Supply chains can be immensely complicated, requiring close coordination among a number of participants to move goods and provide services where and when they are needed. But even apparently simple supply chains can be challenging.

Take, for example, aircraft refueling. A typical refueling supply chain starts with the producer that harvests the crude from wells, stores and transports it (usually by pipeline) to the processing plant, where it is turned into fuel and other products. In many cases, the producer also owns or controls the transportation and storage facilities that get the fuel to or near the airports where it can be dispensed into the aircraft.

One might think that the single source and common ownership would make managing this supply chain relatively straightforward. While it may, in fact, be less complex than some others that involve multiple suppliers and independent participants, the basic challenges remain: getting the right amount of the right inventory at the right place and time to satisfy customer demand while minimizing cost and making the best use of all resources available.

Supply chains run on data. Production and distribution plans are based on forecasts that are built from analysis of past demand. Order flow and inventory data direct operational activities and resource utilization. And data powers administrative activities such as pricing, billing and cash management.

Is it any wonder that digitalization is a big focus for fuel suppliers? More data, more accurate data, and more timely data can all contribute to better management, lower expenses and better customer service.

There are actually two parts to the digitalization of the refueling supply chain: eliminating manual reporting, and using sensors to monitor and report on the fuel supply. Combining this data with sales and operations data, orders, forecasts, business intelligence and customer information allows advanced analytics to paint a complete picture of what is happening, what is likely to happen in the near term (and beyond) and how best to deploy resources to serve customers in the most effective and efficient manner.

Using tablets and other touch-screen devices to eliminate paperwork on the flight-line is one of the most visible manifestations of the digitalization of the supply chain. Electronic reporting is faster, less disruptive to crew activities, more accurate and makes the data available immediately throughout the enterprise with no further handling (like key entry) required. Electronic reporting is also a factor up and down the supply chain at depots, distribution centers and refineries.

Less visible, perhaps, but at least as important is the installation of sensors in delivery vehicles, pipelines, storage facilities, and other locations where physical attributes such as flow rates and quantities, pressure, density, temperature and other factors can be constantly monitored and reported with little or no human intervention. In addition to saving labor and reducing the administrative burden on personnel, constant, high-precision monitoring can ensure high-quality products, proper control and very detailed record keeping that both the supplier and the aircraft operators can appreciate.

From a supply chain management perspective, the real payoff is in knowing in real time exactly where everything is, what is happening, and what is expected. Analytical programs can map out the strategy for the entire supply chain including refinery operations—when and how much aviation fuel to produce and when to focus on other products such as gasoline or heating oil—as well as pipeline and storage tank usage, delivery vehicle and scheduling crew and maintenance times and more.