Emerging technologies shaping the future of logistics

Customers want products delivered as soon as possible, forcing many companies and their warehousing and logistics partners to change how they manage storage and logistics.

  • How autonomous delivery vehicles are revolutionising last-mile delivery
  • The rise of high-tech urban distribution centres
  • Self-learning warehouse robots are changing the face of modern logistics
  • The Uberisation of logistics
  • Doing the right thing – ethics in logistics
  • The impact of automation on the SCM workforce

Companies increasingly need to compete with the smart warehousing and next-day delivery cycles of giants like Amazon and Alibaba, where robots carry out 70 per cent of tasks. Drone tech, self-driving systems, algorithms and the IoT ensure increasingly automated supply chains and logistics. The future of this industry is all about high-tech warehousing and automated order fulfilment.

How autonomous delivery vehicles are revolutionising last-mile delivery

A world where your parcel is delivered by an unmanned aerial vehicle, or where a smart machine autonomously drives you from A to B – that’s exactly where we’re headed. Autonomous trucks like those from Uber, Embark and even Tesla are already taking to the streets. Highly sophisticated AI platforms using deep learning algorithms will plan and optimise delivery routes and drones – or autonomous six-wheel ‘cooler-box’ robots – will soon be dropping off your packages, a few hours after you’ve placed your order.

One example is Walmart. This American retail giant recently partnered with US based robotics company Nuro to launch autonomous delivery robots to add to their existing delivery options. The plan is to deploy these robots to deliver orders to select Walmart customers in the Houston area with the goal to eventually expand the service to customers throughout the country. Nuro’s fully driverless vehicles are shorter than regular cars and about half as wide as a compact sedan, with no space for drivers or passengers. Another example of autonomous last-mile delivery comes from MIT researchers who have developed a robot that can work out where your front door is located, without having been shown any kind of instructional map. Most current delivery robots meet customers at a specific location, such as a street corner. But MIT’s researchers have developed a ‘cost-to-go’ map – instead of a semantic map – to create a heat map using existing data to colour-code surroundings. This way, the robot is able to figure out which object or shape is most likely to be your front door and plot the quickest and most efficient route to it.

The rise of high-tech urban distribution centres

The innovative and self-learning distribution centres of the future will be increasingly fully automatic. Think shelf-scanning robots using cameras to identify missing, misplaced, mislabelled, or incorrectly priced items. But also sensor tech, AR, computer vision, analytics, wearables, and the IoT – smart technologies that enable smart, adaptable automation. We can expect to see more and smaller facilities closer to urban areas to enable same-day deliveries. These ‘vertihubs’ will also be taller in order to maximise available floor area.

One example of distribution innovation is an IoT solution developed by NVIDIA and Microsoft. Through real-time package detection and tracking, Lenovo’s Digital Distribution Centre (DDC) enables more efficient usage of distribution centres for operations in industries like logistics, retail, and manufacturing. For the system to be able to self-learn, the solution uses multi-video stream analytics with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning inferencing.

As a result of the rapid growth of e-commerce, many companies have had to step up their delivery game. They do this by opening small fulfilment centres near major metropolitan areas. 3D robotics supply chain manufacturer Attabotics has developed a new storage system that replaces rows, aisles and conveyor belts with a structure of robotic shuttles, significantly reducing required warehouse space. Furthermore, warehouses using this system require only 20 per cent of the workforce compared to traditional fulfilment centres. The system looks like a floor-to-ceiling 3D grid, with squares that can hold individual items, like a tennis ball, a kitchen utensil or a pair of shorts. Compared to traditional fulfilment systems – which usually take up to 90 minutes to collate and package an order – Attabotics’ system can finish a job within 90 seconds.

Self-learning warehouse robots are changing the face of modern logistics

Warehousing operations of the future will be increasingly digital, transparent and efficient, with blockchain playing a pivotal role. The IoT and its ecosystem of temperature, location and humidity sensors enables real-time gathering, analysing and transmission of data. Micro-drones with cameras, sensors, RFID-tech and barcode scanners can reach the smallest spaces and check inventories with ever greater speed and accuracy. Wearables optimise processes like order picking as well as goods receiving and handling. Face/voice recognition, cloud integration, video-conferencing, and chatbots transform warehousing operations and enable seamless collaboration among chain partners.

In a warehouse close to Berlin, Germany, for instance, US robotics and AI startup Covariant’s yellow robot meticulously picks items out of crates. The robot uses suction cups, sees through a six-lens camera array, and learns via machine learning algorithms, enabling the machine to pick and pack items with incredible precision. As it learns, the robot’s neural network simultaneously teaches its robot colleagues around the world.

The Uberisation of logistics

In this age of increasing ‘Uberisation’, logistics companies can’t afford to have empty trips. When a customer orders multiple items, logistics partners need to try and combine orders and optimise routes as much as possible. Enter ‘Uberised’ logistics, the ‘on-call’ consolidation of shipments. This requires the implementation of computer technology in vehicles and consolidating freights, enabling transport companies to optimise their available space and provide more efficient and faster deliveries. Customers can make use of logistics apps to pick the transporter, track the entire trip, and assess the transporter’s performance.

The last mile – the labour intensive and costly task of getting the package hand-delivered to your front door – is the determining factor when it comes to a company’s shipping speed. For this, Amazon Flex uses on-demand contract drivers in about fifty cities across the US. Drivers use the Flex app to sign up for a 3 to 6 hour time slot, then they go to a fulfilment centre where they are briefed on which parcels they need to deliver in that time frame. According to Amazon, drivers can earn $18 to $25 per hour.

Doing the right thing – ethics in logistics

In many ways, people are no longer separate from technology. It is, therefore, important to keep an eye on the moral side of technological developments. We need to philosophise about the implications for the world of tomorrow and ensure we take important ethical considerations into account. We need to determine our boundaries and have (and voice) opinions about how people and machines should work together. What will happen to our individual rights and how will we deal with privacy and risk management? How will we remain happy in the world of tomorrow?

As the supply chain continues to expand globally, it’s also becoming increasingly complex. For instance, developing countries now have underdeveloped countries in their supply chains. The social and environmental consequences of these developments have provoked significant controversies. For instance, some global brands are known to exploit the low wages and weak social and environmental regulations in developing countries to produce low-cost goods. These unethical practices exacerbate child labour, excessive working hours, hazardous working conditions, and ever decreasing wages. It’s important for companies to implement a commitment to human rights, set out in clear and specific policies, and to create due diligence processes to assess current operations and address potential violations.

The impact of automation on the SCM workforce

As a result of the increasing use of automation in day-to-day logistics and SCM operations, there is a need for trained professionals to manage these highly automated operations, such as maintenance employees, IT engineers and operation analysts. Apart from sourcing local talent, organisations may need to consider reskilling or upskilling existing staff members. There’s no doubt new technologies and the increasingly automated supply chain and logistics operations will lead to job losses. It’s therefore important to help the current workforce to transition to new, more technical jobs. Technical skills will be highly sought after for the repair and maintenance of robots and high tech equipment and require reskilling and job redesign.

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

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