“Technology-driven research areas in Supply Chain and Logistics”?

In this article, we want to start introducing another of our common research passions, the one for technology. You must know that some years ago, the two of us have been involved in a common research project dealing with the application of Industry 4.0 technologies into manufacturing companies (let’s talk about it another time!). Starting from there, both of us kept on digging deeper into the topic and two main research streams have been developed. In this article, we want our reader to start knowing more about Industry 4.0 and Logistics 4.0.

Industry 4.0

The increasing digitisation of industrial production systems, postulated and propagated by the now well-known and consolidated Industry 4.0 paradigm, represents an opportunity to change the way companies generate value for themselves and their customers. The increasingly pervasive adoption of digital technologies that enable the creation of new products and new interconnected processes have opened up scenarios and prospects that would have been labelled as futuristic only a few years ago. These are scenarios that, at least in part, the most evolved companies are trying to exploit to their advantage, not without some difficulty fuelled both by the lack of resources (economic and professional) and by the lack of an overall vision of the impact of the technologies that allow them to be effectively contextualised in the various realities.

Because of the complexity and disruption that the introduction of digital technologies has brought to production, this change has been called the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. The three previous industrial revolutions are the one that took place with the introduction of steam power in 1784, the second due to the advent of electricity, mass production and the birth of the concept of the production line with Ford in 1870; and the third that took place following the birth of the first computers that enabled a leap in automation and electronics. The fourth industrial revolution does not refer to a precise technological breakthrough like the previous ones, but rather to the possibility, thanks to the continuous technological evolution of hardware and software, connecting machines to each other and having more and more data available.

The main driving factors of this revolution are undoubtedly the latest technological applications such as cyber-physical systems, which can communicate with each other, adapt to changing contexts, and the Internet of Things, which connects people, products, goods, and systems to exchange data in real-time. As a result, many companies have embarked on a digital transformation journey, focusing their efforts on potentially radical changes that primarily involve physical infrastructures, production processes, and optimal management.

Figure 1: Most popular technologies in industry 4.0 (Source: our elaboration)

In recent times a front of analysis and research has been consolidated that identifies technological innovation and its technical implementation as only part of what needs to be investigated. The technological theme, in fact, does not exhaust the discussion on the potential impacts of the Industry 4.0 paradigm. We have realised over time that by changing production systems, changing processes and products, changing the way we work, technology necessarily has an impact on the professional skills of workers who have to use these technologies in their jobs. This change is often echoed by the need to modify and broaden the skills of workers and the organisational structure of the company itself. These organisational and management aspects, which are (at least in part) driven by the evolution of technologies and the introduction of the Industry 4.0 paradigm, are something that companies need to understand to govern the technological evolution.

Logistics 4.0

Logistics 4.0 refers to a “logistics system that enables individual customer requirements to be met sustainably without increasing costs and supporting industrial development in an environmentally friendly way thanks to digital technologies” (Winkelhaus and Grosse 2019). The technologies applied in the supply chain and logistics can be defined as “tools and technologies that can be implemented for integrated management of the supply chain within and beyond organisational boundaries” (Liu, Prajogo, and Oke 2016). In fact, Logistics 4.0 mainly investigates the impacts that applying the technologies of the Industry 4.0 paradigm have on logistics and supply chains. In fact, in particular internal logistics, logistics is one of the areas most impacted by technology, probably due to the large number of repetitive and risky activities (such as picking and material handling activities, respectively), making automation more attractive. Despite this, the most widespread technologies at the moment are those linked to the traceability of finished products and work in progress, such as the application of RFID sensors and the development of tools and software related to information and communications technology (ICT) that allow more significant and more efficient exchange of information within the company and along the supply chain, such as the application of software for the control and management of the warehouse (WMS) or transport (TMS) (Lagorio et al., 2020).

Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

In future articles on Young SCholars, we will go into more detail about the impacts of Industry 4.0 technologies on the activities of operators and managers inside the company and along the supply chain, with Logistics 4.0. Stay tuned!

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