From the ancient Egyptian pyramid to the Roman aqueduct, from the Hanseatic cog to the locomotive, from the sea container to the barcode – there’s usually a broad consensus among industry experts about which milestones have shaped logistics in the past and present. But what about milestones of the future? That’s where the answer becomes more difficult. A good source of knowledge is provided by current studies in which logistics experts, scientists, and consulting firms take a close look at logistics trends. Of course, not every trend has what it takes to become a milestone – but if trends solidify over the years, they can still turn into one. So which technologies and innovations will determine the future of logistics?
Sustainability is undoubtedly one of the mega trends, which almost all authors see as a reaction to climate change and other ecological threats. In transport logistics, strict environmental regulations and customer demand for environmentally friendly transports are the drivers of these developments. And the first milestones are already in sight.
In distribution transport, for example, commercial vehicles sneaking through inner cities on electric velvet paws could someday qualify for the milestone title. Trucks powered by fuel cells are good candidates in long-distance transport, while the Smart City Loop has good chances of becoming a milestone highlight in city logistics. This spectacular transport system for the penultimate mile, in which goods are transported fully automatically on pallets or in transport containers via underground tubes from city outskirts to a hub in the city center, could soon become reality in Hamburg. A feasibility study for the Hanseatic city estimates that, up to 5,000 pallets could make the journey in the tube every day, saving up to 1,000 trips by truck, depending on the type of vehicle and route,.
Big data analytics and flying airships as warehouses – do they have a future?
Of course, sometimes there’s a fine line between science fiction and solid forecasting. In a study on changes in supply chain management by 2040, the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA assumes that vehicles and machines will load and unload themselves on company premises, in ports, at freight stations, or in mail distribution centers, and take on delivery. One mega trend identified by the study is the ability of self-learning neural networks to evaluate large volumes of data by machine (big data analytics). This should make it possible for machines to take over middle management’s experience- and rule-based decisions.
In its white paper on Logistics 4.0, MHP Management and IT Consulting, which is part of Porsche AG, describes the concept of a US company in which a large airship serves as a flying warehouse for goods and parcels. Automatic drones carry goods on the last mile to end customers directly from the airship. It remains to be seen what chances the research project has of being implemented. In most studies, drones by themselves appear to be a qualified future technology. Yet they’re still flying under the radar of their potential – massive concerns in terms of safety and cost-effectiveness stand in the way of their use, especially in urban areas. In the long term, however, heavy-lift and transport drones are likely to play a role as technology drivers for commercial aviation.
Automated driving loses its appeal
Some studies actually question the future viability of technologies that previously seemed to be set as future milestones. For example, forecasters currently don’t see much prospect for 3D printing. They do attest to the technology’s high innovation potential for new products, processes, and business models. However, the breakthrough in industrial applications is still a long time coming, especially for large batch sizes. The quality guarantee of safety-relevant parts as well as protection against product piracy are still unresolved. Automated driving – for example with automated parcel transporters – has also lost some of its appeal. Critical discussions include liability issues in connection with the participation of highly automated vehicles in public road traffic.
Hot topic digitization – are AI, blockchain, and cloud on the rise?
Digitization is still an all-time favorite among the most frequently mentioned mega trends. However, there are good reasons for defining this term more precisely in the future. After all, the digital sphere is already a reality in many logistics companies – even if there are still considerable differences when it comes to depth of penetration. A study published in 2019 by digital association Bitkom shows that most logistics companies in Germany are convinced that digital technologies offer practical advantages in the transportation of goods, as well as lower logistics costs and less vulnerable transport chains. However, when it comes to innovations such as distributed data storage and computing power (cloud computing), artificial intelligence, and blockchain, the interest and commitment of logistics companies tend to drop drastically. The fact that selection and weighting of trends in these studies always also depends on the authors’ locations is shown by logistics group DHL’s Logistics Trend Radar 2020. The renowned series of studies takes a look at the global logistics industry based on a comprehensive analysis of macro and micro trends. The fifth edition of the Logistics Trend Radar states that quantum computing, blockchain, and space logistics could open up new opportunities for logistics providers for large-scale solutions and services. In the fields of data analytics, artificial intelligence, and robotics, dynamic growth could already signal a new normal for logistics.