How start-ups are using AI to tackle supply chain disruptions

The market for new technology services focused on supply chains could be worth more than $20bn a year in the next five years

Semi trucks in Maryland. By 2025, more than 80 per cent of new supply chain applications will use AI and data science in some way, according to Gartner. AFP

Over the last two years, a series of unexpected events has scrambled global supply chains.

The coronavirus, the war in Ukraine, Brexit, and a container ship wedged in the Suez Canal have combined to delay deliveries of everything from bicycles to pet food.

In response, a growing group of start-ups and established logistics firms has created a multi-billion-dollar industry, applying the latest technology to help businesses minimise the disruption.

Interos, Fero Labs, KlearNow and others are using artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge tools so manufacturers and their customers can react more swiftly to supplier snarl-ups, monitor raw material availability, and negotiate the bureaucratic thicket of cross-border trade.

The market for new technology services focused on supply chains could be worth more than $20 billion a year in the next five years, according to analysts.

By 2025, more than 80 per cent of new supply chain applications will use AI and data science in some way, according to tech research firm Gartner.

"The world's [become] too complex to try to manage some of these things on spreadsheets," said Dwight Klappich, a Gartner analyst.

Interos, valued at more than $1bn in its latest funding round, is one of the most successful in the nascent market. The Arlington, Virginia-based company says it has mapped out 400 million businesses globally and uses machine learning to monitor them on behalf of corporate customers, alerting them immediately when fires, floods, hacking or any other events cause a potential disruption.

Before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February, the company had assessed the impact of an invasion. Interos said it identified about 500 US companies with direct supplier relations with companies in Ukraine. Further down the chain, Interos found 20,000 US companies had links to second-tier suppliers in Ukraine, and 100,000 US firms had links to third-tier suppliers.

After the war started, 700 companies approached Interos for help in assessing their exposure to suppliers in Ukraine and Russia, according to chief executive Jennifer Bisceglie.

The company is developing a new product to enact other hypothetical supply chain disruption scenarios, such as China invading Taiwan, for customers to understand their exposure to risk and where to find alternative suppliers, she said.

Supply chain shocks are inevitable, Ms Bisceglie told Reuters. "But I think we're going to get better at minimising these disruptions."

US airline Delta Air Lines, which spends more than $7bn a year on catering, uniforms and other goods on top of its plane and fuel budget, is one company using Interos to keep track of its 600 primary suppliers and 8,000 total suppliers.

"We're not expecting to avoid the next crisis," said Heather Ostis, Delta’s supply chain chief.

"But we're expecting to be a lot more efficient and effective than our competitors in how we assess risk when that happens."

California-based KlearNow sells a platform that automates cumbersome paper-dominated customs clearance processes.

That has been a lifesaver for EED Foods, based in Doncaster, England, which imports Czech and Slovak sweets and smoked meats for expat customers in Britain.

"Before Brexit, we were very scared we would have to shut down," said Elena Ostrerova, EED's purchasing manager. "But instead, we are busy as never before."

Ms Ostrerova says her company is still growing at an annual rate of 40 per cent after Brexit took effect in early 2020, partly because some competitors gave up rather than tackle the onerous new paperwork for importing from the EU.

KlearNow’s customs clearance platform keeps track of its hundreds of shipments from Central Europe. It tallies totals on thousands of items, correcting mistakes on everything from country of origin to gross net weight, and providing an entry number — under which all the information about a shipment is contained — for the company hauling it to Britain, she said.

"We have minimum human involvement," Ms Ostrerova said, which saves the company time and the cost of manual data input.

The pandemic highlighted the need for manufacturers to adapt to changing suppliers so that they can continue to make identical products, no matter the origin of the raw materials, said Berk Birand, chief executive of New York's Fero Labs.

The start-up's platform uses machine learning to monitor and adapt to how raw materials from different suppliers affect product quality; from varying impurities in steel, to the level of viscosity in a surfactant, a vital ingredient in shampoo. The system then communicates with plant engineers to tweak manufacturing processes so that product consistency is maintained.

Dave DeWalt, founder of venture capital firm NightDragon, which led Interos' $100 million Series C funding round last year, says regulators are going to take much greater interest in supply chain risk.

"If you have a supply chain issue that could cost you major shareholder value, you'll have a major responsibility, too," Mr DeWalt said. "I believe that's coming in the near future."

Major logistics firms are also using machine learning to boost their competitiveness.

US truck fleet operator Ryder System uses the real-time data from its fleet, and those of its customers and partners, to create algorithms for predicting traffic patterns, truck availability and pricing.

Silicon Valley venture capital firm Autotech Ventures has invested in both KlearNow and newtrul, which aggregates data from transport management systems in America's highly fragmented trucking sector to predict pricing changes.

"Mapping your supply chain and interconnectivity at the individual part level is the holy grail," said Autotech partner, Burak Cendek.

Updated: May 04, 2022, 3:30 AM