Sometimes I just like to live on the edge, which is definitely a qualifying status for anyone bold enough to make predictions about the future of supply chain operations and management—but I just can’t help myself.
So I’ve decided to indulge my craving by daring to speculate about what the supply chain of 2028 might look like.
I have no crystal ball and if I did, I wouldn’t know how to get a picture on it. Instead I’m just drawing on my consulting experience, a little research, and perhaps a tiny bit of imagination to surmise what we might see if we could gaze into a fully functioning crystal ball and view the supply chain environment of 2028.
It’s Mostly About Automation
We are on the cusp of a robotic revolution, whether you think of robots in the context of automated human replacements in the warehouse or self-driving vehicles on the road, rails, in the air, and at sea.
The world may not quite be ready for the latter, but a lot can change physically, economically, scientifically, and politically between now and 2028. Meanwhile, warehouse robotic solutions are developing apace, as you’ll know if you’ve been reading some of my posts on supply chain trends to watch in 2017 and 2018.
Robots Run the Warehouse
If you could take a look through a crystal ball at your company’s warehouses in 2028, you might not see much at all, probably because all the lights will be off.
Of course that’s really not such a bold prediction to make, since some warehouses are already running dark today. But I believe that by the late 2020s, fully automated warehouses will be the norm rather than the exception, especially in larger logistics operations.
By that time, agile robots with near human dexterity will be affordable, if not to purchase then at least to rent as part of a full-service solution from a robotics provider.
Unlike today, when the automated warehouse is most often a purpose-built facility, designed to house large-scale automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), in 2028 warehouse robots will have evolved to a point where they’re capable of operating in conventionally configured warehouses with racks and aisles, or something close to it.
Dark Distribution Centres
In fact it’s possible that the only obvious difference between a robotic and conventional warehouse operation in 2028— aside from the presence of robots and absence of people—will be the lack of natural or artificial lighting within.
Robots will navigate with the aid of lasers, radar, and other non-visual guidance systems, so things like windows and electric lighting will simply add costs and present unnecessary security risks.
In the distribution centre of 2028, we can probably expect the majority of activities to be automated, from goods receiving, through put-away and picking, to packing and dispatch. A combination of automated trucks, conveyor systems, and picking robots will enable inventory to pass through the DC with very little direct human intervention.
Everything from temperature control to on-site vehicle-marshalling will be managed from a central control room, overseen by a mere handful of people. Only smaller businesses will still employ manual warehouse operatives as we know them today, and then only for certain value-adding activities that still lie beyond the capabilities of robots.
Offshore Outsourcing will be the Exception
At some point in the next ten years, I think we’ll see a significant decline in levels of offshore production, as manual labour in the supply chain is replaced by automation, slashing labour costs and neutralising many of the benefits of off-shoring.
Barriers to automation will be reduced by robotics-as-a-service and once such services are in place, operating costs will be a fraction of those associated with human labour, even in lower-cost nations.
This, combined with efforts to move sources closer to domestic markets (driven by the overwhelming growth in omnichannel retail), will all but eradicate offshore production, at least for industries in which off-shoring benefits relate purely to labour.
Automation Will Close the Talent Gap
The supply chain talent gap will not be a concern in the supply chain of 2028. It would be nice to think that’s because we’ll learn to capture the attention of school-kids and get them interested in our industry from an early age, thereby securing a steady stream of graduates fresh and ready to rock the supply chain world.
However it’s actually more likely that we’ll close the talent gap by reducing the need for talent. Again, the key to this solution will be the use of automation and robotics.
While robotics will be the primary technology for labour-reduction in the warehouse, automation will become increasingly pervasive throughout the supply chain, as sensors, machine-to-machine communication, machine-learning and the Internet of Things make it possible to automate entire end-to-end processes such as procure-to-pay and order-to-cash.
While some sub-processes will still require human intervention and management teams will still take the bulk of strategic (and some tactical) decisions, many tasks in functions such as procurement, manufacturing, warehousing and freight-transportation will be handled mostly by automated means.
Autonomous Trucks, Trains, and Drones
Truck drivers will still be in short supply in 2028, but by that time, autonomous vehicles will have begun to penetrate the logistics industry. Ten years is plenty of time in which to overcome legal and safety issues which currently stand in the way of transporting goods by airborne drone or driverless truck.
It’s also plenty of time to refine the technology behind autonomous transportation, much of which is not far from being primetime-ready.
On the Road
However, we probably shouldn’t expect to see windowless self-driving trucks belting along the highways sans driver anytime within the next ten or even 20 years.
What’s more likely is that drivers will become less like “drivers” and more like attendants, each minding a truck that can largely manage itself, but possessing the necessary skills to intervene in certain situations.
Depending on just how autonomous the truck of 2028 turns out to be, we may see driver-licensing and hours-restrictions relaxed somewhat, allowing drivers to work longer shifts (hence reducing the number of drivers needed), or perhaps it will become easier and cheaper to obtain the appropriate driver’s license.
On the Rails
Meanwhile, autonomous rail transport might leap into the spotlight as the answer to highway congestion and fossil-fuel hell.
As I highlighted in a recent article on the Supply Chain Leaders Academy blog, an innovative rail system being developed in Texas could move transport containers and road-trailers “piggyback-style” on electric-powered, driverless shuttles.
These shuttles will ride rails set above the median of major highways. The idea is to make rail-freight transport viable over sub-1,000-kilometre distances and to ease highway congestion.
In the Air
As for airborne drones, which are currently the most advanced of all autonomous transport solutions, there’s every chance they’ll become a common sight above our heads, at least in countries prepared to change air-traffic regulations and open corridors for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
By 2028, experimental efforts with UAVs might extend beyond pizza and parcel deliveries, with larger drones being tested for the carriage of heavier freight payloads, although it’s probable that any experimental routes will only be permitted over sparsely populated areas, such as those found in sub-Saharan Africa or perhaps even the Australian Outback.
M Supply Chains will be Shorter in 2028
I’ve already suggested how automation and robotics might counter the trend in offshore outsourcing and so reduce the length of many supply chains. However there is another technological innovation that may also make a difference. That technology is called additive manufacturing—better known as 3D printing.
It’s becoming apparent today that 3D printing can be of value in the creation of many objects, and that it has incredible potential, especially for the manufacture of customised products.
In another ten years or so, I’m sure 3D printing will be instrumental in shortening supply chains, with many items actually being produced on demand, perhaps even in-store in the retail sector, and certainly at locally situated manufacturing centres.
Some supply chains will be impacted more by 3D printing than others, of course. For example, it’s unlikely to change food supply chains much, since 3D printed fruit, veg, and steak probably won’t be very palatable (although it’s possible that some food products will be 3D-printed, perhaps from reconstituted ingredients).
A Lot Can Happen in a Decade
Forecasting the future is always risky, especially in an environment as dynamic as that of supply chain operations. I’m not claiming that any of the predictions I’ve made here are based on any science, or that they are anything more than informed speculation.
Things can change a lot over the course of ten years, and there may be all sorts of disruptions, whether technological, environmental, or political waiting just around the corner.
Since none of us has access to a working crystal ball (as far as I’m aware), speculation is all we have and otherwise, we just have to wait and see. Naturally we’ll keep you updated here on the Logistics Bureau blog as things develop, so don’t forget to keep checking back to see just how far adrift my non-crystal-ball-assisted predictions turn out to be.