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How supply chains can be brought into the Physical Web

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Today, Christos Symeou, Founder of Blupath Ltd, shares his second exclusive article with WhichPLM. A specialist in the amalgamation of the physical and digital worlds, last month Christos took us into the world of the ‘Physical Web’; here, he continues this series with an example of ‘supply chain of interactive items’.

In my previous article I introduced the idea of the ‘Physical Web’, explaining it as part of the wider ecosystem of concepts that surround what we refer to as the ‘Internet of Things’.

More specifically, I talked of the Physical Web as the practice of embedding technology within physical objects, in order to make those objects communicate information about themselves to individuals interacting with them. The type of technology to be used to power such interaction is itself irrelevant – it could be Bluetooth, or RFID, or visual processing. What is important is that whatever technology we use, by embedding or attaching it to a physical object (such as, for example, an item of fashion), we allow that object to interact with a device like a Smartphone in order to supply information about itself to an individual.

I contrasted this idea of embedded technology to communicate information ‘out’, with a vision of the Internet of Things, where embedded technologies are used to gather information ‘in’. For example, the use of sensors that capture environmental information, or the use of location tracking technologies to monitor the position of objects as they move through a geography.

In many ways however, this division is itself simplistic, and the lines between capturing and communicating information can become blurred in real life. Technology can indeed make physical items interactive, but to allow information to be both gathered in, as well as to communicate information out.

What is perhaps the most critical question to answer is: information about what, and to what?

The fashion supply chain is composed of a host of different actors, each of whom might interact with an item under a completely different capacity. The kind of information about an item we are interested in is different if we are a customer, retailer, manufacturer, supplier, or member of management, etc. In every one of these cases, there are different types of data we want collected and communicated, and different types of functionality we want to have access to in order to process that information.

A supply chain brought to the Physical Web

In a supply chain that has been truly brought to the Physical Web, every single item passing through the chain is interactive, and is able to gather data, communicate information, and give access to functionality, web based systems, and software necessary for the individual interacting with the item to do their job.

All of this is contextual to ‘who’ it is that interacts with the item. Below is a very simple example to illustrate the concept.

Let’s say I have a T-shirt sitting in front of me, to which is embedded or attached a Smart Label containing all of the necessary technology that makes it possible for me to use my phone to ‘interact’ with the T-shirt.

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If I am a customer, either seeing this T-Shirt in the store or having already bought it and brought it to my home, an interaction could provide me with information about where the T-shirt was manufactured, and link me to similar products from the same brand to buy online. It could also give me the opportunity to provide information to the brand by answering a survey, or by tracking the similar products I choose to look at in the brand’s online store.

If I am a retailer selling the T-Shirt, interaction with it in store could give me access to a completely different set of information. The T-shirt could link to my stock management system, where I am able to report a stock shortage, or see how many items of the same T-shirt I have available in different sizes.

If I’m part of the management team of the company producing the T-shirt, interaction could lead me to my company intranet portal, from which after logging in I could have access to any of a number of relevant management tools that I need to do my job.

If I am the factory that has produced the T-shirt, interacting with it could connect me to a system from which I can report a shipment I’m just about to send, as well as store information about how the item was produced within the item itself, making that information available for whoever interacts with it next in the supply chain.

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All of these interactions could be made possible and triggered through the same Smart Label, which could utilize not simply connectivity technology, but also sensor capabilities. Embedded technology could capture location, temperature, and other environmental variables, and make that information available in different ways to different actors in the supply chain, depending on what their needs are, and what information is relevant to them.

In every case, in whatever capacity I fulfil within the supply chain, the only thing I need in order to get access to all the information, and all the software and functionality necessary for me to do my job, is the physical item itself, and a phone.

Beyond the finished product

In fashion of course, as in every industry, we do not deal just with finished products. Different materials and components move through different geographies, and are used and utilized by different individuals and businesses before we come up with a final item sitting in a store, ready for a customer to buy it.

In the Physical Web supply chain, every single one of these items and shipments is also interactive, and tagged with a similar Smart Label that provides the individual interacting with it access to the data and functionality needed for them to do their job.

Whatever role you have in the supply chain, you will need to deal with all sorts of different software and have access to all types of different data – and your needs are going to be different to the needs of another individual working at another point in the industry. In a supply chain however, of Physical Web connected items, the ‘things’ we work with are the portals to all the tools and data we need to ‘manage’ those very same things.

The final step is to link all of these Physical Web items together, so that the connectivity provided by every item in the supply chain, links back to the items that came before it. So going back to our simple T-shirt example, interacting with it as a final customer could also give me access to all the information and functionality encoded into the shipments of material from which the item was manufactured, so long as that material was relevant for me to know as a consumer.

The tools to make all of this possible are already here. Technology gives us the connectivity tools built into the physical items we deal with, and the software tools to control what we do with that connectivity. Our challenge now is to connect the dots together to bring about a supply chain of interactive items, making sure that every stakeholder can have full access to all of the information they need, fed to them from the physical object they are dealing with itself.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.