2017 Looks to be the year of visibility

"We see the translation of data into meaningful, actionable, and timely insights as one of the biggest challenges for logistics businesses this year." - Lim Fang How, Regional Director, South East Asia, Zebra Technologies.

Artificial intelligence asset Fulfillment Center Lim Fang How RFID warehouse Zebra

By Lim Fang How, Regional Director, South East Asia, Zebra Technologies

2017 has been an eventful one for the logistics industry thus far, with the start of the year seeing a number of key announcements and changes that promise to shake the field. For example, we’ve seen S.F. Express Co Ltd announce its aims to build Asia’s busiest air cargo hub in China[1], while Amazon has patented “airborne fulfillment centers” (AFCs)[2], where multiple smaller drones come together to make a unified AFC, and the smaller drones are capable of detaching themselves from the AFC to make independent deliveries.

Technological innovations such as Amazon’s look to be most impactful on the logistics industry, and it’s always valuable to examine these innovations and the industry trends they are prompting to see how they will impact businesses in the months to come. Some of these trends include the use of autonomous systems, machine learning, smart sensing, wearable enterprise solutions, and more. Here are the trends which we at Zebra see as being of particular note in the year ahead.

Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) make their presence felt in logistics
While the practical use of AI would have seemed to be the exclusive realm of science fiction just a decade ago (Google co-founder Sergey Brin himself recently admitted that the pace of advancements in the field had taken him by surprise[3]), AI has progressed to the point where it can easily defeat the world’s top Go players – an ancient board game said to be so complex that the number of positions that its pieces can occupy exceed the total number of atoms in the observable universe – at their own game[4]. Indeed, IDC has identified robotics as being among the six innovation accelerators that will galvanize digital transformation by creating new revenue streams and changing the very way businesses work. It predicts that worldwide spending on robotics and related services will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17%, hitting US$135.5 billion in 2019 from US$71 billion in 2015.

In Zebra’s recent Warehouse Vision Study, seven in 10 decision makers involved with warehouses indicated that they expected their companies to accelerate warehouse technology investments. Customer expectations are soaring ever higher, driving the need for new technologies to shorten delivery times, improve fulfillment accuracy, and reduce out-of-stock situations. Amazon and DHL have already started deploying robots in their warehouses; these robots can lift and shift goods around, as well as bring goods to workers who then pick and pack the goods. This saves workers the time needed to manually run through vast warehouses to hand-pick items for shipping. Other automated form factors businesses are exploring include roving robotic devices or flying drones that can read barcodes or Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags without human guidance.

Zooming in on locationing
Logistics businesses can take a page out of the sports industry’s playbook, which has taken the lead in deploying locationing technologies. For example, players in the National Football League don gear and play with footballs equipped with RFID tags, allowing their movements to be accurately tracked in real-time. This has enabled more in-depth analysis of the dynamics taking place on the field and allowed fans to be even more engaged with play-by-play stats.

Logistics businesses are starting to tap on such technologies to track the location of every single shipment, package and asset, down to their exact location within the warehouse. This minimizes the chances of packages going missing, which is one of the biggest headaches for those in the industry.