2023 | People, digitalisation, automation and decarbonisation among factors critical to supply chain survival, according to experts

Industry experts have warned that the future of supply chains will be bleak, unless businesses act now.

Speaking at SCALA’s 20th Annual Supply Chain Debate, senior industry figures highlighted the need for great change over the coming decade, as the industry faces new challenges and the pressure to reach net zero targets mounts.

Almost 100 supply chain and logistics industry professionals descended on the prestigious Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, on 21 June 2023, to discuss the factors they believed to be critical to supply chain and logistics operations in the next 10 years. The debate was chaired by Chris Clowes of SCALA and the importance of utilising the right technology, underlined by people and collaboration, was highlighted as key.

Discussions were centered around six expert speakers, including Gavin Chappell, COO at Bensons for Beds, Sharon Hammond, Head of Distribution & Transport at B&M Retail, Rebecca Attoe-Butt, Supply Chain Lead Europe at Versuni (Philips), David Cebon, Director at Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, Audrey Limery, Founder and CEO of Kweevo and Prof. Neil Ashworth, Portfolio Director of various companies.

Technology was the key focus of discussion for both Sharon Hammond and Audrey Limery. Sharon asserted the value of automation in future operations, encouraging companies to invest to support greater reliability and flexibility, capacity for growth, increased resources and ergonomics. Meanwhile, Audrey called for greater supply chain digitalisation and visibility to support sustainability in the age of AI. A large proportion of the delegation agreed with the importance of data, AI and automation in supply chain success over the next 10 years.

David Cebon used the opportunity to discuss the future of trucking. He maintained that the future lies in an electric road system alongside a network of static chargers for fleets. David illustrated the environmental turmoil that the sector is likely to face and how logistics will need to pivot to support the delivery of essential goods within a climate of extreme weather events if the industry fails to decarbonise. Alarmingly, when asked to vote, no delegates thought that a global temperature reduction of either 1.5°c or 2°c would be achieved.

Interestingly, Professor Neil Ashworth reaffirmed the viewpoint that he held at SCALA’s annual debate 10 years ago that democratisation of consumer verticals will play an important role in the industry. He 2discussed the impact that consumers are having on the healthcare industry as they take greater ownership of their data and argued that all sectors are likely to see the same as the power shifts to consumers.

Gavin Chappell and Rebecca Attoe-Butt focused on the importance of people and relationships as factors that underpin the above issues. Chappell discussed current challenges including labour shortages, educational deficiencies, expectation management and career management within the industry. He encouraged companies to automate where necessary but affirmed that people will remain fundamental to the success of supply chains due to their ability to problem-solve and make strategic decisions during periods of disruption.

Rebecca Attoe-Butt echoed the importance of human relationships within future supply chains as AI becomes more prevalent, underlining a need to focus on what computers can’t do, including problem solving and building trusting relationships.

Then delegates participated in a final vote on what they believed would be the key to future supply chain success. An impressive 45% came to a consensus that people will remain the key to supply chains in the future alongside greater investment in technology, efforts to decarbonise and enhanced relationships.

Chris Clowes, senior consultant at SCALA, commented:

“Supply chain leaders are facing the perfect storm of disruption with the legacy of the pandemic, Brexit, the ongoing Ukraine crisis and high interest rates amongst other factors causing strain on organisations of all sizes.

“Perspectives from a diverse range of speakers and businesses throughout the day were all seen as very important by the delegates and stimulated an interesting debate.

“What many delegates identified was the value of people in identifying, encouraging and implementing these necessary changes. Considering the disruption that companies have faced in the past 10 years, it is people that have navigated us through the turmoil.

“It’s clear that AI and automated machinery have a vital role to play in improving efficiencies and reducing costs going forward, but the power of blending this with the insight of professionals that truly understand supply chains should not be underestimated. Arguably, for any of the other factors discussed to work, we need people committed to improving operations, decarbonisation and investment in the right technology.”

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