Supply Chain Expertise and Technology Blog by TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson

Mobile Platforms Signal Change


It is hard to imagine life without cell phones, yet mobile communications is a young technology that has yet to deliver its most exciting business applications.  I believe that one of these advances is supply chain integration on a level that will redefine the way global distribution networks operate.

To appreciate the possibilities, let’s take a step back and consider where Mobile Integration Platforms (MIPs) are positioned in the communications universe. Next week we will take a look at some freight management applications that offer a glimpse into the tightly knit supply chains of the future.

Motorola released the world’s first commercial portable cellular phone in 1983. The device weighed 28 ounces and looked more like a walkie-talkie than a modern-day handheld.

In business communication terms this was a seismic event, and it happened at a time when supply chains were also entering a period of transformative change. I won’t go into the details; freight professionals are well aware of the global trends that have shaped supply chain management since that time.

A key feature of this evolutionary change in supply chains is the increasing need to integrate large communities of trading partners. Shippers, carriers, distribution centers, suppliers, and third-party logistics services providers are some of the nodes in these globe-spanning networks

The glue that ties the alliances together is exchanges of information in four broad operational areas. These are described below.

  •  What work must be carried out to complete a transaction?
  •  The status of that work.
  •  Information that drives decisions in specific areas such as logistics or inventory management.
  •  Alerts that warn of potential problems or offer operational guidance.

Trading partners were exchanging this type of information long before the advent of mobile communications devices. For example, it may seem like a stretch to classify the telephone as a supply chain integration hub, but in its capacity as a communications channel for disseminating the above information it does fulfill this function.

The arrival of the MIP (which includes handheld devices such as tablets as well as cell phones) has added a new dimension to this role. But to appreciate just how far MIPs have taken – and have yet to take – supply chain integration, we need to understand how the new platform stacks up against established options.

The table below compares the pros and cons of four familiar channels: voice, electronic integration (EDI), email, and web-based platforms. As can be seen, each one has trade-offs, particularly when it comes to users’ level of access, respective cost profiles, and the level of data integrity each one achieves .

Put these channels alongside MIPs and it becomes apparent why the new technology offers so much promise. Mobile applications are asynchronous, cheap and easy to use for both senders and receivers, and new partners large and small can be added at virtually no cost. Data are delivered immediately direct from the field, and can be fed into analytical engines. Handhelds have become so ubiquitous that they are being widely used in parts of the world where landlines are scarce or non-existent.

There are some considerations. The explosive growth of mobile commerce raises serious privacy and data ownership issues, for example. But as a supply chain integrator MIPs lead the pack, and the technology has barely begun to realize its potential. Next week we will look at some applications that demonstrate why.

Communications Channels Pros and Cons
*Synchronous communication is when all the parties are present (e.g. telephone); asynchronous does not require all the parties to be present when exchanging information (e.g. email because the receiver does not have to be logged on when the sender transmits a message).