Managing Demand Variability

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

Anybody doing the job knows that managing inventory can be stressful. Common stressors include: Customers with “special” requests, IT departments with other priorities, balky ERP systems running on inaccurate data, raw material shortages, suppliers with long lead times in far-away countries where production often stops for various reasons and more. This note will address one particular and ever-present source of stress: demand variability.

Everybody Has a Forecasting Problem

 

Suppose you manage a large fleet of spare parts. These might be surgical equipment for your hospital, or repair parts for your power station. Your mission is to maximize up time. Your enemy is down time. But because breakdowns hit at random, you are constantly in reactive mode. You might hope for rescue from forecasting technologies. But forecasts are inevitably imperfect to some degree: the element of surprise is always present.  You might wait for Internet of Things (IOT) tech to be deployed on your equipment to monitor and detect impending failures, helping you schedule repairs well in advance. But you know you can’t meter up the thousands of small things that can fail and disable a big thing.

So, you decide to combine forecasting with inventory management and build buffers or safety stock to protect against surprise spikes in demand. Now you have to work out how much safety stock to maintain, knowing that too little means vulnerability and too much means bloat.

Suppose you handle finished goods inventories for a make-to-stock company. Your problem is essentially the same as in managing service parts: You have external customers and uncertain demand. But you may also have additional problems in terms of synchronizing multiple suppliers of components that you assemble into finished goods. The suppliers want you to tell them how much of their stuff to make so you can make your stuff, but you don’t know how much of your own stuff you’ll need to make.

Finally, suppose you handle finished goods in a build-to-order company. You might think that you no longer have a forecasting problem, since you don’t build until you are paid to build. But you do have a forecasting problem. Since your finished goods might be assembled from a mixture of components and sub-assemblies, you have to translate some forecast of finished goods demand to work out a forecast of those components. Otherwise, you will go to make your finished goods and discover that you don’t have a required component and have to wait until you can re-actively assemble everything you need. And your customers might not be willing to wait.

So, everybody has a forecasting problem.

What Makes Forecasting Difficult

 

Forecasting can be quick, easy and dead accurate – as long as the world is simple. If demand for your product is 10 units every week, month after month, you can make very accurate forecasts. But life is not quite like that. If you’re lucky and life is almost like that – maybe weekly demand is more like {10, 9, 10, 8, 12, 10, 10…} — you can still make very accurate forecast and just make minor adjustments around the edges. But if life is as it more often is – maybe weekly demand looks like {0, 0, 7, 0, 0, 0, 23, 0 …} – demand forecasting is difficult indeed. The key distinction is demand variability: it’s the zigging and zagging that creates the pain.

Safety Stock Takes Over Where Forecasting Leaves Off

 

Statistical forecasting methods are an important part of the solution. They let you squeeze as much advantage as possible from the historical patterns of demand your company has recorded for each item. The job of forecasts is to describe what is typical, which provides the base on which to cope with randomness in demand. Statistical forecasting techniques work by finding “big picture” features in demand records, such as trend and seasonality, then projecting those into the future. They all implicitly assume that whatever patterns exist now will persist, so 5% growth will continue, and July demand will always be 20% higher than February demand. To get to that point, statistical forecasting methods use some form of averaging to smother the “noise” in the demand history.

But then the rest of the job falls on inventory management, because the atypical, random component of future demand will still be a hassle in the future. This inevitable level of uncertainty has to be handled by the “shock-absorber” called safety stock.

The same methods that produce forecasts of trend and/or seasonality can be used to estimate the amount of forecast error. This has to be done carefully using a method called “holdout analysis”.  It works like this. Suppose you have 365 observations of daily demand for Item X, which has a replenishment lead time of 10 days. You want to know how many units will be demanded over some future 10-day period. You might input the first 305 days of demand history into the forecasting technique and get forecasts for the next 10 days, days 306-315.

The answer gives you one estimate of the 10-day total demand. Importantly, it also gives you one estimate of the variability around that forecast, i.e., the forecast error, the difference between what actually happened in days 306-315 and what was forecasted. Now you can repeat the process, this time using the first 306 days to forecast the next 10, the first 307 days to forecast the next 10, etc. You end up with 52 honest estimates of the variability of total demand over a 10-day lead time. Suppose 95% of those estimates are less than 28 units. Then 28 units would be a pretty safe safety stock to add to the forecast, since you will run into shortages only 5% of the time.

