Digital technologies like the Internet of Things and robotics can greatly improve supply chains, but many companies have yet to capitalize on them, DHL finds in a new study.

Supply chains are the lifeblood that feed business-to-business e-commerce sites. But when it comes to emerging digital technologies that can better automate supply chain operations, big companies are lagging.

That’s among the chief takeaways from a new report on the potential use of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data and robotics on supply chain operations by international shipping carrier DHL. The report, based on a recent global survey of nearly 350 supply chain and operations professionals, reveals that 95% of respondents are not fully capitalizing on the benefits of digital supply chain technologies, including such physical and mechanical innovations as robotics, augmented reality and 3D printing, and such informational and analytical innovations as artificial intelligence, blockchain and the internet of things, or IoT.

Supply chain executives are eager, it seems, to use better digital technology on operations that that impact shipping, receiving and other logistics. For example, 73% of survey respondents ranked data analytics as the most important information application their company was planning to implement, followed by cloud-based applications at 63%, IoT, 54%; blockchain, 51%; and machine learning, 46%.

For expediting more efficiency inside the warehouse or distribution center, robotics at 63% ranked as the emerging technology as their top priority, followed by 3D printing at 33% and augmented reality and drones at 28%.

But many companies are only now beginning to invest and install more advanced supply chain technology, says lharrington group LLC president Lisa Harrington, who conducted the research and wrote the report for DHL. For example, only 39% of companies report they are developing one or more information or analytics programs and even fewer, 31%, cite such tools as robotics.

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Executives at 68% and 65%, respectively, cite the reliability of emerging technology and slow-to-change company operations as the top reasons for not rolling out more digital technology sooner. For information and analytics tools, 78% of respondents reported that siloed data and outdated legacy systems were the top impediments, followed by a lack of specialized expertise at 70%.

“The survey reveals that 95% of respondents are not fully capitalizing on the potential benefits that physical innovation and information/analytics offer,” Harrison says.

Today only 5% of survey respondents are currently using robotics, autonomous vehicles and drones on a regular basis, compared with 51% of respondents that are in the early stage of deployment, the report says. “Supply chain organizations of all types, including internal corporate departments and external third-party logistics service providers (3PLs), still have a long way to go in terms of fully adopting both types of digitalization technology,” the report says.

Other survey findings include:

  • 63% of executives say robotics is the most important physical technology for supply chain applications;
  • 73% consider big data analytics the most significant information technology for their supply chains;
  • 78% of companies prefer to leverage their third-party logistics service provider’s (3PL) investment in physical technologies versus investing in-house.
  • 78% of companies see organizational/data siloes as the biggest roadblock to change when implementing analytics technologies.
  • 63% of companies start in one area of the supply chain—like warehousing—and develop an operationally specific digitalization strategy for that area.

“There is no doubt that supply chain digitalization is here to stay, and that it will quickly expand in scope and scale over the next few years,” Harrington says.

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