Recent years have made it clear, for better or for worse, how much the supply chain can impact daily life. PAN’s team of industry experts sat down to discuss the ways on which the industry has changed, how unique challenges drive unique solutions, what we can and should expect from the future, and more.
When people think of supply chain challenges now, much of the framing is still based in the difficulties that defined the early stages of the pandemic. Nearly four years on, some of those initial problems have been resolved and new ones have emerged. Is it still accurate to talk about the supply chain as a pandemic-related issue?
Adam Novak: The pandemic showed us that the global supply chain is a critical pillar of our modern lives, but susceptible to frequent and significant disruption. Though the nature of the disruptions have changed (wars in Ukraine, the Middle East, global economic uncertainty), the pandemic forever changed the understanding and importance of the supply chain. In that regard, the supply chain will always be a pandemic-related issue.
Laura Beauregard: The pandemic shifted focus for many companies operating in or relying on the supply chain, it underscored the great need for agility to respond to and adapt to changing conditions. The pandemic set off these issues for the supply chain (i.e., chip shortages) but others have emerged that are now plaguing the industry. Our supply chain is so globally dynamic today that we see something like a drought in the Panama Canal impact shipping transits or labor shortages causing strain to where now businesses are looking for solves and many are looking toward automation and AI to address.
One of the biggest conversations of 2023 has been the role of AI in the future of industries — whether it has one and if so, what it is. Has AI historically been a part of supply chain problems or solutions, and does it have a place in the future?
Novak: AI has been subtly impacting the supply chain for years, as different technologies mature to proactively identify risks, automate and uplevel menial tasks, spot fraud and inequity, and provide intelligence into complex processes. But we’ve only scratched the surface of the lasting impacts AI will have on the industry. The mixed infrastructure and variety of complex processes make the supply chain a perfect industry to be impacted by AI — it doesn’t just have a place in the future, it is THE future.
Beauregard: The integration of AI solutions in the supply chain has helped advance the industry as new challenges and complexities emerge. The technology has had a positive impact on progressing things like inventory and demand forecasting, transportation logistics and risk management. AI will absolutely be essential for further progression and efficiency within the supply chain, but it needs to be done responsibly as well. The Executive Order from the White House will have a significant impact on setting new standards around safety and security with AI — and this will require businesses in the supply chain to ensure they are complying and adopting AI technology strategically and responsibly. Expect this to be part of the ongoing dialogue in 2024 with AI and supply chain.
What was the biggest surprise as it relates to innovation in the supply chain this past year? What was most expected?
Novak: Most people are focused on AI impacting the supply chain in the future. But when the definition expands to automation, the immediate impacts are real and significant. Take our client, Venti Technologies, a provider of self-driving vehicles for ports, airports, warehouses, manufacturing facilities and depots. Venti is on the cusp of a fully automated fleet this year (!), meaning that the port can operate 24/7/365. The efficiencies the industry will gain from this milestone are huge! So while other autonomous vehicle technologies, like robotaxis, are decades away, the future is now for autonomous vehicles in our world’s supply chain hubs.
What new and routine challenges can businesses in this industry anticipate going into 2024?
Novak: The pandemic showed us that supply chain risk is a consistent and fundamental challenge. Companies are going to be faced with economic disruption, foreign conflict, climate-related events and geopolitical tension. We don’t know exactly what disruptions to anticipate, but we can strongly anticipate disruption. That’s why the term “resiliency” is so cliché right now — the ability for supply chains to seek alternate processes in response to disruption is ultimately the difference between normal life and hoarding toilet paper.
The supply chain is a uniquely complex industry in itself — that’s one of many reasons we see major ripple effects of seemingly minor challenges. Does that quality of complexity change the mindset brands bring to their work and how they communicate with customers?
Marki Conway: While the great supply chain disruption of 2020 did effectively put a spotlight on the importance of resilience and how paramount supply chains are to daily operations, it stopped short of highlighting the many issues that are still prevalent in supply chains today — and the opportunity for them to be strategic drivers of positive change.
Many supply chains are riddled with human rights violation and environmental concerns, ranging from possible third-tier suppliers relying on forced labor or unfair wages, to suppliers who are polluting oceans or relying heavily on chemicals and plastic in their processing. The challenge is that most consumers aren’t aware of these missteps happening, and quite often the companies themselves don’t even know these issues lie within their own sourcing strategies and supply chains. Data-driven tech today is already helping to mitigate these issues, providing enhanced visibility into where these violations lie so companies can act accordingly. Aided by AI, the opportunity to eradicate these issues will only grow. But businesses need to invest in the tools and technology to do so. Consumers are starting to demand better values from brands they engage, and more businesses will have to follow suit in 2024 by requiring their trading partners commit to fair labor practices, more transparency, and reducing waste and pollution.
Which parts of integrated marketing and PR will prove most important and most effective for supply chain technology brands as they look to make a name for themselves in the next year?
Novak: There is a lot of interest in solutions that can limit disruption. And there’s quite a bit of noise in the market and competitive solutions. We have heard from our supply chain clients that their sales opportunity is more critical than ever, and companies are also competing for investment and scalable operations. Amidst these broader business issues, it’s a core responsibility of PR and integrated marketing to produce results that support sales and support demand generation efforts. Effective efforts that we’ve seen are a consistent news pipeline of external growth, showcasing industry best practices, telling compelling customer stories and third-party partnerships and recognitions.
What else should people understand about the state of supply chain technology and brands?
Novak: The supply chain had its moment in 2020. But the moment is fading, despite the continued disruption. The time is now for the industry to show its value, and there are going to be winners and losers along the way. Strategic communications and integrated marketing can help bolster business growth and play a key role in defining the industry’s future leaders.
Emily Holt: Adam alluded to it a bit above, but the time is now for brands to share their stories, detailing how AI is impacting the supply chain TODAY. As organizations navigate a competitive market and vie for sales, it will be critical to showcase the value of their technology. Integrated marketing campaigns make it possible to showcase ROI to the right people, at the right companies, at just the right time. To stand out in a crowded field, it is the tech story that will differentiate a brand. The media has moved on from the problems. As Adam noted, post-pandemic disruption is expected, and it’s the solution to overcoming challenges that will build leaders in this market.