Gaze down the aisles of your local Wal-Mart or scan the listings at Amazon, and you can easily imagine the technical expertise and wizardry demanded by logistics and supply-chain management. From radio frequency identification (RFID) chips to inventory management systems, IT professionals work behind the scenes to ensure Elmo dolls and iPods appear on the shelves and get to homes on time.
"Supply chain management has gone from poor cousin to grand strategy in lots of companies in the last few years, and this is a major opportunity for techies, because supply-chain operations are so dependent on technology," says Michael Hugos, author of Essentials of Supply Chain Management.
Many Technologies Support Logistics
Hugos and others cite the importance of a number of technologies to supply chain and logistics work, including:
- Warehouse management systems
- Production scheduling systems
- Knowledge management
- Collaboration software
- Inventory management systems
- Routing and delivery scheduling systems
- Global positioning system (GPS).
According to Hugos, As more and more IT functions are outsourced, it is a great career path for techies to move from purely IT into the hybrid world of technology and supply chain management.
Competition in an Information-Rich Environment
Companies view logistics and supply chain management as a cornerstone of their efforts to gain an advantage over competitors. To do that, they must implement a constantly evolving spectrum of technologies and information systems.
An overarching theme in supply chain management, which will continue into the foreseeable future, is that finding ways to make use of the information-rich environment will be key differentiators between firms and lead to significant competitive advantage, says Terry Harrison, professor of supply chain and information systems at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University.
RFID at the Forefront
RFID, in particular, provides one example of the new era of supply chain systems. According to staffing firm Yoh, RFID consultant is now one of the top 10 most in-demand technology jobs. RFID is dramatically changing the scope of this entire market, says Jim Lanzalotto, a vice president at Yoh.
When Lanzalotto worked at Conrail in the '90s, he notes, there was a move to tag the company's massive shipping containers. Now with RFID, companies are looking into tagging down to the individual SKU (stock keeping unit).
Hugos notes that at this point, RFID is not yet plug and play. Factories, warehouses and retailers all require RFID installations, which means techies are needed to experiment with and fine-tune the technology as they work to link RFID systems with warehouse management and enterprise resource planning systems.
Multiple Technologies, Multiple Job Roles
Techies in logistics and supply chain management fill a broad array of roles, but many work as business analysts, developers, presales professionals, network engineers and security experts.
You get to work on issues that are very real-world versus theoretical in nature, says Fab Brasca, director of global transportation and distribution for i2, a supply chain software company. You often get to travel and interact with professionals in a variety of different companies and cultures. He advises techies in the field to have a thick skin, because in this field, there are lots of grizzled veterans who are waiting to chew you up and spit you out.
Like other industries, techies with business acumen are in demand. Good people skills are always valuable, says Michael Voelk, vice president of interactive technology for Transport Industries, a provider of transportation services. Typically a successful IT associate in logistics has a curiosity -- and over time, a command -- of how the different logistics business models work and how they are successfully managed with data automation.
Managing Service Delivery
And supply chain management is no longer simply about moving toys and trucks. Just now appearing within a few large firms is the idea of applying supply chain management concepts to the service industry, especially the high-end professional services industries, says Harrison. These human resource-based supply chains are quite different from traditional ones and are a significant challenge.