Composing the Ideal Supply Chain Symphony

A well-run supply chain organization has more in common with music than many may think. A supply chain is made up of many parts—there are physical assets like trucks on the roads and robots in the warehouse. There are the people on factory floors producing products and in boardrooms making strategic decisions. And there are the end customers that accept these items.

The supply chain is made up of many distinct parts that when working together, create a harmonious production of efficiency, but when operating in silos and independent of each other, produce a clunky, messy operation that leaves end customers in despair.

Music is the same way. A finished production takes many parts to reach its conclusion. There are the initial writers of the music and/or lyrics and the individual musicians that must come together and play in harmony. The comparison between music and the supply chain is not lost on Sally Miller, CIO North America and DSC digital transformation officer for DHL Supply Chain.

Sounds of the warehouse

Speaking at the recent Manifest conference in Las Vegas, Miller noted the similarities. In a keynote address, Miller said that DHL Supply Chain commissioned Grammy award-winning musical artist Cory Wong to create “the sounds of the warehouse song.” It is part of how DHL Supply Chain is thinking about its digitization program and orchestration of the supply chain.

“All those [parts of the supply chain] are coordinated together to drive the best efficiency at the end of the day for our customers in the [same] way that my band operates,” she told the audience. “Things that are highly arranged are also blended with things that have an improvisational aspect to them. There are a lot of similarities [between] orchestration and music. It’s important to have the right players and it’s important that they’re in sync and in harmony with each other.”

Tech in harmony

Miller noted that DHL is incorporating a variety of technologies such as assisted picking robots, pallet unloading technology, sortation technologies, and vision-picking solutions (augmented reality) to develop the necessary orchestration to create its own supply chain symphony.

“In a given geography, we’ll need complete end-to-end supply chain activities from planning all the way to final delivery,” she explained. “So, complexity has increased and will increase, and that will be the focus going forward—how we make that easier for the floor associates and make them more productive. And there are a lot of different technologies that we’re piecing together and building on to leverage what works.”

Like many companies, data is driving a lot of the change for DHL Supply Chain. That data is being blended with human capital and autonomous solutions to drive efficiency.

“We’re able to write algorithms to look at outputs from that data and make changes based on what is happening in the site on a given day,” Miller said.

DHL Supply Chain operates in over 200 global sites in 50 countries with over 180,000 employees, so the amount of data collection is enormous. Miller said the turnover rate ranges from 40% to 70%.

“That’s a lot of recruiting, retention and focus that we have to do to make our associates like where they work and make them as efficient as possible. So that is the core of what we do and to do it in a very safe manner,” she said.

Musical partnerships

That process is made easier by working with startups that are developing the technology solutions of the future. Miller said one of the focuses of these collaborations is on making the work environment more pleasant to create a harmonious environment.

“We’re going to continue to work with startups and existing vendors to develop products to make those associates’ lives easier and more efficient and reduce our dependency on labor during peak periods,” she explained. “But what you’ll see, or what we believe as we add more solutions, deploy more technology, is the environment that we’re operating in is more complex and our ability to make each solution as efficient as possible and hand work off to the next step in the process efficiently without causing any backup or jams is going to be critical. And it’s everything from activities on the transportation side, the planning side, and within the four walls of the warehouse. And this is what we are calling orchestration.”

In a comment directed at the venture capital world, Miller said more investment needs to take place in companies working on case picking solutions.

“I know because of Amazon and the whole e-commerce buzz, the initial money went to picking solutions, but a significant profile of our sites for the market verticals that we support are shipping cases and pallets out every day. And this is a much bigger volume than picking. So look to throw your money some founder’s way on case picking,” Miller said.

The other issue Miller faces is finding solutions that can scale.

“There are a lot of varying solutions that we can deploy and one size does not fit all,” she said. “It’s all about profile and it is getting harder to ensure that you can scale technologies. There are a lot of things out there, but we’d like solutions that can scale.”

And if solutions can scale, the supply chain can finally make its sweet music.

About the Author

Brian Straight

Brian Straight is the Editor in Chief of Supply Chain Management Review. He has covered trucking, logistics and the broader supply chain for more than 15 years. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two children. He can be reached at [email protected], @TruckingTalk, on LinkedIn, or by phone at 774-440-3870.

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