From intelligent robots and self-driving vehicles to the Internet of Things and 3D printing, dramatic technological change is happening at lightning speed all around us.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is being driven by a staggering range of new technologies that are blurring the boundaries between people, the internet and the physical world. It’s a convergence of the digital, physical and biological spheres.
It’s a transformation in the way we live, work and relate to one another in the coming years, affecting entire industries and economies, and even challenging our notion of what it means to be human.
So what exactly are these technologies, and what do they mean for the supply chain?
Computing capabilities, storage and access
Between 1985 and 1989, the Cray-2 was the world’s fastest computer. It was roughly the size of a washing machine. Today, a smart watch has twice its capabilities.
As mobile devices become increasingly sophisticated, experts say it won’t be long before we are all carrying “supercomputers” in our pockets. Meanwhile, the cost of data storage continues to fall, making it possible to keep expanding our digital footprints.
Today, 43% of the world’s population are connected to the internet, mostly in developed countries. The United Nations wants to change that by connecting all the world’s inhabitants to affordable internet by 2020. This will increase access to information, education and global marketplaces, which will empower many people to improve their living conditions and escape poverty. Imagine, all inhabitants of the entire world connected to each other and what that means for consumer access and the omni-channel environment. Supply chains will never be the same as the possibilities are truly staggering.
Each time you run a Google search, scan your passport, make an online purchase or tweet, you are leaving a data trail behind that can be analysed and monetized.
Thanks to supercomputers and algorithms, we can make sense of massive amounts of data in real time. Computers are already making decisions based on this information, and in less than 10 years computer processors are expected to reach the processing power of the human brain.
This means there’s a good chance your job could be done by computers in the coming decades. Two Oxford researchers, Carl Bendikt Frey and Michael A Osborne, estimated that 47% of American jobs are at high risk of automation. A survey done by the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software & Society shows people expect artificial intelligence machines to be part of a company’s board of directors by 2026. Big data will offer benefits that we haven’t even thought of yet and supply chains may prove to be one of its greatest benefactors.
The digitization of matter
3D printers will create not only cars, houses and other objects, but also human tissue, bones and custom prosthetics. Patients would not have to die waiting for organ donations if hospitals could bioprint them.
In fact, we may have already reached this stage: in 2014, doctors in China gave a boy a 3D-printed spine implant, according to the journal Popular Science.
The 3D printing market for healthcare is predicted to reach some $4.04 billion by 2018. According to a survey by the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software and Society, most people expect that the first 3D printed liver will happen by 2025.
The survey also reveals that most people expect the first 3D printed car will be in production by 2022.
Three-dimensional printing, which brings together computational design, manufacturing, materials engineering and synthetic biology, reduces the gap between makers and users and removes the limitations of mass production.
Consumers can already design personalized products online, and will soon be able to simply press “print” instead of waiting for a delivery. What effect will this have on the supply chains of today?
The internet of things
Within the next decade, it is expected that more than a trillion sensors will be connected to the internet.
If almost everything is connected, it will transform how we do business and help us manage resources more efficiently and sustainably. Connected sensors will be able to share information from their environment and organize themselves to make our lives easier and safer. For example, self-driving vehicles could “communicate” with one another, preventing accidents.
By 2020 around 22% of the world’s cars will be connected to the internet (290 million vehicles), and by 2024, more than half of home internet traffic will be used by appliances and devices.
Warehouse automation is also happening fast. We can control our lights, heating, air conditioning and security systems remotely, but how much longer will it be before sensors are able to detect crumbs under the cafeteria tables and tell our automated vacuum cleaners to tidy up?
The internet of things will create huge amounts of data, raising concerns over who will own it and how it will be stored. And what about the possibility that your warehouse or vehicle could be hacked?
Only a tiny fraction of the world’s GDP (around 0.025%) is currently held on blockchain, the shared database technology where transactions in digital currencies such as the Bitcoin are made.
But this could be about to change, as banks, insurers and companies race to work out how they can use the technology to cut costs.
A blockchain is essentially a network of computers that must all approve a transaction before it can be verified and recorded.
Using cryptography to keep transactions secure, the technology provides a decentralized digital ledger that anyone on the network can see.
Before blockchain, we relied on trusted institution such as a bank to act as a middleman. Now the blockchain can act as that trusted authority on every type of transaction involving value including money, goods and property.
The uses of blockchain technology are endless. Some expect that in less than 10 years it will be used to collect taxes. It will make it easier for immigrants to send money back to countries where access to financial institutions is limited.
And financial fraud will be significantly reduced, as every transaction will be recorded and distributed on a public ledger, which will be accessible by anyone who has an internet connection. How do you think this will affect supply chains?
Technology is getting increasingly personal. Computers are moving from our desks, to our laps, to our pockets and soon they will be integrated into our clothing.
By 2025, 10% of people are expected to be wearing clothes connected to the internet and the first implantable mobile phone is expected to be sold.
Implantable and wearable devices such as coveralls or work shirts that provide real-time work data by monitoring an employees’ location, movement and speed while guiding route efficiency and inventory location are changing our understanding of what it means to be online and blurring the lines between the physical and digital worlds.
The potential benefits are great, but so are the challenges.
These devices can provide immediate information about our health and about what we see, or help locate missing children. Being able to control devices with our brains would enable disabled people to engage fully with the world. There would be exciting possibilities for learning and new experiences throughout the the value chain and our personal lives too.
But how would it affect our personal privacy, data security and our personal relationships? In the future, will it ever be possible to be offline anymore?
From mining operations to manufacturing and warehousing operations to the retail shelf, intelligent robots are stealing the supply chain landscape. As old as civilization itself, supply chains are heavily populated with labor-intensive processes that are easily replicated by robots.
Mining operations are laden with heavy equipment ripe for robotic automation while manufacturing assembly lines, if not already automated through robotics, will have plans in the works to do so.
From Pick ‘n Pack to Cross Docking and everything in between, the warehousing sector is an up and coming target for near total robotic automation while the retail shelf, shopping carts and check-outs are already rife with sensors paving the way for further automation, being already networked with the rest of the entire value chain.
Even transportation, the workhorse moving goods between each leg of the chain, is in the cross-hairs for robotic automation with self-driving vehicles, sensors and satellite networks guiding their every move.
The Canadian supply chain consulting group, MBSL are already making their mark on the industry with development of their Cargo Carousel System. Bristling with sensors for RFID, GPS, light exposure, temperature, humidity, weight and movement, the satellite system offers real-time reporting and alerting to create true “control tower” visibility throughout the chain. It replaces wooden pallets with “modules” made of recycled aluminum to reduce deforestation and invites easy collaborative distribution among different shippers. It eliminates the difference between supply and reverse chains with its ability to drop off and pick up at the same time, increasing efficiency while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It allows “crushable” products to be double stacked to reduce partial loads (and GHG emissions) while eliminating the warehouse aisles that are needed for fork lifts to maneuver by stacking the Cargo Carousel Systems side by side and end to end in the warehouse and this is just one example of our changing supply chains.
Look around you. Your world is changing faster than you may realize and in ways that you may never have thought possible. The positive and/or negative outcomes have yet to be fully determined but, changes are coming and we all better plan accordingly!
The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it ~ Robert Shaw