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New digital platform transforms supply chains into custom B2B online marketplaces

An EU funded project created an open source technology stack for business-to-business (B2B) supply-chain platforms that can interoperate with one another.

Digital Economy
Industrial Technologies

Supply chains are an integral part of how businesses operate. Advanced business platforms and digital transformation initiatives are helping manufacturers do business more efficiently, bring more economic exchanges and create extra value for products. “The existence of 1 000 sharing platforms with 25 000 registered companies on each one, and a very moderate subscription fee would suffice to shape a digital economy in Europe,” notes Wernher Behrendt, coordinator of the NIMBLE project.

A decentralised B2B cooperation

NIMBLE created a B2B platform on which European manufacturing firms can register, publish machine-readable catalogues for products and services, and search for suitable supply-chain partners. Businesses can hand over complex logistics operations to third-party logistics providers. Importantly, the customer and the seller share a contract that guarantees certain transactional conditions. The newly developed platform was tested and is now in operation with over 250 furniture manufacturers in Spain. The platform’s federated architecture ensures all data remain decentralised, allowing interoperability and information sharing between several smaller platforms that are likely better suited to the needs of specific markets. “Platform interoperability will ultimately enable creation of a vibrant collaborative Internet of Things ecosystem that is highly needed in the fragmented European landscape,” adds Behrendt.

Unlocking value from data sharing

The manufacturing industry is only just beginning to embrace digitalisation. Whereas social media platforms have profited from what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls the ‘behavioural surplus’ – deriving marketing knowledge by exploiting data generated on the platform by the user – manufacturers are well aware of the value of their business processes. Therefore, they hesitate to tap into the potential of the ‘sharing economy’ when it comes to business-related data. NIMBLE provided instances where genuine data sharing might prove a boon to businesses. “We created ‘private data channels’ that businesses can set up as part of the B2B contract and where a buyer can derive, for example, quality assurance data about the manufacturing process of the supplier. By keeping it private, the platform does not ‘syphon off’ business intelligence, but helps create deeper trust between the participants,” explains Behrendt.

Dealing with the cold-start problem

Practically all successful B2B marketing platforms spent millions of venture capital to ‘buy’ their future market. Therefore, initially they had a critical mass of users that made it easy to scale up the platforms. The question which then arises is: Who would be willing to invest the initial amount needed to overcome the cold-start problem if the smaller, federated platforms do not promise a high and fast return on investment, but rather help create a moderate, distributed and resilient wealth within a healthy collaborative ecosystem? “Tackling the cold-start problem requires deep understanding of the economics of technology along with political awareness of what would be beneficial for Europe’s digital future. That was a tall order for a four-year project, yet we believe we have come a long way, evolving in both directions,” says Behrendt. “NIMBLE’s primary audience is potential platform providers who may have good understanding of a sector. The platform provides them a working system to start with, saving approximately 2–3 years for creating the basic infrastructure, and the development effort of 25 to 50 person years! Therefore, the platform providers now only need the people for organising, marketing and operating the platform. And this model could be replicated a thousand times all over Europe: ‘Take it, adapt it and operate it for your B2B market!’,” concludes Behrendt.

Keywords

NIMBLE, platform, business-to-business (B2B), cold-start problem, federated, interoperability, data sharing, Internet of Things

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