Modern statistical software does these calculations automatically. It can ease at least one of the chronic headaches of inventory management by helping you cope with demand variability.

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How to Choose a Target Service Level to Optimize Inventory

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

Summary

Setting a target service level or fill rate is a strategic decision about inventory risk management. Choosing service levels can be difficult. Relevant factors include current service levels, replenishment lead times, cost constraints, the pain inflicted by shortages on you and your customers, and your competitive position. Target setting is often best approached as a collaboration among operations, sales and finance. Inventory optimization software is an essential tool in the process.

Service Level Choices

Service level is the probability that no shortages occur between when you order more stock and when it arrives on the shelf. The reasonable range of service levels is from about 70% to 99%. Levels below 70% may signal that you don’t care about or can’t handle your customers. Levels of 100% are almost never appropriate and usually indicate a hugely bloated inventory.

Factors Influencing Choice of Service Level

Several factors influence the choice of service level for an inventory item. Here are some of the more important.

Current service levels:
A reasonable place to start is to find out what your current service levels are for each item and overall. If you are already in good shape, then the job becomes the easier one of tweaking an already-good solution. If you are in bad shape now, then setting service levels can be more difficult. Surprisingly few companies have data on this important metric across their whole fleet of inventory items. What often happens is that reorder points grow willy-nilly from choices made in corporate pre-history and are rarely, sometimes never, systematically reviewed and updated. Since reorder points are a major determinant of service levels, it follows that service levels “just happen”. Inventory optimization software can convert your current reorder points and lead times into solid estimates of your current service levels. This analysis often reveals subset of items with service levels either too high or too low, in which case you have guidance about which items to adjust down or up, respectively.

Replenishment lead times:
Some companies adjust service levels to match replenishment lead times. If it takes a long time to make or buy an item, then it takes a long time to recover from a shortage. Accordingly, they bump up service levels on long-lead-time items and reduce them on items for which backlogs will be brief.

Cost constraints:
Inventory optimization software can find the lowest-cost ways to hit high service level targets, but aggressive targets inevitably imply higher costs. You may find that costs constrain your choice of service level targets. Costs come in various flavors. “Inventory investment” is the dollar value of inventory. “Operating costs” include both holding costs and ordering costs. Constraints on inventory investment are often imposed on inventory executives and always imply ceilings on service level targets; software can make these relationships explicit but not take away the necessity of choice. It is less common to hear of ceilings on operating costs, but they are always at least a secondary factor arguing for lower service levels.

Shortage costs:
Shortage costs depend on whether your shortage policy calls for backorders or lost sales. In either case, shortage costs work counter to inventory investment and operating costs by arguing for higher service levels. These costs may not always be expressed in dollar terms, as in the case of medical/surgical supplies, where shortage costs are denominated in morbidity and mortality.

Competition:
The closer your company is to dominating its market, the more you can ease back on service levels to save money. However, easing back too far carries risks: It encourages potential customers to look elsewhere, and it encourages competitors. Conversely, high product availability can go far to bolstering the position of a minor player.

Collaborative Targeting

Inventory executives may be the ones tasked with setting service level targets, but it may be best to collaborate with other functions when making these calls. Finance can share any “red lines” early in the process, and they should be tasked with estimating holding and ordering costs. Sales can help with estimating shortage costs by explaining likely customer reactions to backlogs or lost sales.

The Role of Inventory Optimization and Planning Software

Without inventory optimization software, setting service level targets is pure guesswork: It is impossible to know how any given target will play out in terms of inventory investment, operating costs, shortage costs. The software can compute the detailed, quantitative tradeoff curves required to make informed choices or even recommend the target service level that results in the lowest overall cost considering holding costs, ordering costs, and stock out costs. However, not all software solutions are created equal. You might enter a user defined 99% service level into your inventory planning system or the system could recommend a target service – but it doesn’t mean you will actually hit that stated service level. In fact, you might not even come close to hitting it and achieve a much lower service level. We’ve observed situations where a targeted service level of 99% actually achieved a service level of just 82%! Any decisions made as a result of the target will result in unintended misallocation of inventory, very costly consequences, and lots of explaining to do. So be sure to check out our blog article on how to measure the accuracy of your service level forecast so you don’t make this costly mistake.

