Drones, Robots, and Self Driving Vehicles, Part II: Bringing it all Together

by Matthew Wittemeier

In part one of drones, robots, and self-driving vehicles, I ended with the notion that each of these technologies can reshape how consumers interact with parcel operators. This ability on its own provides a degree of excitement for the future. However, when we look at how they could come together to redefine parcel logistics as a whole, things get even more exciting!

End-to-end Automation

All of the technology exists to fully automate parcel logistics. Depending on which side of the Fourth Industrial Revolution you're standing, that is either exciting or a doomsday prediction. That said, while there will likely be union push-back to the idea of autonomous technologies taking over traditionally manned roles - it will happen.

It is already underway in the North American market where self-driving vehicles are legally on the road in Nevada. The legalization of the technology will only continue as it continues to improve. In late 2016, the U.S. Government took a positive position on self-driving vehicles, describing a future where self-driving vehicles will save time, money, and lives. To add fuel to the fire, the US entered 2017 with a shortage of 100,000 qualified drivers; a shortage that hasn't shown any signs of improving, but rather getting worse. Self-driving vehicles are well positioned to fill this skills shortage providing the catalyst needed for automated technologies to take hold.

From there, automation will continue as the newer robotic technologies discussed in part one continue to evolve, benefitting from increased real world testing, advances in AI and machine learning, and end customer feedback. This last point is crucial, robots delivering parcels is an unprecedented change in how consumers interact with parcel delivery, and consumers have the ability to make or break the adoption of the technology with almost every parcel operator looking more intently on consumer feedback data to inform future services.

Dynamic Networks

As the logistics network evolves to be more autonomous, so too will the network that supports it. The future logistics network will be more dynamic and nimble than those of today. Supply and demand ebbs and flows. This is economics 101. What's new here, is that autonomous technologies can be redeployed more easily than their traditional manned counterpart. This flexibility will provide operators with newfound abilities to transform their static networks of today into a dynamic, data-driven network of the future.

Last-mile delivery optimization is already evolving to cater for increasing data that allows for optimized routes. As an extension, if we apply the systems logic already available to manage portable assets to autonomous technologies, operators will not only have a system that can react to operational changes, but grow to predict them and proactively balance resource requirements in advance. This agile approach is already proven to decrease required asset pools while increasing service levels - applied to autonomous technologies, it would have a large impact on managing CAPEX costs and improving customer service levels in a dynamic network.

Consolidated Delivery

Last month, at the World Mail and Express conference in Paris, Martin Kreiter from Hermes postulated that in the not-to-distant future, parcel operators would have to begin consolidating delivery in cities to avoid congestion and adhere to possible new regulations imposed by governments (particularly in Europe). So, partial credit is due to Mr. Kreiter for his challenge to the industry; this section is heavily influenced by his presentation and discussions since then.

A consolidation hub that combined multiple parcel operator's consignments onto self-driving delivery vans equipped with branded delivery robots allows operators to still influence, and brand, the delivery of parcels in a consolidated model.

Human delivery is prone to bias, and in a consolidated model, it's highly possible that a preference for vendor X over vendor Y would have an impact on customer service. This impact would likely be outside of each operator's realm of direct influence. Robots, on the other hand, are indifferent; they do what they're instructed. Robots will allow operators to continue to differentiate their brand, and control their delivery experience in the consolidated delivery model of the future.

Humans Won't Go

Reading this post, it would be easy to believe that humans have no place in the future of parcel logistics - but this couldn't be further from the truth. The future will see a shift in the roles and responsibilities of humans. After all, robots are only good at doing what they are programmed to do. In the third, and final, installment in this series, I'll take a closer look at how existing systems, processes, and people will be changed by drones, robots, and self-driving technologies.

Do you think the dynamic networks will evolve in the logistics space? Is the industry flexible enough to change? Weigh in with your thoughts.

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About the author

  • Matthew Wittemeier

    Matthew Wittemeier is Director Marketing and Sales at INFORM's Terminal & Distribution Center Logistics Division where he’s become a thought-provoking contributor to many industry publications and conferences. He’s also co-author of the award winning 2038: A Smart Port Story - a story about the future of technology and the social challenges it may bring.

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