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Air freights, drones, and the Internet of Things: what is the future of the supply chain?

Posted: 09/27/2016 - 03:02

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the global supply chain hasn’t really changed all that much. Products are made from raw materials in factories, shipped off somewhere else (either by land or sea), stored in a warehouse, and then distributed to retailers. Beyond a few small differences, this is more or less the way most people have acquired their stuff for nearly two hundred years.

“Stuff” is a vague term, but that only goes to show how versatile the supply chain system - developed in the Industrial Revolution and honed through the modern economic era - really is. Sure, the modern supply chain is more connected, involves more countries, and makes more products available to more people. However, at its core, it’s still the same animal.

All of that might be about to change, though...

Air freights: a solution riddled with problems

The first aeroplane was invented over a hundred years ago. Since then, planes have flown countless people to and from every conceivable destination on the planet.

And yet, despite all of these technological advances, businesses continue to transport goods by sea and land. It’s true that boats have gotten faster over the years and it’s also true that the increased connectivity of our roads means that cargo can travel by land much quicker than it used to. Still, in an age where literally millions of books worth of data can be transported to millions of people across the world in a matter of minutes via cloud storage, the fact that it still takes weeks and months to transport our physical goods the same distance seems remarkably slow.

The increased use of air freights, however, means that the gap between the speed of digital goods and physical goods could start shrinking. In many cases, though, a delivery using air freights can still take all of a week to reach its destination. This is because, though the initial flight takes a matter of hours, all the land travel leading up to the flight and following the flight can massively slow down the delivery time.

However, this problem isn’t necessarily the fault of air freights. Rather, it goes to show than more investment is needed in order to build a faster transport infrastructure around them. Air freights alone will not revolutionise the supply chain. Yet when you combine air freights with a couple of other potential changes, the future really does start to look different.

Chipotle burritos by drone: a joke with a serious punchline

In what sounds like a scene from a science fiction spoof, Chipotle and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, are working together to help develop technology that will help deliver the famed fast food by unmanned drone. Just how far away a future is where all food deliveries can be made by drones is yet to be seen. But one thing is for certain: this is no joke.

Drones delivering food is just one of many areas in which automation could potentially change the world of transport entirely. In fact, science vlogger CGP Grey argued as early as 2014 that automation could mean that over half of humans the world over will lose their jobs to robots.

Yet the future does not need to reach these predicted levels of automation for the supply chain to change drastically. After all, much of the technology needed to automate large parts of the supply chain already exists. Self-driving cars, drones, and robots of all kind are becoming smarter and cheaper at an exponential rate. More than that, they are becoming ever more connected with each other. This is known as the Internet of Things (IoT).

The Internet of Things: the future every business is trying to predict

The IoT is a large and complicated concept that businesses and tech experts are still trying to pin down. However, the basic idea is to extend the connectedness of the internet into the physical world. Just as all computers have the potential to be joined together by the internet, so too can cars, street lights, vacuum cleaners, and entire cities. As Jacob Morgan from Forbes put it, “anything that can be connected, will be connected.”

With regards to supply chains, the possibilities are staggering. In theory, if an organisation could automate and connect their entire supply chain system to the IoT from start to finish, they could control every element of it from their smartphone. Production, transportation, storage, delivery: an entire company’s supply chain controlled by a handful of people - or even just one person - and an app. It sounds like a strange, distant future, and yet the technology is already here. The only real challenge is pulling everything together.

What does all of this mean for the average business?

All this talk of the future sounds very technical and exciting, but does it really impact the supply chain of the average business? That depends on us.

It might be that nothing much changes for small-to-medium businesses for a long time and that, when change does happen, it will be by increments. Supply chains are deeply complicated things. For the supply chain to change quickly, every single aspect of it will have to change quickly. There’s no use delivering something to a warehouse at breakneck speed if the warehouse’s sorting and storage systems are still stuck in the 19th century.

Then again, perhaps it already is impacting the average business. Evidence of all these technological innovations is popping up everywhere. From the possibility of drones performing rack safety inspections in warehouses, to self-driving cars eliminating the need for millions of human drivers, the supply chain is undergoing the beginnings of a revolution.

This revolution could mean millions of job losses, or it could mean an unprecedented economic boom. There is still a lot to happen so it’s important for businesses to remember that, while so much of this technology is still in its infancy, the future of the supply chain is not something which people and businesses have to be shaped by. Rather, it's something which people and businesses can shape themselves.

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About The Author

Justin O’Sullivan is a writer and the owner of Storage Equipment Experts. His company delivers rack safety inspections to businesses across the UK in order to make the global supply that much safer.