 

Volume and color boxes in a warehouese

 

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If there is a recession, you should …

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

 

Stop buying everything, from paper clips to software? No. You should get a little bit smart about how you are going to ride it out.

Even in normal times, good inventory hygiene suggests that you continuously update your inventory control parameters: reorder points, order quantities, safety stocks, mins, maxes, lead times. Beyond that, you should be updating your inventory strategies, such as adjusting the target service levels or fill rates for every item you hold. That’s the “should.”

But in normal times, it’s easy enough to let those adjustments slide and focus on other things. Then, when the first whiff of recession is in the air, you might get panicky and jump into action in a way that makes it harder to survive the down times. You may look decisive by essentially freezing in place or even shutting some things down, but you risk looking decisive now and foolish later.

Better to take stock of your entire current inventory operation and do that tuning before things get really bad. It is common enough for inventory parameters like reorder points to be set at their current levels by somebody long gone at some time in the distant past for some reason that nobody remembers. Over time, conditions change but the system fails to adapt. So the start of a possible recession is an apt time to run your inventory optimization software to tune up your operations.

You may find that you can remove enough sludge in your current system to offset some or all of the bad news. For instance, your suppliers might be filling orders faster than your software thinks, so you can reduce inventories without risking more stockouts by recalculating reorder points. If you feel you must reduce stocks and ask your customers to accept lower fill rates, you should use your inventory optimization software to identify the best items to put on the chopping block, rather than, say, adjusting every item’s fill rate down by 5%.  If you have thousands or tens of thousands of inventory items, that kind of laser-focused adjustment may not be humanly possible without good software support. But with good software support, it’s doable and useful.

Before you hit the panic button, be sure to squeeze all the inefficiency out of your current operations. If, as is common, you have good software but your people are using only a fraction of its capabilities, fix that and get more out of the investment. If you don’t have modern inventory optimization, make a counter-cyclical decision and get some.

If you want to read more about demand planning, forecasting and find new business opportunities in economic recession, read this Journal of Business Forecasting article from the Institute of Business Forecasting (IBF) here or keep reading our new articles

 

Forklift truck in storage warehouse. Driven by inventory control parameters

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Top 3 Most Common Inventory Control Policies

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

This blog defines and compares the three most commonly used inventory control policies. It should be helpful both to those new to the field and also to experienced people contemplating a possible change in their company’s policy. The blog also considers how demand forecasting supports inventory management, choice of which policy to use, and calculation of the inputs that drive these policies. Think of it as an abbreviated piece of Inventory 101.

Scenario

You are managing a particular item. The item is important enough to your customers that you want to carry enough inventory to avoid stocking out. However, the item is also expensive enough that you also want to minimize the amount of cash tied up in inventory. The process of ordering replenishment stock is sufficiently expensive and cumbersome that you also want to minimize the number of purchase orders you must generate. Demand for the item is unpredictable.  So is the replenishment lead time between when you detect the need for more and when it arrives on the shelf ready for use or shipment. 

Your question is “How do I manage this item? How do I decide when to order more and how much to order?”  When making this decision there are different approaches you can use.  This blog outlines the most commonly used inventory planning policies:  Periodic Order Up To (T, S), Reorder Point/Order Quantity (R, Q), and Min/Max (s, S).  These approaches are often embedded in ERP systems and enable companies to generate automatic suggestions of what and when to order.  To make the right decision, you’ll need to know how each of these approaches are designed to work and the advantages and limitations of each approach.    

Periodic review, order-up-to policy

The shorthand notation for this policy is (T, S), where T is the fixed time between orders and S is the order-up-to-level.

When to order: Orders are placed like clockwork every T days. The used of a fixed reorder interval is helpful to firms that cannot keep track of their inventory level in real time or who prefer to issue orders to suppliers at scheduled intervals.

How much to order: The inventory level is measured and the gap computed between that level and the order-up-to level S. If the inventory level is 7 units and S = 10, then 3 units are ordered.

