Logistics must be reliable to be successful. However, the demand for innovation simultaneously drives the industry forward. The most successful businesses integrate these two imperatives to create logistics practices that are both dependable and creative.
High-performance logistics providers—whether first-party or third—know how to identify the best opportunities to integrate their existing practice with the new wave of technologies arriving. These five technologies in particular are creating the new world of logistics as we know it, and it’s up to businesses to find the best way to implement and integrate them if they want to be part of that world.
eCommerce is hardly a new technology, but in many ways, it’s responsible for the state of today’s logistics industry—and it’s still evolving. The influence of eCommerce on logistics extends far and wide, including such notable industry trends as:
- The massively increased demand for logistics in nearly all markets and retail sectors.
- The increasing popularity of third-party logistics as more small businesses require sophisticated logistics services.
- The popularity of drop-shipping and the growth of distribution center networks.
- Increasingly generous customer returns policies and try-on services further upping the load on logistics providers.
- The heightened need for logistics businesses to provide robust last-mile delivery.
These trends have all created a state of flux and innovation, the likes of which the logistics industry hasn’t seen in decades. And, as eCommerce continues to grow and change, logistics will need to adapt alongside it.
Internet of Things
IoT technology is beginning to deliver a huge dose of transparency to the logistics industry. Processes that were once essentially black boxes have become open to all of their stakeholders, thanks to the real-time monitoring capacity of IoT devices.
These technologies are already widely in use around the world of logistics. For many companies, it’s now as simple as packing a small device in with their cargo. These small electronics enclosures can include any of a wide range of monitoring tools, including:
- Location tracking to give up-to-the-minute shipment information.
- Inventory control systems such as RFID that sync automatically with software.
- Impact sensors that detect whether a package is being mishandled.
- Equipment sensors that alert technicians when machinery or vehicles need repair.
- Temperature monitoring for refrigerated shipping.
Through these tough and convenient monitoring devices, a business can help ensure that its cargo arrives intact, at the right temperature and on time.
The future of logistics IoT is bright but challenging, as businesses must solve the many security challenges inherent in having so many web-enabled devices active. Once common-sense security solutions are more widely in place, however, expect IoT to become an indispensable part of the logistics landscape.
In many ways, logistics is the art of connection, and cloud technology takes that art to a whole new level. Logistics requires stable and reliable communication technologies, and the cloud is generally great at providing these functions. Cloud computing can also improve the scalability of a logistics business, which is key in a market where the demand for logistics seems bottomless.
The logistics industry is also notoriously capital-intensive, and cloud-based software deployments often require less investment in hardware and IT teams, freeing up resources for other important functions. One analysis compares the transition to cloud computing with the early 20th century transition from each business generating its own power to grid-based power infrastructure. The technology has transformed a necessary function from a capital expense into an operating expense. From costs to scalability to stability, cloud computing is an upgrade in almost every way for a logistics business.
Make no mistake—despite current systems’ reliance on fossil fuels, the global economy has permanently altered course toward renewable energy sources. Getting those renewables to power the logistics industry has proved to be challenging, but some of the brightest minds in tech are at work on the problems and making progress.
Despite many efforts to supplant them, lithium ion batteries still stand as the best battery technology currently available for renewable energy. Current research focuses on the art of making lithium ion batteries bigger, longer-lasting and easier to dispose of. Of course, putting a huge battery in a tractor trailer is a much different matter than putting a small one in an enclosure battery compartment—but that hasn’t stopped Tesla from unveiling the Tesla Semi, a fully-electric tractor-trailer.
The rollout of the Tesla Semi is still in its early stages, but it’s already generating big interest. Pre-orders for the electric truck have been rolling in from logistics power players like DHL and FedEx. There are still plenty of hurdles to overcome. Production of the truck has been delayed until next year, and its range is only 500 miles—shorter than many businesses need to move their goods effectively. In the meantime, businesses can take advantage of renewables solutions available now by investigating options like rooftop solar for their warehouses.
Robotics and AI
Robotics started transforming the manufacturing floor long ago, and the technology is now poised to dominate the picking floor as well. Amazon and other eCommerce companies have made big investments in robotics to refine their infrastructure, but many other businesses with core competencies outside eCommerce are now deploying robotics.
The robotics industry has predicted a CAGR of 18 percent for logistics robots from 2019 to 2021, and it’s easy to see the advantages that the technology presents. Repetitive tasks such as picking and moving goods from one location to another dominate logistics warehouse work. With a sufficiently advanced technical infrastructure surrounding them, autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) make perfect sense for these applications due to their ability to run 24/7 without the limitations of human workers.
Beyond simple pick-and-put, there are numerous other potential applications for robotics and AI. Part-sorting and inventory-counting robots are already being deployed—but the elephant in the room is that just about every major logistics business is planning for the rollout of autonomous vehicles. The Tesla Semi is slated to include Tesla’s driver-assisted autopilot feature, and high-profile tests like the autonomous Budweiser truck have grabbed the occasional headline.
However, unlike some other technologies on this list, there aren’t many use cases on the ground for fully autonomous logistics vehicles yet. The technology simply isn’t quite ready for mass deployment, and the legal regulations on autonomous vehicles are still largely unwritten. But it’s certainly on the way, and in an industry where driver shortages are getting worse, logistics businesses will likely be grateful for the relief.
Like most sectors, the logistics industry is currently in the process of being turned upside down by technology. And it isn’t Silicon Valley hype. Anyone can see that the technologies currently in development will be nothing short of revolutionary for logistics. Like all technological upgrades, they require smart investment and agile deployment—but those who are able to integrate them effectively will take their place among the logistics providers of tomorrow.