Sourcemap Aims to Take Supply Chain Visibility to the Next Level

Sourcemap Aims to Take Supply Chain Visibility to the Next Level

Big companies such as Office Depot came calling not long after Sourcemap hit the web a couple years ago.

The open source platform allows users to visualize the social and environmental impacts of supply chains by layering a mapping capability over life cycle impact information. It quickly caught the attention of companies grappling with engaging their suppliers as the topic moved up the corporate agenda.

"It immediately became useful tool for sustainable decision making, not just by individuals and student researchers, but also by people in the companies actually responsible for these supply chains," said Sourcemap CEO Leo Bonanni, who conceived of the tool as a PhD student at MIT.

In response to the demand, Bonanni recently spun off Sourcemap as a for-profit company and launched a new iteration of the software aimed at helping large firms with complicated global supply chains. As 2011 draws to a close, he's looking ahead to 2012 with several additional tools in the pipeline.

"We started to have a lot more calls from larger clients asking to help them work out some of the issues in their supply chain visibility," Bonanni said. "I'm basically trying to grab that opportunity and make a whole level of software so that these companies with very complex supply chains are going to feel comfortable with their own geographic environmental footprints, and ultimately share aspects of it with the world."

I caught up with Bonanni last week to learn more about a tool that has generated lots of buzz in the industry since it launched in 2009. It began as an open source platform that allowed anyone to input information and create maps of "where things come from," along with the environmental impact data. The company bills itself as a crowdsourced directory of product supply chains and carbon footprints.

Bonanni invented the tool while teaching product design at the MIT Media Lab and he co-developed the first prototype with Matthew Hockenberry, a visiting scientist. He said his students were supposed to be designing the next green product but had little feedback on the social and environmental impacts of materials and industrial processes. Neither did anyone else.

Many companies have realized they don't know much about their own networks beyond their immediate, first-tier suppliers, but for a growing number, this is beginning to change.

"There are some companies that have amassed a huge amount of information and are ready to make a lot of that public," Bonanni said. "We're just here to help facilitate that process."

Sourcemap's re-written software allows users to directly export data from their enterprise supply chain software programs. They can create a dashboard where they can find real-time information on material costs, lead times and factory locations, and even drag and drop a factory into a different country to see how the change would impact the bottom line, environmental impact or time to market.

"As we're discovering, every company has its own way of dealing with its supply chain, so we're now working on these individual case studies to try to bring visibility for each company. That involves some custom work," he said, adding that the biggest challenges often involves bringing together all the individual stakeholders.

The price tag for this kind of integration can run into the six-figures. The open source platform is still available for free use online, but beginning early next year, Sourcmap will also offer premium channels (under $100 per year) that allow organizations to brand the supply chain maps they publish on the website, similar to Twitter's verified accounts.

Sourcemap is also helping companies survey their supply chains, the results of which will be released next year. Bonanni explained that all suppliers who participate in making a product are linked like Facebook friends, so Sourcemap can send inquiries to the whole supply chain for carbon footprint or social compliance information. Participants can see how they stack up against their peers, and the buyer, perhaps a major brand, receives a dashboard showing their extended supply chain's performance.

A product-level traceability feature will be pilot tested in 2012, allowing consumers to scan a Sourcemap bar code on a product to get information on where and when it was made. In the spring, the first mass-produced products with these bar codes will hit the shelves.

One of those products is 100 percent recycled copy paper from New Leaf Paper that is sold at Office Depot. The New Leaf Paper-Office Depot paper supply chain project was spotlighted in a "One Great Idea" presentation at GreenBiz Group's State of Green Business forum earlier this year.

"The way we see Sourcemap is as an ongoing resource that both informs supply chain decision making and helps us communicate to our customers," said New Leaf Paper CEO and Founder Jeff Mendelsohn.

It has also created a way for the company to engage its supply chain to help drive suppliers' environmental initiatives. New Leaf Paper has been able to map out to its fifth tier suppliers.

"One of the things it revealed," Mendelsohn said, "is just how complex it is getting a true cradle-to-cradle life cycle assessment done."