If you catch yourself checking the location of your shopping orders multiple times a day, you are not alone. In Asia, everyone wants real-time or near real-time visibility across their shipments and inventory, across regions and their business network, said experts at a TechNode Global ORIGIN 2020 conference panel, moderated by Garry Lim, partnerships director at LogiSYM, on Nov. 18. 

Cross-border volatility has been an age-old issue, only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—for example, customs rules keep changing depending on the pandemic situation in different countries. This requires supply chain and logistics systems to be highly nimble and versatile in order to keep up, said Lee Junxian, co-founder and CEO of Moovaz, a Singapore-based logistics startup that uberizes cross-border relocation. 

Apart from the aforementioned pressures, supply chain and logistics companies face high customer expectations in the e-commerce landscape. As e-commerce booms, consumers expect shipping to be free (or less than $2). This has created huge pricing pressure on the supply chain because they cannot compete on price. Instead, supply chain companies have to figure out a way to be faster, cheaper, and better. Based on conversations with companies like Alibaba and Lazada, Lim added, this is one of the biggest challenges that they have not found a way around. 

To be faster, cheaper, better

Kevin Lim, co-founder and CEO of Tramés, an end-to-end supply chain orchestration technology company predicted that the next few years will see companies building or adopting decision intelligence in the supply chain pipeline. A lot of data in global trade is siloed and fragmented, he said, and aggregating that data is not sufficient. Supply chain companies need to be able to use decision intelligence to convert these data into actionable insights and optimize their systems, Lim said. 

Lee said that his bet is on robotics in warehouses and the sorting hub. The current process in the warehouse and sorting of parcels or goods is more labour intensive. By introducing robots in this environment, productivity and efficiency will increase, allowing scaling at a lower cost to occur. Think Amazon and JD.com who have invested and implemented robots to automate the warehouse process. A caveat will be the cost involved in investing and training the robots. This will pose a challenge for those with untrained talent and small-scale supply chains. 

Growing challenges of supply chain technology

Kevin Lim said that COVID-19 has accelerated technology adoption in supply chains by five to seven years, because of the sudden need to reduce physical interactions. Trade is, traditionally, a paper-based and physical activity. To limit physical touchpoints, Lim said, technological infrastructure is required. His favorite ABCs — AI, Blockchain, and Cloud, form the basis of the supply chain infrastructure. 

Lee identified barriers to technological adoption on the ground: traditional, economical, and political. The packers that Lee previously engaged with are not interested in blockchain nor revamping the current way of doing business. Logistics companies are often run by second or third generation owners. Education on the advantages of technology in this space, he said, still needs to ramp up before adoption can be driven. Furthermore, despite being proponents of free trade, most countries are not comfortable to share data and insights, especially in specific industries. 

Examining the Southeast Asia market, Kevin Lim said that the market is fragmented due to the different growth rates; volatility; and diversity in language, currency, culture, tradition, and trade agreements. He said that there is a need for an inclusive technology strategy or multi-enterprise supply chain business network to serve the entire market. For this region to grow, three main stakeholders need to come together: 1) Business networks must see value in being part of this end-to-end global ecosystem. 2) Technology providers must work on open standards, and aggregate and share data securely across the regions. 3) Regulation and legislation of each country need to drive adoption. Only by stitching workflows and data flows together across networks can the industry achieve end-to-end visibility.