Supply Chain Technology 2021 Outlook
Featuring Gerard Darby, EVP, Chief Information Officer at NFI
What do you think will be in store from an IT perspective in 2021?
NFI is going to continue to grow quickly, which means we have to continue to evolve how nimble we are and how scalable we are making our processes, which we’re working hard at. We’re reinventing the pieces of IT and investing in online seminars and training for our talent. Since our teams aren’t traveling to conferences and training like we used to, we’ve shifted all online. We’re hiring new people where applicable and necessary to keep up with our newer technologies.
We also have a healthy innovation budget where we’re bringing the right technologies to the table so that we can continue to scale on this unprecedented growth we’re on and continue to keep ourselves secure. We’re going to have a lot of security initiatives to continue to keep our company, our people, and our data safe while at the same time, making sure that we can keep up with this steep growth curve.
Are there certain types of technologies that you think the supply chain industry will see more investment in this coming year?
I think that automation is going to continue to be more and more important. Automation can be systemic, it can be using bots and robotic processes, or it could mean automating back office and operations processes — all of which will continue to be a differentiator in the 3PL world and supply chain in general. I also believe another huge component is going to be allowing companies to become more data-driven with their decisions through analytics. We’re investing heavily in both of those areas. We have a lot of Proof of Concepts and Prototypes that are starting to bear some fruit, but I think those are two huge trends that are not only applicable to NFI IT, but to supply chain IT in general.
What would be your advice to shippers in 2021?
Capacity is going to be tight and choppy at best. Having more real-time visibility into the product in your supply chain and being able to forecast your needs more than you already do is going to be huge. Then once you understand those needs, building a solid relationship with a provider like NFI should help mitigate some of those challenges and weather the storm. Capacity will be tight and there is going to be more choppiness, both depending on where this pandemic plays out and the geopolitical climate. 2021 is going to be a really interesting year.
How do you think shippers will adjust their supply chains and their IT infrastructures?
Moving forward, there’s going to be a lot more technology in the supply chain. I see a big trend with supply chain business leaders becoming tighter partners with supply chain IT and technology leaders. Real-time visibility, the analytics behind what’s going on in the supply chain, is on a more accelerated curve than it has been in the last several years and will be more important than ever. Again, automation will be huge, both systemic automation with robotic process automation and decision-making bots, and also robotic automation out on the floor and anywhere else in the supply chain. Those trends are going to accelerate in 2021 and for the next couple of years
What do you think are the biggest drivers of these changes?
Efficiency. Capacity is tight. It costs more to ship product. It costs more to get product across the ocean. I think to get efficiency into the system, automation is going to become a requirement for anyone to scale. Those who can’t scale are going to fight tight, tight competition to stay in business. We’re seeing that with some of our smaller competitors who are struggling, and we’re seeing that with a lot of retailers struggling to stay in businesses as everyone shifts their focus to shopping online. Efficiency is going to be key and one of the huge drivers for efficiency is going to be automation.
How will NFI be able to help customers in this new year?
Foremost, we have a great set of people working on innovation and have innovation taking place in all departments. To name a few, our fleet services group is ahead of the curve in electrification and autonomous vehicles, we’re probably best of class in what we’re doing there; Jimmy Shafer’s Integrated Design and Solutions (IDS) team has a lot of great automation where we’ve established proof of concepts (POC), proven viability, and are now rolling it out into production for our customers; and inside of IT we’re working on a lot of things on the analytical side. As an example, we’re doing a project with the transportation team on fleet maintenance and giving real-time visibility to the health of our customers’ fleets. All in all, we have a variety of innovation and automation projects taking place across a lot of different departments at NFI, and we have the toolkit to roll them out. I think we’re ahead of the curve compared to our competitors and I think we’re well-positioned for new customer requests.
Are there any new technology partnerships that you’re excited about?
In general we have two main software packages. On our transportation side we use a Trimble product by the name of TMW to give us a better roadmap to design better and more inclusive solutions. We’ve partnered with them, along with using Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs) in our fleets, to provide us with better analytics, monitoring, and telematics.
Over on the distribution side our go-to product is Manhattan. We work with Manhattan weekly on their roadmap and what we’re going to get out of them for our big Tier 1 customers. What we’ve also gotten traction on in the last year is adding a great partnership with a company by the name of Softeon. Softeon is filling the market for our Tier 2 and Tier 3 warehouse customers. They’re technology-advanced and can do a lot of the things that traditionally we would have considered Tier 1, so we’re working with them heavily to deliver an alternate solution for our other customers. We have good partnerships with both of those companies on the warehousing side, and we’ll stay invested with them on their roadmaps.
There are many other software products we use that are more peripheral systems.
Heavy investments in innovation are going on in our storage arena, compute arena, security, user productivity tools, analytics, and more. All of those tie together into a technology landscape and roadmap that we are confident poises NFI for the future.
What has been NFI’s approach to integrations?
Let me first say that we’ve done a lot of work this last year on integrating our acquisitions. All of the acquisitions that have taken place today will all be operating inside of our same systems, networks, collaboration suite, and identity suite by the first quarter of 2021. There are different journeys on all those, but we’re 100% finished with some and we’re 80% done on others. Come the first quarter of 2021, all of the NFI systems and people will all be in the same system. That’s a huge unlock for us to try to communicate with our customers in the same, more holistic fashion.
We also have what we call API technology (Application Level Interfaces) that we’re prepared to deploy with any of our customers. Any customer that wants to see real-time inventory visibility, we have plug and play APIs that we can expose to them and we can share inventory real-time between ourselves. On our transportation side that has customers who want to see where their fleets are, we have real-time fleet visibility that can be rolled out in 2021. We’re doing a lot of things that we think meet the needs of our customers by giving them the right visibility into their assets in our systems.
What are you most excited about looking into 2021?
I’m most excited about seeing another record year. I think NFI is very well positioned for this landscape that we’re all living in right now. I don’t see anything slowing us down. All the way from the beginning of the life cycle on the sales I think we have a tremendous amount of momentum. We have a great reputation with some of the biggest companies in the world and they’re coming to us asking us for more and more. From an engineering, innovation, IT, and an HR perspective, I really feel like we’re poised to have another great record year. I’m very excited about that.
Gerard Darby, EVP, Chief Information Officer, leads NFI’s information technology strategy, leading various teams that enhance systems and processes to improve the experience for our supply chain customers as well as our employees.