I recently attended Manifest – a Las Vegas conference focused on the future of logistics. I met with a variety of companies and attended interesting presentations with topics ranging from robotics and last mile, to AI and visibility. Below is a brief list of key takeaways from the conference.
Not surprisingly visibility was a hot topic, but unfortunately there are no silver bullets to delivering perfect freight visibility. There is broad agreement that freight visibility is crucial and that without visibility it is impossible to make operational and strategic decisions. In an ideal world, there would be full end-to-end visibility: from when the container leaves an export port to when the final package arrives at the end customer. Some presenters even highlighted the need to have visibility before the container gets to the origin port. This will help, for example, building better forecasts and aid in various sustainability initiatives. It was also clear that visibility needs context around it – why something is happening. How are weather, geopolitical issues, component shortages, and changing consumer needs – to name a few variables – impacting the flows of goods.
Supply chains are collaborative in nature. The problem is that there are many parties involved and visibility can be challenging during mode changes and other handoffs. Technologies like GPS and NFC (near field communication) will help. We also need advanced analytics that will not only tell you what happened but why something happened and what will happen in the future. But for true collaboration there has to be trust and incentives between the different parties. I’m not convinced we are there yet. Everyone wants to share data as long as it’s not their data! This is not a technology problem but a mindset problem.
Last Mile and Micro Freight
Not surprisingly there doesn’t seem to be a way to change customers’ expectations. We all want our orders delivered as fast as possible. Last mile has historically suffered from low productivity per person (think of ocean shipment in comparison). Today, a person is still dropping your package at your doorstep. Given the persistent labor shortages, more efficient delivery mechanisms are needed. Drones are starting to change this. Groceries, medicines, parcels, etc. could all be delivered by drones. Beyond drones, there are many different options for the last mile delivery: e-bikes, robots, etc. Given the innovation happening in this space, hopefully we will one day see fewer delivery trucks on the roads. I’m sure we can all appreciate less congestion and cleaner air!
Several sessions were dedicated to sustainability. And the reason is clear: more than 90% of companies’ greenhouse gas emissions are related to the supply chain. Companies are investing in sustainability because they are seeking cost savings, they need to meet compliance targets, or because they are getting pressured from their own employees or customers. Measuring return on sustainability remains challenging, and this may limit investments in this area. And while consumers are more sophisticated, more education is still required to train them, for example, on the impact of consolidating packages and other carbon footprint-impacting actions. This will be a journey, but an interesting one where different modes, from freight rail to drones and e-bikes, can play a role.
Yes, space as in outer space! Today 90% of space-related use cases are for navigation. In the not-so-distant future we will see opportunities around pharmaceutical development, growing food and human organs, and tourism. There are ideas for data centers in space (cooling is not an issue, solar is available for electricity). And some of us might even retire in space. Needless to say, there are some unique challenges around logistics for any of these use cases. The moon, for example, goes through large temperature variations – the night is 14 days long, food will have to be delivered or grown, and an increasing amount of space debris/ junk is escalating the risk of collisions. While not a final frontier, space is certainly the next challenging frontier for logistics.
It is not possible to have a logistics conference without multiple sessions dedicated to artificial intelligence and machine learning. I was impressed by how advanced some companies were in terms of using AI. Use cases varied from dispatching and demand forecasting to route optimization. Most everyone agreed that AI was not going to be replacing people, but rather making them more efficient. Today a dispatcher can handle 40 drivers, but in the future the number could greatly increase with AI assistance. While it can be hard for people to trust the recommendations made by an AI enabled tool, a willingness to learn and effective change management are necessary steps to continuing to move AI forward.
Overall, this was a great conference and a great group of companies and speakers. I look forward to next year’s event.