Quantum State of Mind: Observations from Reuters Events: Supply Chain USA

By Murray Thom, VP of Quantum Technology Evangelism, D-Wave

7 min readJun 13, 2024

On my way to the Reuters Supply Chain Conference in Atlanta last month, three out of my four flights experienced some form of delay. One flight needed a wheel replaced, another needed the baggage shifted to correct the center of gravity, and yet another needed an off-schedule crew to secure the doors on the belly of the plane. What struck me was that despite the variety of unexpected issues, whatever needed to get done got done in the end. The complex orchestration of parts, crews, and baggage was successfully managed and kept the flow of my journey moving forward. This task of maintaining the flow despite the complex interactions of a larger system is exactly what supply-chain professionals do daily. My travels to Atlanta brought me face to face with some of them to discuss some solutions to these challenges that bring people, technology, and processes together.

The conference attendees are professionals who manage the flow of business starting with sourcing raw materials through to getting finished products out to their customers, which means that Reuters Supply Chain USA was a great opportunity to learn about their current business challenges. After watching many presentations and speaking with the attendees I absorbed these three takeaways from the event.

Chief Research Officer & Co-Founder of Zero100 Kevin O’Marah kicks off SCUSA24

Businesses Have a Keen Insight Into the Intricacies of Their Supply Chains and the People Who Keep Them Running

“We know the first and last names of the farmers who produce milk for us. We understand what can cause farming businesses to fail and we want to offer programs to help them keep operating for generations.” — Marc De Schutter, Danone

Not surprisingly, supply chains — that is, interconnected processes, personnel, equipment, materials, and technology that are necessary to bring commodities to market — are the backbone of any business. Sensitivity to disruptions at multiple points can make supply chains fragile, threatening the flow of goods that businesses and consumers rely on. To have the best chance of anticipating changes in supply, material shortages, or slowdowns in final delivery, a business needs to know and monitor its supply chain closely. The professionals I met work hard to understand the needs and concerns of the businesses throughout the chain, and work to find creative ways to meet those needs in a reliable way.

These professionals also project a culture of empathy. It was clear from the presentations and the conversations on the exhibit floor that they care deeply about their supply chains and the people in them. That sense of community is important because the task is so incredibly hard. Those I spoke with knew that they were managing complex problems. There were no mathematicians on hand, but if there had been they would have pointed out that supply chain problems are among the most complex in the world.

One reason these problems are so difficult results from the knock-on effect of decisions that get made in day-to-day operations. For instance, if a transport truck driver calls in sick one day, another driver from the fleet needs to be chosen and assigned to the route. Spare capacity is essential to allow for a quick reassignment in these conditions. However, a key question is where did the new driver end their day, and where are they needed tomorrow? If they are not able to make their next scheduled delivery, then this causes a domino effect where one reassignment can cause a cascading series of reassignments from the pool of resources in the fleet. The impact is two-fold: the spare fleet capacity required balloons as the operations grow — and no matter the spare capacity held on hand, the variability in complexity is so high that there are always occurrences where the disruptions can’t be absorbed and thus, the business supply chain is affected. The presence of this domino effect turns out to be a good litmus test for an application where quantum computing technology can add value. And handling it well helps supply chains and workforces to be better coordinated, less frustrated, and more effective.

Solving multivehicle routing problems live with quantum computers from the exhibition floor with President of ASCM Atlanta Adam Hassan

The Only Constant is Change

“The new normal is constant disruption.” — Douglas Kent, Executive Vice President, ASCM

“The pace of change is something that we need to talk about.” — Steve Freeman, Chief Supply Chain Officer, Chevron

“This conversation a year from now might sound very different.” — Arpit Davé, VP Head of Enterprise AI and Global Operations IT, Amgen

“This is not about doing the wrong things faster; this is about rethinking the underlying supply chain models.” — Douglas Kent, Executive Vice President, ASCM

The entire world recently shared a common experience of pandemic-related disruption. But even as we return to offices and evaluate hybrid work schedules to improve our productivity, global supply chains continue to ride rough waters. Bish Sen, Unilever’s chief product supply officer for beauty and wellbeing, shared how his company gets updated on geo-political news daily. In addition, they monitor shipping movements around the world with satellite signals so that they can detect any events that impact the delivery of goods to their consumers.

Modern businesses are no longer building supply chains to reduce their costs through progressively more efficient procedures. Rather, they are optimizing their supply chains’ ability to respond to change. Much as it is with Agile software development, their attitude is “change is good” because it means their business is no longer operating against an obsolete forecast, but instead, is responding to events as they occur.

Two of the themes of the Reuters Supply Chain USA conference were agility and resilience. An essential element of agility is the ability for business teams to do their work and adapt quickly and easily. As an example, Momentum Worldwide (an IPG company) reported the ability to reduce their time spent optimizing promotional tours from weeks down to under an hour. This speed to solution allows them to complete their projects more quickly, therefore improving adaptability if they need to incorporate more current conditions in their tour design.

Part of resilience is being flexible and willing to change, but this would be of no value if we lack options to choose from. Quantum computing is unique in that it can return many different high-quality solutions, increasing the likelihood that repeated calls for solutions will provide a diverse set of options. As we orchestrate complex supply chain networks, the combination of shorter time to solution with a diverse range of options is a powerful engine for managing constant change.

Logistics solutions powered by quantum computing at SCUSA24.

Supply Chain Can Move the Bar on Sustainability at Scale

The sustainability of our global supply chains is a major area of focus, whether to reduce water and energy used in rice production, according to Deal Creaser, vice president of Mars’ global supply chain, or to reduce empty miles traveled by trucks, as shared by Lior Ron, CEO and founder of Uber Freight.

In addition to manufacturing and shipping, the energy use of compute infrastructure is a factor for consideration. In my presentation, I shared that the power consumption of D-Wave’s commercial quantum computers has been flat across five generations at 15 kW. This is because the quantum computer chips themselves consume less than 0.0000001 watt. A recent preprint of a D-Wave paper, currently under peer review, demonstrates the impact of this: a calculation on a quantum computer that, when compared to its classical equivalent, saved an amount of power equivalent to the global annual energy consumption.

If we can use quantum computing to offset calculations that are difficult to compute with classical computers, we have an opportunity to save a lot of energy and money in the process.

We need change if we’re going to transform our energy use in supply chains to achieve sustainability for centuries into the future. If we work carefully together, we can weave new technology together with adaptivity and responsiveness — all so that we can capture the forces of change that act on our businesses and propel our future growth.

The D-Wave team set to demystify quantum computing for business with supply chain management challenges.

About D-Wave

D-Wave is a leader in the development and delivery of quantum computing systems, software, and services, and is the world’s first commercial supplier of quantum computers. Our mission is to unlock the power of quantum computing today to benefit business and society. We do this by delivering customer value with practical quantum applications for problems as diverse as logistics, artificial intelligence, materials sciences, drug discovery, scheduling, cybersecurity, fault detection, and financial modeling.

Discover more at dwavequantum.com and begin your quantum journey today.