Expert Advice: Supply Chain & Technology Trends in 2021

With the volatile disruptions of the supply chains and shipping processes in 2020, many companies are wondering what technologies to adopt to become resilient for the future. Meet Alan Hopper, ShipERP’s EVP of Global Development, who will tell you what to look out for in 2021 for your supply chain’s digital transformation.

ShipERP: How did you get to where you are today in the supply chain industry?

HOPPER: My primary background is in technology itself. I studied International Relations and Computer Science, and all throughout college, I paid my way through college as a systems administrator and web developer. Then I did large scale government consulting, IT consulting, and bounced around all sorts of IT jobs and their various levels of leadership. I went back and got an MBA specializing in strategy and innovation. With that, I was then a CIO of a company.

During that time, we had a shipping operation. We had an eCommerce warehouse. I got a little bit of a taste of the world of shipping, and then a good friend reached out because a company in this space needed help. So, that's how I ended up at a profession. So now, 10 years in, I've gotten up to speed on all the details of shipping and shipping execution, but my core expertise going back more than 20 years is technology and business.


ShipERP: Have you obtained any industry awards or certifications?

HOPPER: I had different products that I helped engineer that won different awards, but almost my credentials are from the tech side of the fence and around the degrees that I have. I was very lucky in my career that I had some very good experts in supply chain when I first got into the industry a decade ago that gave me a real leg up in getting up to speed on supply chain logistics particulars, but 10 years in, my expertise is pretty well developed. 

As for awards and certification for companies I’ve worked for, we funded different innovation awards. I had various levels of input in those. Most of those were usually tied to conferences, like “Most Innovative Product” which was tied to one of the major trade conferences at the time.

I think one thing that may be of interest here is when I was at another leading company. FedEx ranks different providers in our space, and we were a diamond certified provider, the entire eight years. I was there for six years. For those six years, I helped to make sure that we've got that highest here. We also won Partner of the Year twice with FedEx. So, those are industry awards that I can claim some amount of influence over. 

Cloud technology is used in supply chain trends

ShipERP: What supply chain and technology trends have you observed in 2020?

HOPPER: So, it's a weird year, right? 

COVID really threw an interesting wrench in the mix. So, what I've seen happen is you had a really interesting bifurcation of real winners and losers. There are companies that, for no other reason than COVID, are suddenly booming.

Parcel shipments are way up, and they're one of the key industries that are going to take advantage of that. They just are exploding. Then there are companies on the bottom of that who unfortunately sell a product that isn't in high demand during a COVID epidemic, and they're on the bottom of that reality. Then you also have this situation where the supply chain itself is tested in all sorts of new ways. You have massive unexpected volumes. You have situations from certain countries that are allowing trade or not allowing trade. 

So, the interesting thing about 2020, I think, is it essentially stressed everyone's—in very different ways—stressed everyone's capabilities, and certain companies were very poised to take advantage of it because of their previous technological investments. So, agile companies that can quickly pivot and change their business model because they had previously automated were able to better handle that. 

A real easy example is you have retail organizations. If you're a brick-and-mortar retailer, all of a sudden, now you're all eCommerce. First off, if you hadn't successfully developed an eCommerce, omni-channel eCommerce in your business, then you were just behind the curve trying to catch up as fast as you possibly could. That's a big change. The other one is shipped from store.

Now you have all these brick and mortar retailers who have basically, a little mini warehouse. Nobody can go to them, but they can potentially ship out of them. So, the companies that had already gone down that path and really developed their technology so that they could ship from anywhere that they can make use of those different stocks. They were able to manage it really well. 

It was a strange year. Whatever I think most people were planning, it kind of got blown up, and it really came down to everyone who was well automated and had thought clearly about things like eCommerce and omni-channel and different delivery methods, were in a good position. But they had to execute on them, and then there is a whole other group of people that had to catch up.

Supply chain and technology trends in 2021

ShipERP: What supply chain and technology trends do you believe will be prominent next year in 2021?

HOPPER: So, I think what happens is the 2020 is going to lead into 2021. Because of the stresses, I think you're going to see a lot of companies recognize the realities of what they went through in 2020.

Those stresses are natural breaking points. So, what you're going to see is companies realizing that there are, for example, carrier coverage is a big deal, and not all the carriers to take all the volume. You have a massive increase, by the terms of volume, and if you're shipping only UPS, you have a problem. The last few years, UPS and FedEx have been telling certain large customers, “Hey, we can't take your full volume.” During COVID, there are all sorts of little pockets of places where companies that were exclusive to one carrier were having issues.

So, that's an example of where I think you're going to see companies going, “Okay, that's a good place where we need to not only automate our systems, but we need to make sure we have coverage and redundancy that we haven't had before.” We could have leaned back and just counted on the supply chain all to work as it has been working and the realities very, very different. 

I think the other reality of 2021 is you have a lot of legal and different government things coming into play, especially with international shipping. Brexit is a good example. You have new environmental laws in Europe. You have the potential that's been on and off for the US to pull out of the UPU and those potential changes.

So, there's a lot of politics and government-led uncertainty that everyone's reconciling. Also, it's another driver for redundancy. Do we have systems that can adapt? And of course, the systems to adapt ends up being processed, but also ends up being about data. 

So, in 2021, you're going to see a lot about can we get good data in. You're going to see a lot of things that have been previously a mild focus becoming front center.

Do you have good analytics and things like that? AI and the Internet of Things are really good examples. So, predictive analytics and machine learning are at the point where they're transitioning. If you're familiar with the hype cycle, they’re transition to the hype cycle. So, hype cycle essentially says at the beginning, something comes out, blockchain or whatever it is, and it gets hyped, and everyone says, “This thing's going to change the world.” Nothing really happens, and then the technology kind of descends, and no one really talks about it. But then, all of a sudden, the trend starts picking up, and then the technology starts to make a real impact...


Interested in reading more about Alan Hopper's insights? Submit a completed form below to access:

  • A well-built list of supply chain and technology trends that will gain traction next year
  • Powerful ideas on reducing warehouse costs with robotics
  • How ShipERP will fulfill demands for 2021 shipping and technology trends
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