Robotization In Transport And Distribution: Will Nine Out Of Ten DCs Soon Be Obsolete?
There’s not a lot being said about the robotization that’s already taking place in the transport sector. Naturally it will help make up for the anticipated shortage of personnel in the logistics labor market. But I predict that, ten years from now, 9/10...
Faster, more frequent and more finely meshed
With more e-commerce (soon also in business-to-business), with the rise of nano stores and with the circular economy, the flows of goods will become faster, more frequent and more fine-mazed. Over the coming decade, the packagingdensity – the number of order lines per cubic meter – will be increasing by a factor of 5 to 10. It’s not the transport or storage costs that will determine the setup of the distribution network, but rather the efficient handling of goods. What is more, developments in technology will be changing the logistics landscape.
Three technological developments in transport and distribution are going to fundamentally change the existing distribution networks: the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T), the autonomous or platooned trucks that will carry goods safely and reliably over the TEN-T, and the innovations in warehouse automation.
In the framework of the TEN-T program, the European Commission has designated ten international transport links – the “core network corridors” – that are to be fully built up and improved with EU funding through 2030. These concern innovative transport links on water, rails and roads.
The aims are to further strengthen the European transport infrastructure – and the intelligent transport and traffic management systems that go along with that – to lower transport costs in Europe. On these safe and robust core network corridors, goods will find their way – uninterrupted, but especially also reliably – between Europe’s major production and consumption areas. This is the preferred network of the future.
Platooning: autonomous driving
Unmanned trucks are getting closer and closer. The use of wireless technology to connect to a “road train” – a manually steered lead truck with a column of vehicles behind it – is already technically possible.
These road trains are going to need to have sufficient volume and frequency. That will require enormous DCs where logistics service providers can combine transport flows across chains to deliver, with a high frequency and great reliability, to DCs downstream in the chain, closer to major consumption centers. Those DCs will need to be strategically connected with the main nodes of the TEN-T network.
Dark stores: robots in warehouses
Faster, more frequent and more finely meshed deliveries are going to require automation of the handling in DCs: “dark stores”. With new technology such as Amazon’s picking robots, automatic case picking, RFID, GS1 standards for pallet labels, dock-and-roll and pick-by-voice, the productivity in DCs is increasing in leaps and bounds. Distribution centers where employees gather 900 to 1,200 order lines an hour are no longer exceptions. Those investments can only be earned back in DCs with sufficient scale.
Ten years ago, we still thought that DCs couldn’t be any larger than 50,000 square meters. Warehouses larger than that were thought to be less efficient. In the meantime, Zalando, Action, Nike, Zara and others have shown that efficient DCs can easily be as big as 150,000 to 300,000 square meters.
The DCs of the future will be located at strategic points within the TEN-T network. They will combine freight flows from many carriers and have fully automated internal processes.
The DCs will be interconnected with advanced systems for the minute-by-minute planning and steering of the operational processes with transport management, warehouse management and traffic management: sense and respond. Control towers will see to the tactical coordination of the flows of goods and capacities in the distribution network: predict and prepare.
Apart from the question as to where we are going to find the talented planners needed for all that, there is still the question as to whether nine out of ten DCs won’t soon be obsolete.