Skip to main content
Home » Business AI » When the Pandemic Disrupted the Normal Supply Chain, AI Stepped In
Business AI

When the Pandemic Disrupted the Normal Supply Chain, AI Stepped In

Software company GEP’s vice president of artificial intelligence (AI), Saratendu Sethi, explains how the pandemic revealed weaknesses in the global supply chain and why businesses are turning to AI for solutions.

Saratendu Sethi

Vice President of Artificial Intelligence, GEP

In your own opinion, what is the most important lesson COVID-19 has taught us about supply chain management?

COVID-19 has had many teachable moments, but it certainly put a spotlight on the need for resiliency. At the start of the pandemic, it quickly became obvious that the supply chain was not prepared. Many enterprises realized that their supply chains were more vulnerable to external risks and global disruptions than what they had thought and planned for.

It also exposed the vulnerability of lean and just-in-time supply chains.

Personal protective equipment was scarce. Grocery shelves were bare. Suppliers and shippers had to scramble to get things where they were needed the most. As the pandemic raged on, the need for adaptability came into focus. Many B2B companies adopted B2C supply chain models, including e-commerce, direct-to-consumer, and omnichannel. The early lessons learned are helping streamline the distribution of the vaccine, which will be a monumental test of the current systems.

We are hopeful that the challenges we faced serve as a call to action that now is the time to rethink our supply chains, so they emerge stronger, more resilient, more adaptable, and ready to face whatever challenges arise in the future.

How have you seen AI and automation help to tackle some of businesses biggest challenges during the ongoing pandemic?

COVID-19 completely upended the balance of supply and demand that businesses have spent so many years working to achieve. But when you look a little deeper, it’s easy to see why. Businesses still rely on spreadsheets and manual processes to analyze demand and match it to supply — processes that are entirely dependent on predictable patterns and steady growth. These processes fail any time uncontrollable external forces cause demand to change. However, we have seen examples where AI helped businesses adapt quickly and keep moving. One example of this is Driscoll, a GEP customer that sells berries across the globe. When Driscoll’s inspectors were unable to visit crops due to inspection risk, the company turned to the use of photography. By feeding images into software that employed advanced analytics to assess the development of the crops, Driscoll was better able to assess crop readiness, reduce spoilage, and have supply ready as demand picked back up.

AI is making a difference today in areas like this, where people are limited by the amount of time it takes to gather and analyze relevant data and make a decision about the best path to move forward in a highly uncertain situation.

Where are you seeing AI make the biggest impact in supply chain management?

Enterprises are sitting on top of massive amounts of data that are siloed by function and walled within legacy systems. These systems weren’t designed to manage today’s complex, multi-national supply chains. This is where AI is making the biggest impact on the supply chain through its ability to analyze enormous amounts of data to create a clearer picture of the many activities and interactions that take place and enable businesses to make better decisions as things change. From demand planning to optimizing inventory — anything that requires analytics, forecasting, or working with various scenarios, AI can help you do it more quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

What does having a resilient supply chain mean to you?

Resilience means that when things go wrong, the supply chain doesn’t stop.

Managing a supply chain is an exercise in managing change. Whether that change comes in the form of shifting customer demand, a disruptive event, or an inventory shortage at a supplier, the supply chain must adapt and respond in order to keep goods moving. A resilient supply chain is one that can sense changes, diagnose problems, and provide up-to-date information that allows your organization’s decision-makers to act quickly and confidently when things don’t go according to the plan.

What sort of an impact do you think that COVID-19 will have on the adoption of technology within the supply chain and logistics industry?

The most important impact is the realization that digital transformation is no longer just a nice thing to do, or optional. It’s a business necessity for success, and in many cases, survival.

We’ve seen a lot of our clients accelerate their digital transformation programs even during the peak of the pandemic. Many who were sitting on the fence or postponing their digital investments had to expedite them, as it was the only way to keep the lights on.

Businesses have a good sense for how to manage their own operations, yet about 80 percent of the data needed to effectively manage a supply chain exists outside of the enterprise. As a result, businesses are looking for a new breed of solutions that are better equipped not only to manage internal operations and data, but to connect with and manage external sources of data as well. To do that, new software needs to have a strong data foundation and AI natively built into the application.

What is the single most effective way businesses can begin to create a winning supply chain strategy in the coming months?

Focus on improving visibility and control across your supply chain operations. This is what would make your supply chain more agile and resilient. You’d have the data and insights you need to make informed, timely, and effective decisions.

Now is the time to get your data in order. Improve connectivity between software systems and suppliers, bring together all the data that influences the supply chain, and build a foundation for the types of advanced analytics, machine learning, and AI that will help solve problems and identify opportunities in the future. The businesses that are best positioned to emerge stronger after the pandemic are those that recognize that data, not software, is the key to solving the complex and interconnected challenges ahead. There is no such thing as a self-contained supply chain. The path forward is not a like-for-like replacement of existing software and systems, but in technologies that enable greater connection of all the data that exists between businesses and their suppliers.

Next article