To anyone outside the industry, logistics professionals often appear to be speaking a language all their own. Amidst all the industry jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, and shortcuts, you’ll also find a few words that are in a category of their own. These words hint at the future of logistics and, often get thrown around in conversations where visionaries discuss what might be possible in the next five, ten, or even fifteen years. And while some may know exactly what these terms mean, you might see other people pull out their phones and surreptitiously Google the definition so they can join in the conversation.

We’re talking about supply chain and logistics buzzwords. And in this article, we’ll run you through fourteen of the latest and the greatest so you’ll be able to discuss the future of the industry with the best of them.

(And, by the way, if you haven’t already, make sure to check out our glossary of freight terms—or pass it on to a colleague who’s new in the industry who might find it useful!)

Agile: According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, something that’s agile is “marked by ready ability to move with quick, easy grace.” When it comes to supply chains, those that are designed to be agile are built with a focus on their ability to react nimbly to changes in conditions. So whereas many companies have focused on a lean supply chain in recent years—one that was low-cost and efficient—some companies moving toward a more agile supply chain, especially considering the unpredictable events of 2020.

Artificial Intelligence (AI): For some, this term conjures thoughts about 2001: A Space Odyssey and its robot-gone-wild, Hal or some of Hal’s more recent counterparts in works like the film Deus Ex Machina or the HBO show Westworld. However, artificial intelligence has some very practical applications in the supply chain. By using massive amounts of data to fuel machine learning, companies like Amazon are using algorithms to replace humans when it comes to forecasting demand. In fact, Gartner reported that, from 2014-2019, there was a 270% increase in the number of organizations using artificial intelligence. From repetitive tasks to complex calculations, AI is increasingly equipped to handle more and more aspects of the supply chain, making this a buzzword that’s likely here to stay.

To take a deeper dive on the future potential AI, check out our article: “Industry Update: How Companies Are Using Automation & AI in Supply Chain.

Blockchain: Most recognizable as the technology that powers Bitcoin, blockchain is record-keeping technology that makes information easily accessible to multiple parties. In other words, “block” is digital information that’s stored in the “chain,” which is essentially a public database. Blockchain has found increasingly numerous applications within the supply chain, notably in the tracking of luxury goods, where blockchain can verify the authenticity of these goods by tracking their chain of custody from cradle to grave. Blockchain technology can also expose any fakes without the right pedigree, and discourage theft for the purposes of resale.

For more on how blockchain is impacting the logistics industry, take a look at our article: “Emerging Supply Chain Technology: Leveraging Blockchain for More Efficiency and Transparency.

Circular supply chains: Circular supply chains are just one of the ways the logistics industry is embracing sustainability. Whereas many supply chains end once the consumer has received his or her goods, a circular supply chain attempts to recycle or reuse those items once they’ve outlived their usefulness. Patagonia’s Worn Wear program is a perfect example. They offer resources to help consumers repair damaged clothing and gear, as well as a done-for-you repair program. They even sell used gear on their website to keep it from ending up in landfills, creating a truly circular supply chain that puts items right back into the supply chain all over again.

Cross-docking: This one is an oldie but a goodie. Cross-docking is a lean supply chain strategy that reduces storage time. Goods are unloaded from an inbound container and then immediately reloaded into another outbound one for delivery, often spending less than 24 hours in the transition. Although it’s not right for every business, cross-docking can significantly lower a company’s inventory carrying costs. As companies increasingly look for ways to speed up the process of getting items in the hands of consumers, cross-docking is one of those strategies that are likely here for the long term.

Digital twin: Have you ever done a virtual, 3D walk-through of a home? If so, you’ve experienced something similar to a supply chain digital twin, which is a digital rendering of an organization’s actual physical supply chain. By running simulations within a digital twin, companies can anticipate and address challenges in the digital world, then apply those learnings to the physical world. Think this sounds like a pipe dream? Gartner has projected the possibility of efficiency gains of as much as 10% for large, industrial companies, so this buzzword might be a concept worth exploring.

