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Alex MacPherson: Digital twins meet supply chains

Written by Alex MacPherson, Director of Solution Consultancy and Account Management at Manhattan Associates

Artificial intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), the Internet of Things (IoT) and other tech advances like robotics have significantly accelerated innovation and growth in the logistics and supply chain sector over the last decade. Hyperautomation (a direct result of much of the above) has ensured that supply chain networks are increasingly efficient & one of the most potentially impactful by-products of hyperautomation has been the emergence of the digital twin concept.

Digital twins are digital copies of a physical object or process in the real world; exact representations of products or processes in which all data sets are recorded, and digital models can then be created & tested for innovations, improvements or efficiencies.

Alex MacPherson, Director of Solution Consultancy and Account Management at Manhattan Associates discusses the emergence of Hyperautomation and how retailers can retain the efficiency within their supply chain.

Risk-free innovation

Rather than simply being used as dumb data pipe, digital twins can be adapted to work on small or large scales. In this way, designers or project planners can visualise without risk what the change of a variable (the warehouse) does to the output (energy costs, wear and tear, but also delivery speed and labour efficiency) of a product or process.

Consider this: at the product level, for example, a warehouse designer could calculate that by widening an aisle by a meter could make robot and human interaction more efficient, in the process saving a certain amount of time per day when it comes to product picking – testing these types of hypotheses, has never been easier, faster or cheaper thanks to the advances of digital twinning.

Double down on supply chain

In terms of supply chains and logistics, digital twins can demonstrate the impact of different variables on models and plans without having to directly implement changes on-site.

Simply explained: a supermarket chain knows based on data, everything about the speed and efficiency with which trucks supply stores. By replicating this process digitally, the supermarkets can see what, for example, an earlier delivery time, or deployment of trucks with more or less capacity, does to the efficiency, and therefore the bottom-line cost of the process.

Retailers can replicate different fulfilment models and determine the most efficient and profitable way to handle orders, enabling deliveries to reach their final destinations in the quickest, most environmentally friendly way – thus providing the best margins for brands and maintaining customer experience all at the same time.

Furthermore, analysis of data may reveal whether direct delivery from a retail store, another distribution centre, or perhaps even directly from the factory, is the most efficient and effective choice.

The twinning process can even build models that highlight the impact of variables such as different delivery times, and at every stage, each variable or scenario delivers new data that makes the next simulation richer and more accurate.

Don’t sacrifice accuracy for speed

Although many retailers are still yet to adopt the practical uses of digital twins, this technology can increasingly determine the success of business operations which depend on multiple and constantly changing variables where speed and efficiency are decisive, such as retail supply chains.

Smart algorithms and effective data modelling make it possible to get a grip on many of the complex processes and shifting challenges presented by modern day customer expectations and the supply chains that ultimately support them. While digital twin technology is by no means a panacea, it is certainly worth embattled retailers considering the benefits this approach could deliver.