Tracking a Big Mac hamburger’s journey from ranch to fast-food restaurant isn’t easy. Today’s highly segmented beef supply chain consists of a wide array of ranches, feedlots, packers, processors, distribution centers, and restaurants, each with its own set of carefully collected data. Yet in today’s complex digital world, organizations need more visibility than ever to manage inventory, know where products are coming from, and maintain consumer trust, says Bob Carpenter, president and CEO of GS1 US, a not-for-profit, international supply-chain standards organization.

To manage this wealth of data, industries use one of the simplest and most reliable data standards: the barcode. This ubiquitous machine-readable set of parallel lines encodes unique identification numbers for most items at points of sale around the globe. Although a Big Mac is never scanned, the journey of its ingredients is understood and communicated using these standards.

To gain greater visibility into its supply chain, fast-food restaurant giant McDonald’s teamed up with supplier Golden State Foods in a pilot project that uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to automatically track fresh beef’s movement from manufacturer to restaurant in near real-time. This strategy promises to “create a golden digital thread of traceability, giving partners across our ecosystem the information they need to build trust, improve transparency, and drive value,” says Sue Fangmann, U.S. supply chain services director for McDonald’s.

Welcome to the “phygital” universe where assets from the physical and digital worlds are blended to unlock vast volumes of information. In recent years, labor shortages, transportation failures, and political volatility have contributed to severe supply chain disruptions. Organizations like McDonald’s are discovering phygital tools can address these difficulties by merging the efficiency and agility of technology, including artificial intelligence (AI)—with help from physical object identifiers—to create faster, more accurate, more transparent, and more resilient supply chains.

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