Logistics and supply chain management have been defined by traditional methods and slow adoption of new technology. However, customers are asking for shorter lead times, lower prices, and more frequent, smaller deliveries. And the costs of mistakes, inefficiencies, and missed deadlines is growing as competition increases. To meet these evolving expectations and challenges, logistics will soon adopt a slew of innovative, disruptive technologies. The future of logistics is high-tech, defined by a new array of smart advances that offer a profound break with the past.
Reinventing the supply chain with the Internet of Things (IoT)
One of those advances is the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is the connectivity that allows smart devices to talk to one another, and it’s at the foundation of the supply chain management of the future. By gathering and sharing information from and between connected devices, the IoT is the beating heart of big data and the nervous system at the centre of the supply chain. For instance, sensors embedded into pallets of perishable goods can alert you about temperature fluctuations that might damage items in transit, letting you know about an emerging problem before the cargo is spoiled. And smart sensors in trucks can tell you when they’ll need maintenance before they break down in transit.
In essence, smart sensors are a company’s eyes in the field, generating data about the strength of its logistics chain. By equipping each unit with connected sensors, the company’s aware of problems as they happen, knows precisely where the problem is, and can provide the resources necessary to fix it in real time.
Robots are assisting humans, not replacing them
Robotics is another trend that’s revolutionising warehousing, and the future of warehouse logistics is a smart mix of humans and machines. For instance, Amazon, already has more than 45,000 robots in its warehouses that have sped up packing and shipping.
Traditionally, automation meant powerful, dangerous equipment, demanding its own workspace carefully separated from human beings. But a new generation of robotic coworkers designed with collaboration in mind is altering how warehousing works. Such ‘co-bots’ are equipped with sophisticated sensors, and they have a range of safety features that allow them to work alongside people without risking injury. For example, the most recent innovation comes from Boston Dynamics, a leading robotics company. It developed Handle, an autonomous robot created for warehouse logistics. It’s currently undergoing ‘training’ on boxes up to five kilograms in weight, but it’s designed to carry up to 15 kilograms, and you can see how it looks here:
Drones and self-driving systems could enhance the delivery process
Traditional supply chain management is filled with inefficiencies, especially when it comes to deliveries. But drones could help. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are fast, nimble, and strong, and depending on their size, they can carry significant payloads, which makes them an ideal solution for logistics. Unsurprisingly, Amazon is leading the way here, too. In March 2017, it unveiled its first automated delivery – 1.8 kilograms of sunscreen ferried by drone to a crowd at an outdoor conference. We think drones will revolutionise the last-mile delivery problem for hard-to-reach customers and urgent deliveries, and as the tech improves even more, drone-ferried packages may end up being more cost-effective than current methods.
Self-driving systems are also poised to transform logistics. They use sophisticated sensors, radar, and lidar to detect obstacles, see their position relative to other objects, and steer clear of hazards. Advanced sensors and smart driving algorithms can allow it to navigate roads better than a human driver. A human in the driver’s seat, however, is still an integral part of this delivery system – at least until self-driving technology becomes advanced enough to be fully autonomous.
Quantum computing could become the new holy grail of logistics
Supply chain management and logistics is a complex industry. Logisticians nearly always have to consider the optimal route between varying points. This sounds like a simple problem, but the number of variables induce calculations beyond the capacity of even the fastest computers. To get around this problem, software engineers are forced to take shortcuts and divide these mammoth calculations into smaller problems.
But the advent of quantum computing could bring a solution. Normal computers depend on standard binary bits encoded with either a 1 or a 0. But one of the strange properties at the quantum level is that quantum bits, or qubits, can be more than one thing at a time, representing both a 1 and a 0 at the same time. A quantum processor can handle enormously complicated calculations, finishing in hours a process that would take decades for even the fastest supercomputers in existence today. And while not better at every task than conventional processing, for logistical calculations, quantum processing would unlock answers that would transform supply chain management. It would be able to plan routes, order supply chains, and streamline logistics to a level that’s simply unattainable with existing tech.
Improving supply chain transparency and speed with blockchain
You’re probably familiar with blockchain as the software behind Bitcoin. But the power of blockchain can be applied in much more than cryptocurrency. It can do wonders for supply chain management, too. By joining blockchain to the IoT and smart contracts, it’s possible to make shipments and payments automatic and transparent, providing immediate payment when the conditions of a contract are met.
A recent example of the use of blockchain in logistics comes from IBM and Pacific International Lines (PIL). They used an electronic Bill of Lading (e-BL) to conduct a “real-time pilot tracking shipment of [28 tons of] mandarin oranges from China for the Lunar New Year celebrations” in Singapore using IBM’s Blockchain Platform. The goal was to see how fast the shipment could be successfully accomplished, and the results show that administrative processes that usually take five to seven days were completed in a single second!
From data supplied by the IoT to self-driving systems, from advanced automation to blockchain, the next decade of logistics and supply chain management will enable faster, more efficient delivery, allowing tomorrow’s companies to meet the growing needs of their customers.