Technology Trends Impact Shipping
Technology impacts everything we do — from the time we get up (and grab our smartphones) ’til the time we go to bed (likely with smartphone in-hand or under pillow). Technology is always evolving, and it forces us to change as well. It has affected the shipping industry in numerous ways, but here are three technological trends that have had — or is expected to have — the most significant impact:
Robots have come a long way since R2-D2 and C3PO made them cool in the “Star Wars” movies. These days, drones, driverless cars and robotic vacuum cleaners are the norm. How it affects shipping: Some industry experts believe robots will completely replace workers and lead to a fully automated, or “lights-out,” warehouse. Online retailer Amazon uses more than 15,000 robots for order fulfillment — including drones that now deliver same-day service in some areas. But rather than firing workers, the company hired several thousand more to keep up with these speedy robots that retrieve goods from storage and carry them to employees. To prepare for the future, logistics companies should invest in solutions such as robotic palletizing and automated storage and retrieval, says the Jacksonville Port Authority (JAXPORT), which owns and operates three cargo facilities in Florida. “The supply chain strategist must understand trends and innovations many years into the future to remain relevant and grow year over year,” says JAXPORT. “As the most labor-intensive piece of the supply chain, distribution centers can adopt automation and robotic technology to realize improved operational efficiencies, including stocking and fulfillment. Future robotics will extend across other links in the supply chain, including distribution using unmanned transportation.”
Everybody’s talking about it, but what exactly is 3D printing, or additive manufacturing? Quite simply, it’s the process of making three-dimensional objects — engines, robotic body parts, even food — from a digital file. At least 80 percent of all finished products will involve some kind of 3D printing by 2020, according to SupplyChain24/7. And it’s expected to be a $10.8 billion industry by 2021, according to the Wohlers report. But 3D printing actually isn’t all that new; NASA has been using the technology since the early 1990s, and the U.S. Navy began using it in 2014. Now, hobbyists and average consumers are jumping on the 3D bandwagon as the printers become more affordable at $299-$3,299. How it affects shipping: With consumers printing their own miniature models, toys, jewelry, replacement parts and the like, there’s really no need to have those items shipped from manufacturers or stored in warehouses. “3-D printing abolishes the need for high-volume production facilities and low-level assembly workers, thereby cutting out at least half of the supply chain in a single blow,” says Len Calderone at RoboticsTomorrow.com. “It is no longer efficient to ship products across the globe to get to the customer when manufacturing can take place almost anywhere at the same cost.” However, 3D manufacturing opens the door for a whole new sector in logistics: the storage and delivery of raw materials used in 3D printers. And it also paves the way for the logistics company of the future. “The changing supply chain dynamics will lead to a new type of logistics company resembling a ‘4PL’, or service management company,” says SupplyChain24/7. “These companies will offer demand planning, manufacturing, delivery, market monitoring, service parts management and return and recycling services. In essence, they will become Product Life-Cycle Management service providers. This is a big opportunity for the major industry players that have the resources to establish these new organizations.”
E-commerce has arguably been one of the biggest boons to the shipping industry. With the click of a button, customers can make a purchase, send it anywhere in the world, and then track its delivery. According to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of Americans are smartphone owners, and for many these devices are a key entry point to the Internet. Along with that, more websites are being optimized for mobile browsing because more users now shop by phone rather than desktop. Plus, we live in the “I Want It Now” era, so consumers are used to having their goods delivered quickly — sometimes on the same day. (See Robotics above) How it affects shipping: To fulfill same-day delivery, some companies have followed Amazon’s lead and opened regional distribution facilities throughout the U.S. to decrease shipping times, reduce costs and offer better customer service, according to Insite Software. Regional carriers can benefit from this trend if they keep providing fast, reliable service at a decent rate.