Comment: This is the simplest policy to implement but also the least agile in responding to fluctuations in demand and/or lead time. Also, note that, while the order size would be adequate to return the inventory level to S if replenishment were immediate, in practice there will be some replenishment delay during which time the inventory continues to drop, so the inventory level will rarely reach all the way up S.

Continuous review, fixed order quantity policy (Reorder Point, Order Quantity)

The shorthand notation for this policy is (R, Q), where R is the reorder point and Q is the fixed order quantity.

When to order: Orders are placed as soon as the inventory drops to or below the reorder point, R. In theory, the inventory level is checked constantly, but in practice it is usually checked periodically at the beginning or end of each workday. 

How much to order: The order size is always fixed at Q units.

Comment: (R, Q) is more responsive than (S, T) because it reacts more quickly to signs of imminent stockout. The value of the fixed order quantity Q may not be entirely up to you. Often suppliers can dictate terms that restrict your choice of Q to values compatible with minima and multiples. For example, a supplier may insist on an order minimum of 20 units and always be a multiple of 5. Thus orders sizes must be either 20, 25, 30, 35, etc. (This comment also applied to the two other inventory policies.)

Manager In Warehouse With Clipboard

Continuous review, order-up-to policy (Min/Max)

The shorthand notation for this policy is (s, S), sometimes called “little s, big S” where s is the reorder point and S is the order-up-to level. This policy is more commonly called (Min, Max).

When to order: Orders are placed as soon as the inventory drops to or below the Min. As with (R, Q), the inventory level is supposedly monitored constantly, but in practice it is usually checked at the end of each workday. 

How much to order: The order size varies. It equals the gap between the Max and the current inventory at the moment that the Min is reached or breached.

Comment: (Min, Max) is even more responsive than (R, Q) because it adjusts the order size to take account of how much the inventory has fallen below the Min. When demand is either zero or one units, a common variation sets Min = Max -1; this is called the “base stock policy.”

Another policy choice: What happens if I stock out?

As you can imagine, each policy is likely to lead to a different temporal sequence of inventory levels (see Figure 1 below). There is another factor that influences how events play out over time: the policy you select for dealing with stockouts. Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches.

Backorder policy: If you stock out, you keep track of the order and fill it later.  Under this policy, it is sensible to speak of negative inventory. The negative inventory represents the number of backorders that need to be filled. Presumably, any customer forced to wait gets first dibs when replenishment arrives. You are likely to have a backorder policy on items that are unique to your business that your customer cannot purchase elsewhere.

Loss policy: If you stock out, the customer turns to another source to fill their order. When replenishment arrives, some new customer will get those new units. Inventory can never go below zero.  Choose this policy for commodity items that can easily be purchased from a competitor.  If you don’t have it in stock, your customer will most certainly go elsewhere. 

 

The role of demand forecasting in inventory control

Choice of control parameters, such as the values of Min and Max, requires inputs from some sort of demand forecasting process.

Traditionally, this has meant determining the probability distribution of the number of units that will be demanded over a fixed time interval, either the lead time in (R, Q) and (Min, Max) systems or T + lead time in (T, S) systems. This distribution has been assumed to be Normal (the famous “bell-shaped curve”).  Traditional methods have been expanded where the demand distribution isn’t assumed to be normal but some other distribution (i.e. Poisson, negative binomial, etc.) 

These traditional methodologies have several deficiencies.

 

 

  • Third, accurate estimates of inventory operating costs require analysis of the entire replenishment cycle (from one replenishment to the next), not merely the part of the cycle that begins with inventory hitting the reorder point.

 

  • Finally, replenishment lead times are typically unpredictable or random, not fixed. Many models assume a fixed lead time based on an average, vendor quoted lead time, or average lead time + safety time.

Fortunately, better inventory planning and inventory optimization software exists based on generating a full range of random demand scenarios, together with random lead times. These scenarios “stress test” any proposed pair of inventory control parameters and assess their expected performance. Users can not only choose between policies (i.e. Min, Max vs. R, Q) but also determine which variation of the proposed policy is best (i.e. Min, Max of 10,20 vs. 15, 25, etc.) Examples of these scenarios are given below.

Warehouse supervisor with a smartphone.

