Logistics in 2017: The year of drones and data streams

Technology in the 21st century evolves at a frightening pace. The newest innovations have a lifespan measured in months. No sooner have businesses accommodated a new technology than it is superseded. The companies that adapt to each rapid change are the only ones which stand a chance of survival – it soon becomes hard to compete without the latest technological ability.

The same thing is happening in logistics. The rise of drones and connected data is redefining what’s possible. Amazon recently launched its ‘Prime Air’ drone delivery concept, which introduces the prospect of 30-minute order fulfilment. Connected data is doing the same thing for visibility — item tracking can now be performed in near-real time.

Here we investigate what logistics companies need to do to ensure they stay ahead of the curve.

Drones in flight

Drone technology could bring positive change. For example, rural areas may gain an unaccustomed advantage. Traditionally, these areas are last to receive services like same-day delivery or broadband. Drone flight is actually more feasible outside cities, as collision avoidance will be much less difficult than in built-up areas.

Despite the hype, drone technology could be a supply chain nightmare if companies aren’t careful. Many still rely on outdated processes, which would make incorporating drones a steep learning curve. How do you make the jump from email and telephone to drones?

To simplify the process, organizations must ensure they implement transport management systems to automate essential processes (setting weight limits, or ensuring safe delivery to challenging destinations). Tighter integration between systems will also enable businesses to manage all the new data being delivered.

Drone delivery also raises questions about supply chain routes. For example, how will goods reach the supplier from the manufacturer? In a more flexible landscape, logistics companies must redefine themselves as enablers. By using control tower platforms, managers can monitor each robot in the field – rerouting terrestrial drones around traffic or re-mapping complex delivery routes to minimize delivery time. Drones will also inundate organizations with a flood of real-time data, increasing the need for powerful cloud-based applications to process that information.

Drone delivery is a key step toward an exciting connected world—but organizations need technological flexibility and scalability to handle the delivery methods of the future.

Data delivery

Data is the key resource for a progressive supply chain. The ability to store and analyze masses of data at little cost, combined with ubiquitous internet connectivity and mobile devices, has created an “always on” platform for logistics companies.

There are challenges, however, to successfully implementing data in the supply chain. The first is change management, enabling companies to embark on large-scale process adaptation with appropriate leadership support and funding. Businesses must approach data as a central aspect of their business, migrating processes into cloud-based systems to incorporate insights quickly into their working model.

Secondly, businesses need to bring down their internal boundaries to access better collaboration. Partner enterprises must work across a single network-based digital source for their orders, inventory, and shipments.

Third, social concerns, particularly around privacy, may cause objections, especially in Europe. As more personal information is digitized, there is the risk that hackers and national surveillance agencies could attempt to gain access to that data.

In reality, big data is about being able to process massive volumes of information to improve a company’s services. This is a challenge to many solution providers, but we are also seeing the emergence of new cost-effective platforms to help lessen transition stress.

The Internet of Things (IoT) plays a key role in the ‘datafication’ of logistics. The IoT gives companies access to “edge” areas that can supply useful information. These are the functions furthest away from core planning units – temperature sensors on trailers, or position tracking on containers. Each of these units in the chain can now relay data to a network-based solution to support strategic decisions.

If supply chain companies are to make the most of these paradigm-shifting technologies, it’s essential to have the infrastructure in place to handle them. The technology is ready—what is lacking is the ability to make the rubber hit the road. As a result, logistics companies must equip themselves with flexible in-cloud transport management systems now, before their competitors leapfrog them. Technology will continue to change the logistics industry into the future, so businesses must invest in future proofing now, to ensure they have the flexibility to deal with whatever new technology comes along.

Sian Hopwood is senior vice president B2B operations at Kewill. She is a highly experienced supply chain executive with almost two decades of experience in the industry. Before joining Kewill in 2005, she worked at Jontek and Unisys.