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Driving supply chain’s digital future

Right now, all supply chain leaders are asking themselves if their networks are prepared for what comes next and preparing ahead for what lies around the next corner. Having persevered through unprecedented disruption, they’re focused both on current challenges and future disruptions, the latter of which will be inevitable in the dynamic supply chain environment.

With that in mind, Peerless Media brought together an all-star lineup for the third annual NextGen Supply Chain Conference (NGSC). All keynotes, sessions and features from the November 2021 event will be available on-demand until April 2022 at

With a focus on the technologies that are shaping tomorrow’s supply chains, and the leading organizations that are now deploying them, the event featured industry leaders, academics and consultants who shared how they’re leveraging NextGen technologies.

Automation, artificial intelligence (AI), big data, predictive analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile and piece-picking robots were among the tools companies are investing in and using to drive their supply chains into the digital future. By answering the question: “What’s next in supply chain management?” NGSC helps prepare executives for the emerging technologies and processes that will have the most transformative effects on their supply chains. Here are some of the highlights from this year’s event.

Tracking the automation journey

Hosted by Peerless Media’s Brian Ceraolo and Bob Trebilcock, NGSC 2021 kicked off with a keynote presentation from Kevin Kuntz, GAP, Inc.’s senior VP of global logistics fulfillment. With about 10 million square feet of warehouse space across six different campuses in the United States, the company has been expanding space for its online channels and shrinking its retail footprint due to improved efficiencies over the last eight years.

In 2013, GAP merged its online and offline fulfilment to create the global fulfillment organization that it continues to run today. “We were on a journey to automate and institutionalize everything we did to save costs,” said Kuntz. “At the same time, our online partners were struggling to meet their capacity requirements.” And it didn’t stop there. In 2021, GAP converted a former retail site in Nashville into an online fulfillment center and has plans for similar pivots in the future.

Kuntz said GAP is also opening a new e-fulfillment DC in Texas, primarily for Old Navy. It’s the company’s first greenfield site in over two decades, according to Kuntz, who said the retailer’s automation efforts also include Exotec, whose goods-to-person robotics solution is being used to restock returns.

The solution inducts customer returns to a tote that a robot takes away. It then climbs to a rack storage location and automatically puts the items away (it does the opposite on the outbound side).

GAP is also using AS/RS cranes that can put two cartons away at a time, said Kuntz, and AS/RS shuttles that run on all levels and produce high throughput capacity. The latter are used mostly
in GAP’s retail network.

Following the keynote, ARC’s Steve Banker discussed “Next Generation Supply Chain Technologies, What is Real? What is Hype?” and Analog Devices, Inc.’s Donnacha O’Riordan gave a presentation on “How the Pandemic Stress-Tested Our Supply Chains and How Advanced Technologies and Robotics Can Prepare us for the Future.” Day one of the conference also featured a robotics panel, a look at how collaborative robots help solve warehouse labor challenges and a lunch and learn robotics panel.

Data is the new oil

In an afternoon keynote on day one, Ben Lynch, DHL Supply Chain’s director of business analytics discussed “Getting Smarter with Data: Transform Your Supply Chain and Deliver Real Value.” In it, he talked about the path that DHL has taken to adopt and use data analytics over the last six years, during which time the company’s analytics team has grown in size from six people to more than 200. He discussed the sheer amount of data being created every minute—generated by everything from Google searches to Netflix to e-commerce shopping—and also discussed how the Big Data landscape has evolved over the last 10 years.

Lynch explained the importance of developing analytics that deliver value to organizations. In the past, he said, you would learn something new, write it down and that became knowledge. “Today, you have to take what was written down (i.e., the data) and make sense of it before it becomes knowledge,” said Lynch. “That’s really what analytics is all about. How to take this raw data and transform it into something you can take insights from and make decisions off of.”