The process of ordering replenishment stock is sufficiently expensive and cumbersome that you also want to minimize the number of purchase orders you must generate

Choosing among inventory control policies

Which policy is right for you? There is a clear pecking order in terms of item availability, with (Min, Max) first, (R, Q) second, and (T, S) last. This order derives from the responsiveness of the policy to fluctuations in the randomness of demand and replenishment. The order reverses when considering ease of implementation.

How do you “score” the performance of an inventory policy? There are two opposing forces that must be balanced: cost and service.

Inventory cost can be expressed either as inventory investment or inventory operating cost. The former is the dollar value of the items waiting around to be used. The latter is the sum of three components: holding cost (the cost of the “care and feeding of stuff on the shelf”), ordering cost (basically the cost of cutting a purchase order and receiving that order), and shortage cost (the penalty you pay when you either lose a sale or force a customer to wait for what they want).

Service is usually measured by service level and fill rate.  Service level is the probability that an item requested is shipped immediately from stock. Fill rate is the proportion of units demanded that are shipped immediately from stock. As a former professor, I think of service level as an all-or-nothing grade: If a customer needs 10 units and you can provide only 9, that’s an F. Fill rate is a partial credit grade: 9 out of 10 is 90%.

When you decide on the values of inventory control policies, you are striking a balance between cost and service. You can provide perfect service by keeping an infinite inventory. You can hold costs to zero by keeping no inventory. You must find a sensible place to operate between these two ridiculous extremes. Generating and analyzing demand scenarios can quantify the consequences of your choices.

A demonstration of the differences between two inventory control policies

We now show how on-hand inventory evolves differently under two policies. The two policies are (R, Q) and (Min, Max) with backorders allowed. To keep the comparison fair, we set Min = R and Max = R+Q, use a fixed lead time of five days, and subject both policies to the same sequence of daily demands over 365 simulated days of operation.

Figure 1 shows daily on-hand inventory under the two policies subjected to the same pattern of daily demand. In this example, the (Min, Max) policy has only two periods of negative inventory during the year, while the (R, Q) policy has three. The (Min, Max) policy also operates with a smaller average number of units on hand. Different demand sequences will produce different results, but in general the (Min, Max) policy performs better.

Note that the plots of on-hand inventory contain information needed to compute both cost and availability metrics.

Graphics comparing daily on-hand inventory under two inventory policies

Figure 1: Comparison of daily on-hand inventory under two inventory policies

Role of Inventory Planning Software

Best of Breed Inventory Planning, Forecasting, and Optimization systems can help you determine which type of policy (is it better to use Min/Max over R,Q) and what sets of inputs are optimal (i.e. what should I enter for Min and Max).  Best of breed inventory planning and demand forecasting systems can help you develop these optimized inputs so that you can regularly populate and update your ERP systems with accurate replenishment drivers.

Summary

We defined and described the three most commonly used inventory control policies: (T, S), (R, Q) and (Min, Max), along with the two most common responses to stockouts: backorders or lost orders. We noted that these policies require successively greater effort to implement but also have successively better average performance. We highlighted the role of demand forecasts in assessing inventory control policies. Finally, we illustrated how choice of policy influences the day-to-day level of on-hand inventory.

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Want to Optimize Inventory? Follow These 4 Steps

The Smart Forecaster

Pursuing best practices in demand planning, forecasting and inventory optimization

Service Level Driven Planning (SLDP) is an approach to inventory planning. It prescribes optimal service level targets continually identifies and communicates trade-offs between service and cost that are at the root of all wise inventory decisions. When an organization understands this relationship, they can communicate where they are at risk, where they are not, and effectively wield their inventory assets.  SLDP helps expose inventory imbalances and enables informed decisions on how best to correct them.  To implement SLDP, you’ll need to look beyond traditional planning approaches such as arbitrary service level targeting (all of my A items should get 99% service level, B items 95%, C items 80%, etc.) and demand forecasting that unrealistically attempts to predict exactly what will happen and when. SLDP unfolds in 4 steps: Benchmark, Collaborate, Plan, and Track.

