Nanotechnology: The next Supply Chain Management revolution?

Supply chain management has had several changes over the years. In this series of industrial processes, the reflections of the great technological revolutions of the history of mankind have been notorious. We are about to see a great new change: the restructuring of the entire chain, not from the creation and modification of large machinery, but from the world of the small things.

Experts in the production industry predict the creation of packaging techniques that allow the location, inspection and real-time monitoring of each package and its content. Similarly, the production of microsensors for managing and controlling goods all over the supply chain. They also predict as a reality the existence of intelligent rewritable micro labels and the widespread use of automation shipments of any product. These experts believe that this kind of logistical changes will only be possible through a science that is no longer in diapers and has already shown its capabilities in the military and medical industry: nanotechnology.

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Image courtesy of Luciana Christante at Flickr.com

Nanotechnology is a broad universe. It covers the study, design, creation, synthesis, manipulation and application of materials, devices and functional systems through the molecular control of matter at the nanoscale. When matter is handled at such minuscule scale, new phenomena and properties are discovered. Therefore, scientists use nanotechnology to create new materials, devices and innovative and inexpensive systems with unique properties.

In the world of industry, the idea is to create less environmental-friendly materials and, that the same time, ensure a higher productivity in all the processes of the supply chain and logistics in general. Nanotechnology is expected to positively influence two main activities. On one hand, the management of goods, and, on the other hand, this new science seeks to offer new solutions in terms of identification and payment on large surfaces. These two major advances seek to achieve their goals by incorporating microscopic circuits and sensors, along with the gradual miniaturization of ID tags of equal size. The interesting thing about this phenomena is that it is the industry itself that makes this series of changes possible.

Thus, the line on which nanotechnology will work in the coming decades is the intelligent control, especially in the process of packaging goods. This development of intelligent micro labels is based on advanced systems that enable radio frequency identification. Such systems can replace traditional magnetic tags or barcodes, providing more effective results in terms of identifying and tracking goods and, of course, reducing costs (actually, the production of this type of micro labels is cheaper than the traditional barcode and magnetic labeling systems.) It also allows a wider standardization, since micro labels may be read by different kinds of identification systems. In consequence, the cost savings in this area are huge.

Radio frequency identification systems may be more useful when controlling and tracking merchandise over large areas. This system, together with a shipping automation process (for example, thanks to the developments from the Internet of Things sector), would minimize deliveries and wanderings issues, both in the distribution process and storage.

This type of microsystems not only mean a massive logistics optimization of manufacturing companies: the improvements produced by nanotechnology processes will allow a faster and more effective flow of information. This traceability offers producers a safety factor by allowing the recall of certain batches if it’s deemed necessary.

Microsystems will involve innovative developments in the food sector, especially when it comes to safety. Smart packaging will provide enough information of every stage of the supply chain (manufacturer, country of origin, handling, cold chain history), and, subsequently, will provide high added value to the container by monitoring content, reporting on the current state at the time of purchase and if goods are in good condition to be consumed.

Related article: Important challenges supply chains need to face every day, by David Kiger

In the case of food deterioration, smart packaging will help to absorb oxygen, condensing water and carbon dioxides, and, at the same time incorporating microbial substances to maintain the nutritional quality of packaged foods and then extending their shelf life.

Finally, another activity in which nanotechnology has a promising future is related to the storage and transfer of data, where research is currently directed to increasing the speed of communications and the capacity of gathering information. Optical fiber is widely imposed in the mid-term as a transfer method, thanks to the overcoming of current limitations of the electronics involved in the world of communications.

In a century, technological advances will simply seem magic. The outlook on all aspects of human experience could be completely different. Nanotechnology will be responsible for it largely: for better, and perhaps for worse. The possibilities of nanotechnology are endless. We only need to be patient for glimpsing the new improvements that this new science will produce in the industry and in many other aspects of the economy and society in general.

Recommended: 10 Supply Chain Trends for the Next 10 Years

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