Supercharging Supply Chains with Platforms

Uber-like on-demand fulfillment platforms for supply chain and and logistics services are rapidly emerging. For companies feeling the pressure to meet rising customer expectations while keeping costs down, uberized supply chains could bring much-needed relief.

Uberization, the business paradigm that disrupted the taxicab industry, is about to transform supply chains everywhere as companies increasingly rely on the on-demand fulfillment platform capabilities and services instead of building their own.

Both sides—the company in need of supply chain services and the one providing them—stand to benefit. In the consumer-packaged-goods industry, companies that leverage AI platforms can improve demand forecasting accuracy by 30%, while reducing FTEs by 30%. Similarly, logistics brokerage can use an AI platform to identify companies looking to ship partial loads and get 10% to 20% more asset utilization.

Three Types of Supply Chain Platforms

Over the next decade, three types of platforms are likely to become dominant. Each has a unique source of value creation—as well as a unique set of challenges. (See the exhibit.)

1) Marketplace platforms

Marketplace platforms match supply with demand, providing companies with access to assets whenever they want it. Companies like Ware2Go and Flexe offer on-demand warehousing, which allows a company to rent warehouse space during peak season. Another example is Uberfreight, offering a more flexible option for shippers to secure lower cost middle mile logistics services.

To scale marketplace platforms successfully, make sure that it’s easy for customers to take part and that the transaction costs are low. When working with a leading parcel delivery company to design an on-demand warehousing platform, we found ways to integrate customer order management systems and make the customer experience seamless. We also enabled cloud-based reservations and payment processing to reduce participation friction.

2) Capability platforms

Capability platforms provide flexible, pay-as-you-go access to a strategic capability. These platforms are useful for companies that would rather access learning externally than develop it internally.

Capability platforms often require large-scale and continuous learning and training data. The more data the platform company collects, the better its machine-learning algorithms get at providing the know-how its customers are looking for. Blue Yonder, for example, offers AI-powered plug-and-play capabilities for demand planning, and Elementum offers similar platform capabilities for supply chain control tower use cases.

The key challenge for companies that wish to build large-scale capability learning platforms is getting customers to share often proprietary data in a way that protects their confidentiality while allowing other firms to benefit from it.

3) Asset grid platforms 

Asset grid platforms provide flexible access to assets or infrastructure. These platforms are especially useful for companies lacking the funds or time needed to build such infrastructure themselves. For example, companies like ShipBob and ShipMonk are creating E2E fulfillment infrastructure to support SMBs across eCommerce channels. Fulfillment by Amazon, a service that provides warehouse fulfillment and last-mile delivery, is perhaps the most successful example of an asset grid platform to date.

Another type of asset grid platform is likely to emerge–one based on 3D printing. It’s only a matter of time before on-demand print farms are doing 3D printing of parts and accessories. Logistics companies like FedEx could use these printers to print and deliver on demand.

To build and such a platform one successfully, the platform owner must have deep pockets and invest in infrastructure upfront. Moreover, the company must be seen as an objective third-party orchestrator.

For example, a leading grocery wholesaler client built a shared-asset platform for store deliveries. Customers that normally shipped product to their own warehouse instead shipped directly to the wholesaler’s warehouse, bypassing a step to unlock cost and speed efficiencies. When rolling out the platform, the company had to balance the need to subsidize early adopters, which were essential for gaining momentum, with the need to turn a profit.

Preparing for Uberized Supply Chains

To anticipate, participate, and even shape the supply chain platforms of the future, start getting ahead of the curve today. A company that excels at a particular function can even contemplate becoming a platform provider.

Moving to an on-demand fulfillment platform-based model isn’t easy. It requires companies to develop a whole new set of competencies. We recommend that you:

– Understand trigger points. Determine the parameters for using a platform service instead of a traditional service. Platforms may not be your default, but for scenarios such as holiday peak, they may be preferable to traditional surge warehousing.

– Monitor emerging platform players. Keep a pulse check on the evolution of various platforms so you can leverage them when the time comes.

– Start piloting platform capabilities relevant to your business. That’s the only way to know if it will be a good business concept and whether you should scale it.

There’s little doubt that uber-like, on-demand fulfillment platform for supply chain and logistics services everywhere . Even if you’re not cut out to be a platform owner, don’t stand still. As the need for agile and resilient supply chains grows, harnessing the power of platforms will be key to success.

The above originally appeared as a Linkedin article and as a reprint in CIO & Leader magazine.

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