Andrew Johnson shares how smart technology can be used to manage complex supply chains 

In the world of supply chain, the stakes have never been higher. Supply chain shortages brought on suddenly by the threat of a global pandemic has caused US manufacturers to recalibrate their supply chains. We’re seeing global supply chains dismantled and a rethinking of lean inventory practices. Meanwhile, all of these epic changes are taking place in a marketplace that is struggling to find and retain labor. Our heads are left spinning in a turbulent landscape.  

Andrew Johnson

When will the chaos end? When will we get a chance to catch our breath and relax with a stable outlook? I don’t believe there is much stability in sight for the US marketplace, but I do believe there is opportunity to be found in the chaos. 

Experts continue to point to technological innovations as the best way for companies to take advantage of new opportunities that may present themselves in this environment. Many of these same experts suggest companies take the innovation plunge and bet big on high-tech solutions that promise huge ROI. I believe the winners in this innovation race will be the ones who dream big, but start small.  

A simple approach to innovation 

Whether your company wants to pull the trigger on a new e-commerce platform, a shiny, all-inclusive ERP, or discuss grand ideas like Industry 4.0, too many industrial manufacturers are falling prey to the temptation to start big. 

However, big innovation projects can create chaos and be overwhelming and expensive to implement. That’s why digital transformation should be a slow, intentional process of incremental innovations that lead to a series of small wins to accomplish the desired big results. 

Advanced digital solutions provide manufacturers with the edge to transform and achieve better inventory control, for instance. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has inspired the manufacturing industry to search for new ways to improve supply chains and automate inventory management. Beginning with system design and graduating to physical warehouse processes, smart manufacturers can use digital technology to take better control of stock and manage inventory more efficiently and more accurately.  

Small steps for big innovation 

Innovation should happen in small, incremental steps. The small wins become huge, while failures are not costly or detrimental.  

For example, many factories have automated their inventory management processes. A digital VMI platform can be implemented in a weekend without disrupting production. A simple solution like RFID smart labels create immediate results, like saving time in generating purchase orders, eliminating the human time required to count inventory, and providing granular consumption data that allows manufacturers to carry lean inventories without the possibility of stockouts.  

The more innovative factories have data readily available to everyone. Another simple win can result from using monitors and displays to track production and workflow. Large format LED screens on the manufacturing floor are visible to everyone and share real-time data about where various projects are, how they are progressing, and when they are completed.  

Another small but impactful approach to innovation can be to leverage the powerful computer in everyone’s pocket, their smart phone. By using smart phone apps to collect data from work processes, organizations can ensure broader levels of adoption using mobile apps versus the industrial handhelds of the last decade. Simple app technology pushes data to central locations where information about workflow and processes is captured and analyzed, leading to continuous operational improvement without the need for bulky data collection devices. Such data enables central planners to more effectively resource and manage their departments.   

Practical steps to innovation in the manufacturing space 

  1. Define a big picture strategy. Step back and take a 10,000-foot view of your company. Define some big picture objectives, and then prioritize technology improvements that work toward the goals. 
  2. Start small for big innovation. Focus on bite-sized pieces of technology that are designed to stand alone and offer a quick ROI. (For example, implement a broader range of high-quality Wi-Fi throughout the factory floor so simple smart phone apps are always collecting data.)
  3. Create time as a commodity. Find ways to give innovative thinkers time to work on small innovation projects. 
  4. Form an internal ‘innovation team. Empower a team to act on your ‘big picture innovation’ strategy and give them the authority to start rethinking those objectives. Give the team a large budget—not of money, but of time. 
  5. Tackle some simple ideas. Simple ideas like implementing a mesh wireless network to connect mobile apps throughout the factory floor, going paperless, automating inventory management, and setting up monitors can generate big innovation results.
  6. Be patient. Remember that small wins lead to big innovation. Don’t be afraid to implement an idea that fails. 
  7. Don’t wait! Your competition has already started. Even the smallest innovation can give you an edge over the competition and disrupt an entire marketplace.  

True innovators are driven by the desire to revolutionize industries, kept up at night dreaming of altering their marketplace’s landscape. Incremental innovation is the new big business that can give even small companies the edge over large organizations. Implementing smart technologies in an incremental innovation strategy is the place to start.  

For a list of the sources used in this article, please contact the editor. 

Andrew Johnson is an entrepreneur, inventor, and business owner. Formerly the sales manager at the family distribution company, he is now the CEO of ShelfAware, which is redefining industrial supply chains by leveraging RFID technology, the internet, and the power of data. ShelfAware is an automated supply chain platform designed specifically for suppliers and consumers of physical inventory goods.