A subject of increasing discussion within the transport and logistics industry is that of the rise of robots in the supply chain. Whilst these discussions have been somewhat overshadowed by media coverage of 3D printers and their prospective applications, the near future is set to be characterised by the next wave of automation in industry, as discussed by our CEO, John Manners-Bell, in the whitepaper; ‘The Impact of Robotics and Automation on Logistics’.
Even as the industry is still getting to grips with the potential impact of 3D printers, and companies are exploring their use in manufacturing, the adoption of automated technologies has already started. For example, Amazon has already begun to utilise automated solutions to increase the productivity of its workforce; having acquired robotics company Kiva Systems in 2012, the company has experimented with its system of picking and packing in selected fulfilment centres, by using robots to bring stored items to the pickers, rather than pickers having to go to the items themselves. Kiva Systems claimed that the adoption of this technique could increase productivity by a factor of four.
However, this is just a single application amongst many possibilities brought on by increased automation of the supply chain. One of the more interesting ideas brought about by the application of automated technology is to bypass transportation infrastructure entirely. Indeed, one of the topics for discussion at the Unmanned Cargo Air Conference is the potential for the use of Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (UCA) in regions with good growth prospects, but poor or inadequate infrastructure, such as in Africa and Latin America.
Ironically, whilst many are ill at ease with the prospect of driverless cars, trucks or planes using shared transportation networks, one of the greatest arguments in favour of unmanned vehicles is safety. The vast majority of road accidents are caused by driver error; drivers can be distracted by phone calls or passengers, tired or overconfident in their ability. Robots are not held back by these issues, and with the application of effective sensors can react to situations at levels of speed and accuracy beyond the capability of humans, and drive far more efficiently.
Nonetheless, it is likely to be some time before we are sharing our roads with driverless cars or HGV’s, as there remain technical and legal hurdles for such vehicles to overcome. These are undergoing development however, as demonstrated by Google’s self-driving car, among others.
However, there are two sides to every story.
Despite the potential offered by robots in the transportation and logistics sector, there will inevitably be tension as the adoption of new machinery leads to the labour force being replaced by automated systems. An inherent part of the cycle of creative destruction, this will not be the last time a workforce finds themselves obsolete, and out of a job. The extent to which this becomes a problem is dependent upon the ability of these workers to transition into new forms of employment. Historically though, such periods of technological advancement have led to political and social upheaval, as such workers are left behind, without the necessary skills for employment in the newly emerging industries. Governments must therefore make careful decisions in this regard, though in the long term, the changes brought about by technological revolutions are highly beneficial to the majority of society, and should be recognised as such.
What can be said without doubt, however, is that these technological advances will lead to changes in the working practices of large parts of logistics sector, and that sooner or later, the automated supply chain will become a reality.
Change is afoot, and the logistics and transport industry is set to be at the forefront of it.
Ti’s Logistics Briefing service provides subscribers with news of the logistics industry including technological developments. To be sure you’re as up to date as you can be in the industry, sign up to our Logistics Briefing service.