Digital transformation to improve military supply chains

By Paul  Ott

Now more than ever, digital transformation presents tremendous opportunities to improve U.S. military supply chains.

Digital twins have been part of the technology landscape for years. Starting out as virtual replicas of physical objects, digital twins have now expanded to include end-to-end supply chain networks as well as digitally mapping and simulating internal processes and policies.

What makes the current generation of digital twins more than a modern buzzword for “simulation?” It is the ability to incorporate operational reality from the physical world — manufacturing, warehousing, and transportation — with business planning, monitoring and reporting. And the enablers bringing all this together are the confluence of technology acceleration, affordability, and widespread awareness and adoption throughout the workforce.

Defense organizations recognize they have an abundance of data, of varying levels of quality, that exist in modern enterprise systems, platforms, and legacy applications. Industrial infrastructure and technology, which is at the heart of maintaining military readiness, is generations old and in need of investment and recapitalization. Challenges with recruiting and retention drive a shortage of material handlers in Defense Department distribution centers and artisans in organic repair depots.

While not a panacea, digital twins realistically offer the opportunity to leapfrog ahead in an accelerated manner that coordinates previously disparate segments of the supply chain. The challenge is getting started.

Creating a digital representation of the current supply chain network is foundational for the application of digital twins. While this sounds simple, there are few defense organizations with a comprehensive understanding of inventory positioning, replenishment flows, infrastructure, labor and storage, repair and processing capacities.

At this point, they can delineate what data is systemically available and of good quality, what data doesn’t exist anywhere and all points in between. This is critical to target technology application at segments of the business to fill these gaps or elevate data quality to where it is acceptable.

Generally speaking, supply chain planning, procurement and fulfillment data is systemically available, but admittedly with some data quality issues where standard commercial and military processes diverge. However, data-driven visibility into maintenance, warehousing and transportation is often fragmented due to the lack of historical technology investment that perpetuates the use of legacy systems and offline, manual processes.

The rapid advancement of the industrial internet of things, or IIoT, and cloud computing, along with decreases in hardware costs such as sensors and asset tracking infrastructure has made visibility at forward supply and maintenance points more accessible than ever. Further, sensor and device-agnostic ingestion software has the potential to integrate stand-alone point solutions and legacy applications into a common operating picture.
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This real-time visibility, enabled by technology at the edge, transforms what were previously assumptions about production rates, operating capacity and fulfillment volume into data-driven facts that can be gathered in real time, analyzed, visualized and simulated.

Data ingestion through IIoT at the edge provides supply chain leaders with information on production rates, machinery and processing capacity that can inform the ability to surge. Moving forward, the Defense Department has the opportunity to recapitalize equipment so that the human is no longer the limiting factor of getting materials out to the field faster.

For example, modern production and distribution center equipment is engineered to run at speeds that exceed previous war time volumes. A smart supply chain strategy that synchronizes infrastructure, equipment and inventory can deliver the effectiveness demanded at war time with the efficiency desired at peace time.

While IIoT and modern machinery and automation can speed the flow of supplies out to operating units, the department’s ability to surge can be impacted by the robustness of the supplier base. Multitier supplier mapping — along with simulation and analytics on susceptibility to disruption and recovery time — can be stress tested within a digital twin construct across the supplier base to improve resiliency.

Similarly, the Defense Department is exploring what challenges might occur in future conflicts where large unit and equipment deployments that move freely through points of embarkation to large forward-operating bases can no longer be taken for granted. While it is efficient to have large suppliers, concentrated inventories and centralized maintenance capacity, it also presents risk in a peer adversary conflict.

Multi-variable simulation through digital twins can provide alternatives to diversify the supplier base, transportation and port options, location recommendations for multiple stockage points that still have accessible lanes to the point of need and broaden maintenance capabilities through augmented reality.

With supply chains powered by real-time data insights, human ingenuity and machine intelligence, decisionmakers will be better equipped to synchronize suppliers, inventories, maintenance and distribution capacities to build a higher-performing and more resilient supply chain.

Military readiness in the digital age requires a strong digital core, and the ability to act with speed and precision. Digital twins are a key enabler to delivering the logistics capability our nation requires. ND

Paul Ott is the federal supply chain and operations practice lead for Accenture Federal Services.