How AI can overcome three common supply chain challenges

Another in a series of Sensors Converge 2023 previews

In the realm of supply chain management, surmounting obstacles is paramount to ensuring smooth operations and sustained prosperity. Enter artificial intelligence (AI), which is revolutionizing the way enterprises address three prevalent hurdles: port congestion, freight rate instability, and demand forecasting.

How can AI optimize routing and transportation, mitigating the impact of port congestion? In what ways can AI navigate the fluctuations of freight rates and empower businesses to make informed decisions? Moreover, how does AI revolutionize demand forecasting, equipping enterprises with the agility to meet evolving customer needs? 

The remarkable potential of AI can overcome supply chain challenges and pave the way for enhanced operational efficiency and growth.

Applying AI to supply chains

AI and ML have the capability to derive meaningful insights from vast datasets and analyze real-time changes during transit, tasks that would be time-consuming or challenging for humans. It's important to note that AI doesn't replace the knowledge and wisdom of experienced supply chain managers; rather, it serves as a tool to augment and enhance supply chain management processes.

For instance, AI-powered systems can analyze real-time data from sensors and IoT devices to optimize transportation routes, reducing the need for manual intervention. By leveraging AI, companies  can optimize routing and transportation, leading to reduced fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Additionally, AI can predict demand, enabling improved inventory management to avoid overstocking or product shortages, resulting in reduced waste and cost savings.

Furthermore, AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can be employed to enhance customer service by providing prompt and accurate responses to customer inquiries. This allows companies  to meet consumer expectations effectively without incurring the expense of round-the-clock customer service staffing.

In supply chain management, AI and ML offer a range of other applications, including:

  • Optimizing logistics by determining the best routes and modes for moving freight.

  • Predicting maintenance needs to proactively address equipment issues before they disrupt the supply chain.

  • Forecasting the cost and availability of various resources, such as raw materials and cargo container space.

Three pervasive challenges — port congestion, freight rate instability, and demand forecasting — pose significant disruptions to the smooth functioning of supply chains in today's unpredictable market landscape.

#1: Port congestion

Port congestion can occur when a high volume of cargo is shipped through a port, leading to delays and increased costs. In today's era of unpredictable demand spikes and changing timelines, managing port congestion is crucial for a well-functioning supply chain.

AI can play a vital role in helping ports better manage traffic by leveraging machine learning algorithms to optimize the scheduling of cargo ships and other vessels. This optimization can significantly reduce wait times and enhance overall port operations efficiency. By utilizing AI, port managers can improve the accuracy of demand forecasting, enabling them to effectively plan for and handle surges in cargo volume without causing bottlenecks that leave ships waiting for days or even weeks to unload cargo.

Additionally, AI can assist companies in optimizing cargo routing, which helps reduce the number of ships needing access to a port and alleviates the strain on port facilities. In cases of port delays, AI and ML technologies can quickly reroute shipments or identify alternative sources, enabling businesses to work around the congestion and minimize disruptions.

While AI cannot completely eliminate port congestion, integrating it into a supply chain management system provides valuable data that can help minimize disruptions to the rest of the value chain when port delays occur. With AI's capabilities, a company can proactively manage and mitigate the impact of port congestion on supply chain operations.

#2: Freight rate instability

Freight rate instability is a prevalent challenge in today's unpredictable markets, but AI and ML offer effective solutions to address this issue. By leveraging ML algorithms, managers can analyze historical shipping rate data, identify patterns and trends, and make informed decisions regarding the timing of shipments and route selection.

AI enables managers to optimize routing by considering factors such as fuel costs and transit times, providing recommendations for the most cost-effective options. Additionally, AI can predict future rate fluctuations to prepare and budget accordingly.

It's important to note that while AI cannot completely shield a business from spikes in freight rates, it can help capitalize on lower rates, providing wider profit margins when navigating periods of higher freight rates. Predictive analytics cannot replace the expertise of an experienced freight forwarder, but it significantly enhances their effectiveness in optimizing freight operations.

#3: Demand forecasting

Demand forecasting is a crucial aspect of supply chain management as it involves predicting future demand for a product or service. Accurate demand forecasting is essential to ensure that managers  have adequate supply to meet customer demand. This process utilizes historical sales data, consumer trends, economic projections, expert insights, and other relevant inputs to provide a clear understanding of future sales.

For consumer goods businesses, it is vital to prioritize demand forecasting and allocate resources to develop robust predictions that are frequently updated. AI plays a significant role in streamlining this process by leveraging algorithms to analyze vast amounts of data related to past demand. This includes sales data, economic indicators, demographic information, and more, enabling the generation of more accurate and nuanced forecasts.

AI-generated demand forecasts provide valuable insights that empower supply chain management teams to make well-informed decisions regarding production, inventory management, and logistics. This leads to improved operational efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Additionally, ML can be employed to predict demand and identify emerging trends, enabling businesses to proactively prepare for market changes.

One of the distinctive advantages of AI is its ability to identify trends and patterns that may not be immediately apparent to human analysts. By analyzing consumer data, AI algorithms can provide early warnings and signals of shifting demand, allowing businesses to respond promptly and serve the needs of current consumers, rather than relying on outdated information from previous quarters or years. Embracing AI in demand forecasting equips businesses with the agility and foresight required to thrive in dynamic market environments.

The future of supply chains will be built around AI and ML

By harnessing the power of AI and machine learning, businesses can make data-driven decisions, enhance operational agility, and stay ahead in today's fast-paced markets. The ability of AI to analyze vast amounts of data, detect patterns, and provide valuable insights has proven invaluable in navigating the complexities of supply chain management.

As we embrace the potential of AI, it is crucial to recognize that the collaboration between human expertise and AI technologies is paramount. The strategic insights and contextual knowledge of supply chain professionals, combined with the capabilities of AI, create a formidable force for optimizing supply chain operations.

Looking ahead, the future holds limitless possibilities for AI in supply chain management. By continuing to explore new applications, refine algorithms, and embrace innovation, businesses can unlock a competitive edge, streamline operations, and build resilient supply chains that adapt to the evolving demands of the global marketplace.

Alex Selwitz is the Director of SEO for Red Stag Fulfillment, an eCommerce fulfillment warehouse that was born out of eCommerce.

Supply chain issues will be discussed in several conference sessions at Sensors Converge 2023, June 20-22, at Santa Clara, California.  One panel will discuss “Achieving Autonomy through ADAS Development” at 9:25 a.m. on June 22 at the event. 

Register for Sensors Converge 2023 online.