Using the Gartner Levels of Analytics chart to illustrate his point, Lynch broke analytics down into four categories: descriptive (what happened), diagnostic (why did it happen), predictive (what will happen) and prescriptive (how can we make it happen). He then walked through DHL’s use cases and wrapped up his keynote with some sage advice on how to create business logic, focus on quick wins and the future in order to deliver more value quickly for the organization.

Striving for resiliency, battling headwinds

Day two of NGSC kicked off with a fireside chat detailing Pandora’s omnichannel fulfillment strategies. A supply chain manager and a product engineer from John Deere India gave a presentation on “The Impact of Technological Innovation on Talent Management and the Workforce at All Levels of the Supply Chain Organization,” and NTT Data’s Sylvie Thompson discussed “Recalculating Autonomous Everything.”

In a presentation on “Strategic Sourcing Transformation During Time of Crisis,” Karoline Dygas, Nordstrom’s VP of strategic sourcing and procurement, reminded attendees that no matter how old are their companies, how sophisticated or how resilient they think their companies are, everyone has been put under a microscope and experienced increased scrutiny and stress over the
last 20 months.

“Headwinds aren’t new to the sourcing professional, who has had to overcome recessions, cost fluctuations, tariffs and natural disasters,” Dygas pointed out. “There’s always something extra on the sourcing and procurement plate to endure.”

Dygas said organizations—Nordstrom included—have begun to understand how a robust procurement organization can enhance both the bottom and top line. She discussed the various opportunities that Nordstrom has either implemented or is currently exploring; outlined
the company’s technology roadmap; and wrapped up her presentation with some discussion of the outcomes of these efforts.

“Transformation is hard and requires investment, we’re doing it because we want to deliver value to Nordstrom and the business units we support,” she said. “The investments we’ve made have been paying off.”

Also on day two, Peerless Media and the Association for Supply Chain Management (ASCM) presented the 2021 NextGen Supply Chain Solution Provider, End User and Visionary awards (see sidebar).

Robust and resilient supply chains

Cardinal Health’s Robert Rajalingam started the final day of the conference with a keynote on Health System Transformation in a Pandemic Era. In it, the president of U.S. medical products and distribution for Cardinal Health talked about how now is a “pivotal time” for anyone focused on supply chain.

Rajalingam discussed the continued, negative impacts of COVID-19 on the healthcare supply chain and highlighted the need to replenish critical medical suppliers from overseas sources. “This need is converging with unprecedented transportation complications to create problems that are slowing the recovery of the U.S. healthcare system,” he said.

Healthcare distributors like Cardinal Healthcare are taking action to address these challenges, Rajalingam continued, by building more robust and resilient supply chains. “Some steps include diversifying sources, expanding domestic manufacturing, recommending alternative products and building bigger inventory cushions,” he explained.

For example, he said the company has invested more than $100 million in greater inventory control, increased on-hand inventory, invested in cross-referencing capabilities and developed strategic stock solutions at 26 different warehouse locations. The company also implemented a robust supply chain risk management approach that includes higher levels of supply chain visibility, a global trade platform and other digital supply chain transformations.

“We’re doing everything we can to help mitigate and address the supply chain challenges facing healthcare today,” Rajalingam said. “As a company we’re focused on resiliency, business continuity and visibility, knowing that while we can’t predict the next disruption, we certainly can plan for it.”

Other day three presentations included “Change Management for the Digital Era: Lessons from Multi-player Video Games,” a panel discussion on “What’s Next for Supply Chain Software,” and a presentation from APQC on how “AI is Driving New Skills in Supply Chain.”

The future of autonomous logistics

NextGen 2021 wrapped up with three sessions devoted to “The Future for Autonomous Logistics. In Autonomous Warehouse Drones to Automate Inventory Control and More,” Waymo Product Manager Xinfeng Le talked about autonomous driving technology’s impact on logistics. She discussed Waymo’s key milestones over the last 12 years, with the most recent being its 2021 partnership with J.B. Hunt. Together, they autonomously delivered freight for one of J.B. Hunt’s customers over the span of several weeks, with daily runs between Houston and Fort Worth, Texas.

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