Materials handling is in my DNA. Not only did I grew up around the industry, I’ve been writing professionally about it since 1984. So, the last 5 or 6 years has been a pretty exciting time, with investments in conventional automation along with the emergence of robotics in the warehouse and distribution center.

Wearing my Supply Chain Management Review cap, it feels as if the attention is turning to transportation and logistics—what happens outside the four walls. Indeed, at the Manifest event I attended last week, there was a nice representation of autonomous mobile robot companies, including Locus, Caja, Exotec and HAI Robotics, to name a few, along with a couple system integrators and 3PLs. But, to me, the dominant theme of the show was software platforms to optimize all transportation modes, both domestic and global, with a big emphasis on last mile delivery. And then, at the back of the exhibition hall, was a line of 10 or 12 gleaming autonomous trucks from providers like Einride and Gatik, to name just two. It was like that field trip we all took to the fire station in elementary school and seeing the giant shining and polished firetrucks.

I also had one-on-one meetings with 3Gtms, Chain.IO, Shipium and Waymo. A fair number of the exhibitors I talked to were there to meet with private equity and venture capital funds, which said a lot to me about where investment money might be getting directed next.

I don’t want to imply that investors are no longer throwing money at robotics companies. I still get about a dozen emails a day from a new robotics startup. But the focus on transportation and logistics was striking. So, what explains it?

For one, the amount of money spent getting a product from Point A to Point B outside the four walls of a distribution center far exceeds the handling spend inside the four walls: Transportation has a bigger bullseye. Another is that transportation is a highly-fragmented process that is still dominated by telephone calls, e-mails and spreadsheets. The constant rise of e-commerce orders forced us to focus on automation inside the DC for the past five or so years; meanwhile, what happens after the order was packed and left the facility was less of an issue. But that increase became meteoric starting in the spring of 2020, and it’s forced shippers to realize they have to look for alternatives to the Holy Trinity of FedEx, UPS and USPS.

Alan Amling, a former UPS executive turned Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, has written about this phenomenon in Supply Chain Management Review, and continues to research the topic. In The My Way Highway: Disruption in Last Mile Logistics, Amling and Jayanth Jayaram argued that “Fundamental changes occurred in supplier offerings and consumer preferences during [the past two years of the pandemic]. Such structural changes cannot be addressed by continuing to do what we did before, but trying to do it better, faster and cheaper. Instead, they shift the boundaries that decisions are based on, and make new things not only possible but necessary. Whether these changes are a threat or an opportunity depends on the actions taken by supply chain leaders and challengers.” (You can also listen to an episode of The Rebound podcast with Amling on this topic by clicking here). Clearly, the investment community sees them as an opportunity.

Like that elementary school kid in awe of the big red firetrucks, I was in awe of the big, shining autonomous trucks on display at Manifest. It’s a space I find exciting, as companies like GE Appliances, Walmart, and the Canadian grocer Loblaws explore ways to integrate autonomous vehicles into their fleets.

What strikes me most is that autonomous trucking can address a number of challenges we’re grappling with in the supply chain, from the quality of life for over-the-road truckers to the truck driver shortage. At the same time, it’s also clear that while the technology has made tremendous strides—and there are use cases now where trucks are operating autonomously on the road, even if there are drivers in the cab and chase vehicles following behind—there’s still a ways to go.

During a session I attended on the topic, the panelists were asked when will autonomous trucks be common on the highway. One panelist answered the question with a phrase that was echoed by the others: “In 3 to 5 years, I think we’ll still be getting asked that question, and the answer then might be in 3 to 5 years.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock

Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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