Industry 4.0: Also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0 refers to the automation of manufacturing operations and techniques by leveraging innovations like IoT and AI technology. (By the way, if you’re curious, the Third Industrial Revolution was the Digital Revolution, which revolved around digital technology like mainframe computers and personal computers, as well as the Internet.)

The Internet of Things (IoT): The definition of this one is pretty simple. Any physical device that can connect to the Internet to share its data belongs in this category. An Apple watch, a Ring doorbell, and an aircraft sensor that delivers alerts about fuel pump function to a cloud-based maintenance dashboard all qualify. As companies continue to embrace the power of automation, IoT is starting to gain steam. International Data Corporation forecasts worldwide spending on Internet of Things technologies will reach $1.2 trillion in 2022, which reflects a compound annual rate of growth of 13.6%.

To discover how companies are using IoT technology along the supply chain, check out: “Emerging Supply Chain Technology: Internet of Things (IoT) Expands Tracking and Monitoring.

JIC vs. JIT: Consider this the logistics world’s own version of the Mad Magazine classic cartoon, Spy vs. Spy, in which one black-clad spy is locked in endless battle with a white-clad spy. In case you’ve never cracked an issue of Mad, the spies trade victories between them, and neither ever truly “wins.” The same could be said of the big debate between “just in case” (JIC) and “just in time” (JIT) supply chain management models. While JIT strategies keep costs as lean as possible, JIC strategies provide a little more wiggle room in case of potential disruptions. Although 2020’s pandemic (and its subsequent supply chain disruptions) may encourage some companies to move closer to a JIC model, both have pros and cons to recommend them.

Real-time: You’ll hear this word in all kinds of contexts—real-time status updates, real-time dashboards, real-time data, etc. Here’s what it all rolls up to: More and more operations are realizing the importance of up-to-the-minute, real-time information along their entire supply chain, especially when it comes to decision-making. Look for this buzzword to keep popping its head up as more companies adopt technology to make real-time a reality.

Sustainability: While defining what sustainability means for your organization—and how, exactly, to measure it—remains a little up in the air, what’s clear is that supply chain sustainability will remain an important concept going forward. Managing the environmental, social, and economic impacts of your supply chain has clear benefits for a company’s local communities, as well as global ones. Additionally, sustainability measures can offer companies new ways to attract conscious customers, while offering bottom-line benefits. In other words, both the importance of sustainability efforts and their advantages for many companies will secure this buzzword’s place in the supply chain lexicon for years to come.

To take a deeper dive on how supply chain sustainability efforts could benefit your organization, we recommend: “Spotlight on Supply Chain Sustainability: Important to Consumers, Good for Business.

Transparency & Visibility: We’ve combined these two, since you’ll often see them together—and paired with one of our other buzzwords, “real-time.” All three of these point to the same desire that many companies share—to gain greater insight into their operations, along the entire length of the supply chain, offering them the information they need to make decisions or adjustments in the moment. Expect to keep hearing about transparency and visibility as companies continue to invest in technology like AI and IoT, as well as more advanced transportation management systems to deliver a complete snapshot of a company’s supply chain.

Behind the Buzzwords

Some buzzwords are just that—ideas that make sense on paper or in a simulation but never quite come to fruition in the real world. Other buzzwords act like crystal balls, pointing to a future that, at some point, becomes the present and sets the standard for the way companies do business. Although we can’t claim to predict the future of logistics and supply chain management, we can at least say that understanding the meaning behind these buzzwords can be powerful in and of itself. Understanding exactly what’s being discussed gets you entry into the forward-thinking conversations that can shape the future—and it also gives you the tools you need to make those conversations meaningful.

Looking for a definition you didn’t find here? Don’t forget to check our glossary of logistics and freight terms to locate any any terms you didn’t find here.




Or, want to talk more about how the concepts behind these buzzwords might help optimize your supply chain for the future? One of our experts would be happy to talk with you. Schedule a free consultation today.


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