 

Step 1. Benchmark Performance

 

All participants in the inventory planning and investment process must hold a common understanding of how current policy is performing across an agreed upon set of inventory metrics. Metrics should include historically achieved service levels and fill rates, delivery time to customers, supplier lead time performance, inventory turns, and inventory investment. Once these metrics have been benchmarked and can be reported on daily, the organization will have the information it needs to begin prioritize planning efforts. For example, if inventory has increased but service levels have not, this would indicate that the inventory is not being properly allocated across SKUs.  Reports should be generated within mouse-clicks enabling planners to focus on analysis instead of time intensive report generation.   Past performance isn’t a guarantee of future performance since demand variability, costs, priorities, and lead times are always changing. So SLDP enables predictive benchmarking that estimates what performance is likely to be in the future. Inventory optimization software utilizing probability forecasting can be used to estimate a realistic range of potential demands and replenishment cycles stress testing your planning parameters helping uncover how often and which items to expect stockouts and excess.

 

Step 2. “What if” Planning & Collaboration

 

“What if” inventory modeling and collaboration is at the heart of SLDP. The historical and predictive benchmarks should first be shared with all relevant stakeholders including sales, finance, and operations. Efforts should be placed on answering the following questions:

– Are both the current performance and investment acceptable?
– If not, how should they be improved?
– Which SKUs are likely to be demanded next and in what quantities?
– Where are we willing to take more stock out risk?
– Where must stock-out risk be minimized?
– What are the specific stock out costs?
– What business rules and constraints must we adhere to (customer service level agreements, inventory thresholds, etc.)

Once the above questions are answered, new inventory planning policies can be developed.  Inventory Optimization software can reconcile all costs associated with managing inventory including stockout costs to generate the right set of planning parameters (min/max, safety stock, reorder points, etc.) and prescribed service levels.  The optimal policy can be compared to the current policy and modified based on constraints and business rules. For example, certain items might be targeted at a target service level in order to conform to a customer service level agreement.   Various “what if” inventory planning scenarios can be developed and shared with key stakeholders. For example, you might model how shorter lead times impacts inventory costs. Once consensus has been achieved and the risks and costs are clearly communicated,  the modified policies can be uploaded to the ERP system to drive inventory replenishment.

 

Step 3. Continually Plan and Manage by Exception

SLDP continually reforecasts optimized planning parameters based on changing demands, lead times, costs, and other factors. This means that service levels and inventory value have the potential to change.  For example, the prescribed service level target of 95% might increase to 99% the next planning period if the stock-out costs on that item increased suddenly. This is also true if opting to arbitrarily target a given service level or fix planning parameters to a specific unit quantity. For example, a target service level of 95% might require $1,000 in inventory today but $2,000 next month if lead times spiked.  Similarly, a reorder point of 10 units might get 95% service today and only 85% service next month in response to increased demand variability. Inventory Optimization software will identify which items are forecasted to have significant changes in service level and/or inventory value and which items aren’t being ordered according to the consensus plan. Exception lists are automatically produced making it easy for you to review these items and decide how to manage them moving forward. Prescriptive Analytics can help identify whether the root cause of the change is a demand anomaly, change in overall demand variability, change in lead time, or change in cost helping you fine tune the policy accordingly.

 

Step 4. Track Ongoing Performance

 

SLDP processes regularly measure historical and current operational performance.   Results must be monitored to ensure that service levels are improving and inventory levels are decreasing when compared to the historical benchmarks determined in Step 1.  Track metrics such as turns, aggregate and item specific service levels, fill rates, out-of-stocks, and supplier lead time performance.  Share results across the organization and identify root causes to operational inefficiencies.  SLDP processes makes performance tracking easy by providing tools that automatically generate the necessary reports rather than placing this burden on planners to manage in Excel. Doing so enables the organization to uncover operational issues impacting performance and provide feedback on what is working and what should be improved.

Conclusion

The SLDP framework is a way to rationalize the inventory planning process and generate a significant economic return. Its organizing principle is that customer service levels and inventory costs associated with the chosen policy should be understood, tracked, and continually refined. Utilizing inventory optimization software helps ensure that you are able to identify the least-cost service level.  This creates a coherent, company-wide effort that combines visibility into current operations with scientific assessments of future risks and conditions. It is realized by a combination of executive vision, staff subject matter expertise, and the power of modern inventory planning and optimization software.

See how Smart Inventory Optimization Supports Service Level Driven Planning and download the product sheet here: https://smartcorp.com/inventory-optimization/

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