A hitchhiker’s guide to a smarter supply chain

Smarter supply chains are changing the game when it comes to traditional warehouses, retailers, and consumers in general. These types of supply chains connect people – both consumers and supply-chain practitioners – with information and things that create entirely new experiences for all of us, much like when Arthur Dent found himself hitchhiking to new worlds in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series by Douglas Adams.

Smarter supply chains enable visibility to what is happening across our plan-make-deliver supply-chain functions, essentially creating a map of what’s going on where. Visibility requires integrating systems, connecting devices, building networks, and ultimately making sense of all that data.

With the map, one can navigate the supply chain, but it’s the purpose-built AI capabilities that enable smarter navigation of the supply chain and its challenges.

Developers in the supply-chain industry need to build tailored solutions for their clients. It’s true that no two supply chains in the galaxy are exactly alike. Developers contend with:

  • Demand planning – Predicting what customers are going to buy and where they will buy, both geographically and by channel
  • Procurement and supplier management – Procuring the necessary materials and services when you need them
  • Manufacturing, assembly, picking and packing, and warehouse management – Ensuring that the right inventory is available along with the skills to meet your company’s plans and schedules
  • Order fulfillment and delivery – Getting the product into the hands of the customer when and how they want it
  • Returns management – Efficiently managing the growing number of product returns

Supply-chain management not only refers to the movement of physical products through a supply chain but also the data associated with those products, including invoices, schedules, and delivery information.

Developers need the right tools and technologies to help build meaningful solutions. They not only need to be able to tap into the areas mentioned above but they may also need to reach outside of the supply chain to solve issues connected with other parts of the business. A smart supply-chain system provides just that. Developers need software components that can be assembled efficiently and built upon purposefully to meet the needs of their clients.

This article provides a glossary, links, and guides to topics about smarter supply chains. It is a guide for developers, created by developers. The following sections are organized alphabetically. Although we’ve had fun with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy thread in this article, those who’ve read it know that it wasn’t really much of a guide at all. We promise your experience with this guide will be much better than Arthur’s. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Key terminology

Cognitive analytic engine
IBM Sterling Fulfillment Optimizer With Watson® is a cognitive analytic engine that enhances existing order management systems. It provides a “big data brain” for order management and inventory visibility systems that are already in place with retailers who have e-commerce fulfillment capability.

Customer requirement processing
This provides the controlling of customer requirements in the supply chain, including checking product availability; receiving, preparing, and passing customer requirements on to supply planning and logistics; and providing feedback on fulfillment.

Demand planning
Looking at historical buying patterns, market forces, price fluctuations, weather patterns, the competitive landscape and many other factors to forecast how many of which product consumers will buy in the future.

The term Docker indicates that everything needed to run an application is packaged in a container-based architecture that modernizes and increases solution delivery flexibility.

Electronic supply chain management
Electronic supply chain managemnet (eSCM) is the evolving process of managing different supply streams digitally. To properly run a business, you must make sure that you have the correct stock, the ability to replenish inventory when you need to, and knowledge of how much you need to up-charge on your inventory to turn a profit. eSCM takes the concept of e-business and marries that with supply-chain management.

Supply chain business assistant (SCBA)
SCBA is a framework built upon an open and hybrid multi-cloud. It enables supply chain domain-specific process automation. Developers describe the business domain of their supply chain to a machine, unlike traditional dialogs, which involves rule-based reasoning or predictive technology.

Inventory management
Inventory management is the supervision of non-capitalized assets (inventory) and stock items. A component of supply-chain management, inventory management supervises the flow of goods from manufacturers to warehouses and from these facilities to point of sale.

Multi-channel order aggregation
This process collects orders from more than one channel (web site, online marketplaces, call center, distributor, etc) and aggregates them into a single location or data set, such as into your own order management system or that of a third party.

Order management system
Order management builds on multi-channel order aggregation and allows users to manage the orders from the time the order is received until it is fulfilled and the product is in the hands of the customer. It allows for order changes, cancellations, split shipments, etc. It also enables cross channel activity such as buy online- pick up in store (BOPIS).

Purchase order processing
This is the journey of a purchase order (PO) from creation through approval, dispatch, delivery, invoicing, payment and closure. The lifecycle of a PO is also called the Order to Cash process or O2C. It also includes budget checks, contract management, quality checks, and more. It is advantageous to make use of a cloud-based solution for PO processing.

Return management
This is the supply chain management process by which activities associated with returned product, reverse logistics, gatekeeping, and avoidance are managed within the business and across key participants of the supply chain.

Transportation management system
A transportation management system (TMS) is a software application that manages the logistics in the supply chain including the loading and routing of shipments, the manifests and bills of lading for shipments and many details related to relationships with shipping vendors and logistics service providers.

Warehouse management
A warehouse management system is a software application designed to support and optimize warehouse functionality and distribution center management.


Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) elegantly embedded in everyday tasks will drive dramatic processes efficiencies in the future and will change 100% of jobs across the globe.

Multi-enterprise network hubs will be enabled with blockchain, giving power to companies of all sizes.

Internet of Things
With the Internet of Things (IoT), supply chains will understand the state of things and take action.

Quantum computing
Quantum computing can crunch through numerous variables and factors, from more sources, faster and with greater accuracy.


Supply chain management is big business. The evolution of AI, blockchain, and other technologies means that specialists and app developers are poised to profit greatly from the emerging demand for smarter supply-chain management software.