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The Role of Geographical Information Systems in the Supply Chain

Geographical information systems and advanced mapping tools will increasingly be used in the supply chain to map potential risks and mitigation strategies as well as to track people and assets inside the four walls, says Wolfgang Hall, global industry manager at Esri.

Geographical information systems (GIS) can be used in the supply chain in many different ways, but the primary one is advanced visualization, says Hall. GIS mapping ties many different data sources together, he says, so instead of just looking at spreadsheets, users can have a visual and intuitive picture of what is going on in the supply chain at their fingertips.

GIS uses GPS technology for location purposes, but GIS adds data “in a way that allows the user to make intelligent strategic and tactical decisions,” says Hall. Esri makes software that brings the data together, analyzes and maps it. “We also build the tools that actually do the advanced mapping,” he says. The company currently has 70 offices around the world and about a million users of its software, in the supply chain as well as other industries.

One application where GIS plays an important role is risk management, says Hall. “If you think about the many natural disasters we have had recently where suppliers were not able to ship product, you can see the value for strategic planning of knowing what risks are inherent in the geography – flat coastal areas where a tsunami might hit, for example. This type of information can be seen ahead of time with mapping tools and overlaid data, so you know which manufacturing facilities and which transportation routes will be impacted.”

GIS also is valuable in real-time planning, Hall says, noting that most emergency management organizations in the world use Esri GIS to map those events . “We have that data available right away so we can show people what is going on in real time,” Hall says. “They can take that information and make operational decisions in real time to help manage the supply chain and mitigate risk. There is no way to see that information looking at spreadsheets and databases.”

Another application is to map movement inside facilities to do pattern analysis, he says. For example, retailers can see which aisles get the most traffic, providing insights on where to place merchandise.

The biggest challenge for this technology is the lack of standardization in terms of all the different data sources, says Hall. "Standardization needs to happen among industries to make it easy for anyone to access any type of data.”

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