Disruptive technological forces are reshaping the logistics industry in ways that are profound and unprecedented. And industry players, faced with the constant challenge of addressing rapidly evolving consumer needs and interests, have not been shy about embracing them.

Among the major tech-fueled shifts in the industry is toward automation. According to a 2016 report by the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), some of the industry’s labor-intensive processes, from warehousing to last-mile delivery, were already being fully or partially automated.

“Automated solutions in the warehouse are already being implemented and their level of sophistication is increasing. For example, automated loading and unloading systems are already available, but in the future these are likely to be able to bypass obstacles and adjust routes automatically. Advances in data processing and optics now allow tasks to be automated which were once thought too complex — like trailer loading and offloading at acceptable speeds,” the report said.

Meanwhile, the report said package delivery could actually make more use of automation, particularly through delivery drones and autonomous vehicles. “Google has already started working on self-driving lockers and the trucking industry is partnering with OEMs on partially automated truck convoys. Even if more radical solutions are a long time coming, other technologies which could make drivers more efficient are in the offing too, like augmented reality solutions that give drivers more information about their environment and the packages still on board,” it said.

An article published on the Web site of Innovation Enteprise, a business media company, said that the online retail giant Amazon’s experimentation with drone-based delivery services is “an awesome idea because drones and unmanned aerial vehicles offer incredible potential in this regard if only because they can provide a variety of economic and environmental benefits.”

A large number of transports and ground vehicles would disappear from roads if there was a major shift to aerial delivery, the article noted, and this would provide benefits like reduced traffic buildup, reduced costs associated with ground-based transportation and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The article also touched on another important tech trend in logistics: the Internet of Things or IoT. “IoT is often associated with consumer-level devices such as smart home technology. While it definitely has its place in that market, there are enterprise-level applications of the technology already in use. In manufacturing and development, for example, IoT sensors are used to monitor and maintain expensive equipment,” it said.

In logistics, meanwhile, IoT sensors and devices can be deployed by companies in order to have a more connected production floor that gives real-time alerts and updates, the article said. It added, “But these devices are also leveraged across the entire supply chain. Imagine enhancing in-transit visibility, being able to track entire shipments along every minute of their full route. Suddenly, equipment and employee monitoring are also possible much like you’d see in a modern fleet thanks to real-time GPS systems. The difference is, of course, you’re tracking goods, equipment and people with a great amount of detail.”

Then there are predictive maintenance solutions. According to a 2019 PwC report, they have compelling benefits, including cost reduction. “Predictive maintenance helps reduce downtime and allows companies to use their equipment without breaks. Moreover, regular periodic maintenance is a waste of money if the assets are in good condition,” it said.

It also helps improve the quality of service, the report added, by stabilizing delivery times and ensuring that a company’s entire fleet is not only available but also ready to work at full capacity. Even the environment can benefit from predictive maintenance. “Better maintenance has a positive impact on environment and waste management. Sub-optimal operation is spotted, allowing machines to be used for longer times, resulting in savings in raw materials and natural resources,” the report said.

Even blockchain and distributed ledger technologies are starting to make an impact on the logistics industry. They offer four advantages: security (End-to-end product identification and auditability while maintaining privacy with hash keys); efficiency (Reduced need for document processing); transparency (Easier and reliable tracking and source checking); and reliability (Once a piece of information is put into the network it cannot be easily changed).

“Overall, companies from the transportation and logistics sector tend to value blockchain-based solutions for the possibility to create internally robust, transparent and secure systems that allow them to deliver higher service levels at a lower cost,” the report said. However, the report also emphasized, “Blockchain, and in the wider sense all distributed ledger technologies, are expected to have a moderate influence on all T&L segments, with effects visible in three years’ time at minimum.”