.  It is important to note that the entire supply chain propagates every change.


Robotics have roles at both ends of supply chains. Robots are already widely used in manufacturing, significantly improving production speed and consistency. Experts predict that the use of robots and automation software will grow as technology continues to advance.

Meanwhile, warehousing is increasingly relying on semi-autonomous and autonomous robots to automate supply chain operations. These robots can transport, categorise, and stack items. This has transformed the once labour-intensive processes into more efficient and streamlined operations.

System integration

Metaphorically speaking, many supply chains still have separate links that remain independent, if not isolated. Many customers and suppliers continue to negotiate deals on the phone; the sharing of information is not always automated. Integrating information systems is a first step, perhaps by automating in the cloud, and/or adopting blockchain.

Using many newer supply chain technologies and trends in conjunction can amplify their benefits. For instance, making use of AI tools resident in the cloud or designing digital twins with the aid of AR/VR tools. These higher levels of integration could deliver on the promise of autonomous supply chains.

The internet of things

The IoT is synonymous with sensors and sharing the data they collect. Sensor systems have a wide range of applications.

They can be used to track and monitor various entities. Such as parts, products, vehicles (ships, trucks, and warehouse equipment), robots, and even people. By doing so, they enable real-time inventory management and help streamline operations.

Sensors have the ability to monitor the environment. For instance, humidity control plays a crucial role in warehousing electronics. Also, sensors can monitor the condition of goods throughout the shipping process. Data can be collected, processed, and utilised to optimise and automate supply chain operations, with or without the assistance of AI.

There are a number of new supply chain technologies and tools available to make smart supply chains more efficient and reliable. Adopting any one or two of them might address an immediate need for companies. However, it's vital to note that each method can be used in conjunction with others. This allows companies to plan their own paths towards improved intelligence, increased visibility, enhanced automation, and more efficient supply chains.