How quantum computing could transform the supply chain

Up to 100x more powerful than traditional computers, quantum computing will bring extraordinary new potential to the supply chain.
21 August 2020

Quantum computing could transform supply chain planning. Source: Shutterstock

  • Quantum computing accelerates the development of computational models that classical computers may take a longer time frame to process
  • The supply chain will greatly benefit from quantum-based optimization 

Classical computers are binary, and they process information using bits. Every bit can only exist as a one or a zero. A bit is a representation of either one state or another.

In the case of quantum computers, information is processed using qubits. They can exist in states of ones, zeros, anything in-between, and even all of these, at the same time.

Qubits can be linked to other qubits, which is known as entanglement. This is one of the key hallmarks that separate quantum from classical computing, and what makes it such a powerful tool.

In entanglement, the quantum algorithm is powered by linked qubits, each in their undetermined and entangled state. This opens a continuum of possibilities and enables quantum computers to solve problems up to 100 million times faster than classical computers and solve problems that classical computers can’t.

Until recently, quantum computers were almost like a chandelier hanging from the ceiling — they needed to be stored in unique conditions within the labs of tech titans like IBM, Google, and Nasa.

However, the World Economic Forum (WEF) is now predicting that we will see the first generation of commercially-available, quantum-inspired devices by 2025, by which time quantum computers will “have outgrown [their] infancy.”

A 3D rendition of a quantum computer. Source: Shutterstock

Quantum computers will be game-changing across industries, among them medical, finance, and manufacturing. These next-gen computers with their zero-and-one duality are poised to solve problems within a fraction of the time it currently takes.

Just yesterday, IBM announced it had hit a new quantum computing milestone, announcing it had reached Quantum Volume of 64. For the uninitiated, the ‘Quantum Volume’ is a metric used to measure how powerful a quantum computer is. IBM’s previous announcement in January 2020 was at 32.

Quantum computing in the supply chain

At IBM’s virtual roundtable event, Solving Business Problems with Quantum Computing, leading quantum experts discussed how quantum computing could theoretically be used to tackle challenges linked to the pandemic-induced changes in businesses, including supply chain disruption.

Jamie Thomas, general manager at IBM Systems Strategy & Development, said the pandemic illustrated the need for quantum computing and the promises it holds to provide solutions to unprecedented events.

While quantum computing systems were not readily available, the level of supply chain disruption that occurred spurred many to consider how a crisis of such proportions could be averted in the future by the ground-breaking technology.

Manufacturers are incorporating more and more sensors into their operations, gleaning vast amounts of enterprise data; quantum computing could handle this vast, ever-changing stream of data within a decision-making model, equipping members of the supply chain with the rapid insight needed to optimize resource management and logistics on-the-fly.

With manufacturers seeing unpredictable spikes in demand, quantum computing could also have enabled plants to respond and prepare for shifts in utility usage and demand, allowing them to detail a specific accounting of the energy used on the production floor in real-time.

One of the most promising applications of quantum computing in the supply chain, meanwhile, is in logistics route planning and scheduling, where the technology can bring powerful new capabilities in areas such as real-time traffic simulations.

Denise Ruffner of Cambridge Quantum Computing added that the technology would be suited for “efficient transportation routes for shipping companies.” She emphasized quantum computers could solve the ‘traveling salesman’ problem, such as figuring out the “optimal route to deliver 50 packages or go to 50 places in a day” in the quickest time and shortest journey.

These kinds of scenarios create trillions of possibilities that classical computers would struggle to filter through in any sort of reasonable or useful timeframe. With processing speeds hundreds of millions of times faster, quantum computers can run through multiple models simultaneously. The need for this kind of solution will continue to rise with orders becoming more complex and personalized.

Quantum computers will significantly bolster the supply chain. Source: Unsplash

“All of this is just another example of why it’s so important to think about supply chain and logistics intently and understand how we can apply new techniques like quantum computing to solving these kinds of problems,” said Thomas.

“Because when you get into a situation like [COVID-19] it’s not only the complexity you have to deal with but the time element.”

“I think there’s a lot more we can do with supply chain and quantum as we move forward.”

Ruffner agreed the technology could revolutionize the transports and logistics sector, with quantum-based optimization leading to vastly reduced costs in manufacturing and reduced time in the delivery of materials.

These powerful systems wouldn’t just rely on internal data either; they could create models based on multiple sources from weather predictions, natural disasters, economic trends, and other factors that could impact shipments.