The supply chain of planes, trains, boats and trucks moving around the globe.
Image: Golden Sikorka/Adobe Stock

The pandemic, bad weather, strikes, container ships getting stuck, Black Friday and Christmas shopping: The last few years have underlined just how easy it is for worldwide supply and shipping to get disrupted, affecting everyone from small businesses to large tech companies.

“At Microsoft, like so many other organizations, we’ve been seeing major shocks to supply and demand: Geopolitical events, trade tensions, environmental disasters, the pandemic — the complexity across products and transportation is almost mind boggling,” Mike Bassani, supply chain general manager for Microsoft’s Business Application Platform, told TechRepublic. “The businesses that we’re working with, as customers or in our peer set, are almost paralyzed by the variables.”

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The manner in which most businesses spread the information they need to understand their supply chain and distribution system across multiple different IT systems doesn’t make it easy to understand when problems are happening or how to start fixing them.

Microsoft is already the operator of the most popular planning software in use in supply chains: the ubiquitous Microsoft Excel. But while a lot of the supply chain data businesses care about ends up in Excel at one point or another, that doesn’t help people automate common workflows or respond to a crisis. The new Microsoft Supply Chain Platform and Supply Chain Center aim to bring together different Microsoft tools and services that can help businesses manage their supply chain, whether that’s big or small.

“It’s really about how you collaborate and gain visibility into everyone that’s involved,” Bassani said. “Whether it’s moving heavy goods in the middle mile or pizzas in the last mile, a lot of the problems are similar.”

Microsoft thinks the way to solve those problems is by applying data, collaborating with colleagues and suppliers, and using AI to predict or explain problems.

Understanding Microsoft Platforms

Have you found some of Microsoft’s recent announcements confusing because they seemed to be putting a new marketing brand on existing services? Then the new supply chain tools are a good way to make more sense of what Microsoft means by a capital-P Platform — like the Microsoft Supply Chain Platform, Power Platform, Microsoft Intelligent Data Platform or Microsoft Industry Clouds.

The new Supply Chain Platform isn’t actually a single product you can buy.

“The Microsoft supply chain platform is really the overarching approach to supply chain at Microsoft,” Bassani explained.

The Power Platform includes PowerApps, Power Automate and Power BI, but it also relies on and integrates with Azure, Teams, Dynamics 365 and Office 365. The new Microsoft Supply Chain Platform relies on those existing services and on the Power Platform.

Bassani suggested thinking of each of these Platforms as an umbrella bringing together different tools, integrations and partner offerings related to a specific domain like data management or supply chain management. Organizations with their own developer expertise can pick and choose from those individual offerings.

“They’re going to take advantage of the Platform to its fullest extent in the way that they want to customize it,” Bassani said.

Microsoft Supply Chain Center is a product currently in preview that gives you visibility into the state of your supply chain as well as alerts when there are problems.

It fills a gap in the Microsoft product lineup: Although it has some supply chain and order management features, Dynamics 365 is an ERP solution.

“We didn’t have a complementary supply chain product, and that’s what Microsoft Supply Chain Center is,” Bassani said.

It pulls in some of the same capabilities, giving you the same options as Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Management and Order Management to see the sustainability impact of decisions you make about logistics and product sourcing.

Smarter supply chains 

The order management module uses rules and AI models to automate fulfilment, whereas the supply and demand insights module predicts constraints and shortage, and smart news insights warn you about external events like acquisitions, ransomware attacks or traffic jams that might affect shipments from your suppliers (Figure A).

Figure A

The Microsoft Supply Chain Center dashboard.
Image: Microsoft

Tell Microsoft Supply Chain Center who your suppliers and partners are and it will alert you about news and events that might affect them.

“The smart news feature crawls the internet for where the supplier is located, where their plants are, their name, anything associated with that,” Bassani explained. “If there’s a part shortage, flood or tornadoes, do you need to update some of your production schedules? Or in some cases, do you need to be proactive with those suppliers?”

This gives you a chance to try and reroute a shipment or arrange alternatives instead of waiting until you get complaints or come across the news story yourself.

This goes beyond curating a news feed for your industry, or even your company, the way you can in Dynamics 365.

“It’s one thing to have alerts set up in the news,” Bassani said. “It’s another to be able to tie that specific news to specific shipments or to specific orders and have the AI learn that you have these shipments from the suppliers that are arriving this day so this news should be ranked higher than other news.”

Tools and partners to help everyone

Bassani calls Microsoft Supply Chain Center a pre-packaged solution to replace tools for customers who don’t want to do as much customization, don’t have the expertise to pull in Power BI, Azure, Teams and other Microsoft tools, or just don’t know where these tools would be useful.

Weekly business reviews using core metrics like on-time inventory fulfilment that tell you if suppliers are meeting their obligations. This allows you to keep your promises to your own customers and rely on accurate data.

“I’ve worked in multiple companies, and all of them have this issue to a certain degree of whose data is right,” Bassani said. “Who has the more accurate or up-to-date data?”

Using Power BI to get accurate data from your live systems means you can discuss the problems you’re seeing instead of arguing about who has the correct data.

“They can go to Microsoft Supply Chain Center, use the embedded Teams collaboration function, and share that with their constituents inside or outside their business,” he said.

That may also help organizations comply with EU legislation around supplier resiliency and trace finished products back to specific components and raw materials.

The Supply Chain Platform includes partners through Azure Marketplace and App Source; Microsoft Supply Chain Center has some partner offerings built in from logistics experts like FedEx and Overhaul. You can use it with Dynamics 365, but it can also integrate with SAP and Oracle. You can still extend it with low code through Power Platform to keep suppliers on track or automate inventory planning and ship products where demand is high.

“When a supplier ingests a new forecast that is out of tolerance, it could create a Power Automate flow to send an email asking for their rationale,” Bassani said. “You create this continuous feedback loop centralized in MSCC to let me get out of the email-phone-call-fax world of trying to chase down what happened, and you can instead use data to really drive the actions that need to take place but today are taking place manually.”

Having the options of the prebuilt solution and the building blocks in the platform will make Microsoft’s new supply chain tools broadly useful.

“Whether you’re Walmart or a local corner store, there’s probably an opportunity for you to take advantage of the technology that we have in MSCC,” Bassani said.

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