As technology drives change in logistics, companies must meet increasing consumer demand. But what does it mean for traditional labour roles?
Logistics has never felt more fluid and subject to change. In this article, we’re going to look at the key factors driving all this change and then consider how technology will develop in the next 10-20 years. Then, in our second piece, we’ll consider how new business models will evolve before trying to draw some conclusions.
Faster, Cheaper, Better
Commercial interests have always demanded logistics move stock quickly, cheaply and in large quantities. Historically, transport improvements – from horses through to planes – answered this demand. But in the future, it will be the digital world that provides these answers.
The 21st Century customer is an unforgiving beast. However, while new shopping patterns are placing extra demand on logistics providers, they are also generating fresh opportunity. As end customers become more focused on flexible, fast and cheap solutions, logistics companies that optimise their digital usage are well-set to take advantage of weak competition at every stage of the supply chain, including retailers.
Technological advances, forecasting and new business models all offer glimpses of how these demands can be answered. There is even the possibility that much of the future supply chain will be autonomous and self-organised.
One thing for sure is that it will faster, cheaper and better – the customer won’t accept anything less.
Interconnected World, Interconnected Supply Chain
3D printing makes it possible to print exact working replicas of parts and products using metals, plastic, composite materials, and even human tissue. This can be done quickly, on demand and to a customer’s specification. This makes it a central technology in the development towards “batch size one” production.
It also means it will no longer be necessary to store large amounts of stock. Though it is possible there may be a counter-balancing increase in raw material storage.
In markets in which 3D printing is relevant (for example, spare parts), this has the potential to heavily disrupt logistics. And the best 3PLs will provide 3D printing services at the point of delivery to dovetail with other services.
Internet of Things (IoT)
The IoT is the developing ability for digital devices to communicate directly with each other across the internet. It’s estimated that by 2020, more than 50 billion objects will be “web-enabled”. And, if you consider that they will be able to “talk” to one another, the potential becomes clear.
Immediacy of communication can lead to many direct benefits. Creation of automated orders for domestic resources, lorry sensors informing maintenance schedules – all focused on improved speed, efficiency and cost.
From a customer perspective, the ability to track items through their RFID chips and via GPS will mean 100 per cent visibility across the whole delivery cycle. From a logistics perspective, one can also envisage other variables – such as location, temperature, pressure, humidity, etc. – being monitored throughout the supply chain for improved transportation efficiency.
However, the biggest single opportunity arguably comes from the unrivalled quantities of consumer data that will arise, feeding into forecasting and automated processing. For those who can embrace and take advantage of it, this goldmine of information is a very exciting prospect.
Whilst the idea of automation can seem like something from science fiction, there’s no denying the groundswell of development this area has seen in the last 2-3 years.
Labour costs are always a critical element in any operating model. In logistics, the trade-off between quality of service and cost is central to success. Automation could re-write this equation by providing a faster and better service for less money.
Relatively simple loading and unloading systems are already available. But these will become more sophisticated as advances in optics and data processing mean forklifts can navigate autonomously in dynamic environments, and with less error than human drivers.
In addition, autonomous delivery is on the horizon. DHL and Amazon both plan to launch drones for last-mile deliveries. And the appetite for them is strong amongst manufacturers, retailers and customers.
Autonomous lorries are also a real possibility using the same optical and AI developments that underpin driverless forklifts.
Not only would driverless vehicles be cheaper – both in labour and fuel costs – they will also be safer and more predictable making them ideal tools for efficient supply chain management. Add to this the fact the whole transport industry is suffering from dramatic driver shortages, and it’s not a surprise this technology is very appealing to most industry segments.
Augmented reality (AR), overlays relevant information (such as sound, vision or tactile data) onto a user’s normal sensory input, generally via body suits/gloves, goggles or headphones.
Wearable devices are already available that offer a glimpse into the potential future of this technology. Smart phones, smart watches, and VR goggles all give indications of how additional relevant data can be communicated.
For example, stock control data (SKUs, pallet contents, BBEs, etc.) could be accessed without leaving the warehouse floor, displaying data for on-the-spot planning and organisation. And when incorporated into transport, it could offer intelligent last mile assistance (navigation, traffic information, etc.)
Essentially, AR enables greater collaboration between systems and workers. As such, all logistics companies need to consider how AR can ensure all the elements work well together.
Whither the Worker?
With more automation, traditional labour roles will diminish. As such, redefining the place of the human worker within a more technologically advanced environment, will be vital.
In some areas, we will see happy confluence, such as a diminishing driver workforce being superseded by automated delivery solutions. But elsewhere there will be less need for human skills, and an increased need for other skill sets that, historically, have not been required.
For example, automated pick and pack solutions make warehouse operatives less relevant. However, at the same time air and sea transport are both chronically understaffed, with no expectation that the industry demands will drop.
The onus will be on logistics companies to identify future HR needs and pay close attention to their recruitment. In addition to recruitment, the whole sector will need to become more proactive in training, encouraging transferable and future-proofed skills to ensure an engaged and productive work force.
Central will be the development of technically proficient workers. Low-skilled roles will diminish markedly and ICT-related knowledge will be vital.
Zupplychain employs algorithmic matching of customer’s search requirements to warehouse availability to show warehouse pricing, along with an automated and structured process to progress enquiries and a cloud based system to manage customer stock in provider’s warehouses.