Your Guide to Deliveries of the Past, Present, and Future
Pulp science fiction often gave us an image of the future that involved bio-domed malls, pneumatic tubes delivering mail directly in our homes, and milk still delivered by hand but from flying trucks. However, the true future of delivery will likely be hordes of boxes zipping through the air in flocks.
Products will get to market in automated fashions with robots doing much of the piloting, whether that’s through ocean channels or direct-to-home drone delivery. Distribution pushes ever forward to cost reduction, agile delivery, and expanded access.
Innovation has always been at the heart of each economy’s distribution model – from the Minoan civilization adopting the first aqueducts in the 2nd millennium BCE and the introduction of diesel-powered refrigeration trains on cars in the 1950s to the automated warehouses of today.
Delivery Tech That May Go the Way of the Dinosaurs
Understanding the future of delivery should start with a strong foundation of the past and of what we’re using today that we might not use in the near future. Here are two areas that we think may face an extinction event in the future.
The 1900s Wholesalers
Distribution became a specific function of businesses, and sometimes the only service offered, in the early 1900s thanks to recent increases in mass production. Creating goods quickly meant they could be sold quickly if they made it to new markets. Wholesalers stepped up to allow manufacturers to move large quantities of goods, leaving the wholesaler to make local deals, sometimes at a right of twice what they paid the manufacturer for it.
You’ve read the section head and you might think that we’re crazy. I mean everyone loves the Apple store right?
But two of the most common things we buy are purchased from stores that aren’t necessarily associated with their products: food and clothing. Grocery store chains typically aren’t named after a product they carry or sponsored by a specific food maker because they simply stock too many items. The same goes for most clothing stores, which are branded separately even if they offer their own clothing line.
Amazon did this on the Web, moving us away from buying direct from the manufacturer to a more all-purpose store. And, that was the big shocker because everyone thought the Internet meant selling more goods directly to the customer.
Intermediaries actually became stronger and manufacturers have had to reduce costs because new e-commerce distributors control market access by making it convenient for the consumer.
Delivery, Meet George Jetson
Amazon is the perfect segue into the future, even if the brand is supplanted at some point, because it is among the most vocal brands predicting what the future of delivery will be.
Even as the company starts operating more delivery vans and trucks in local markets, it has openly discussed not needing the employees driving those trucks. There are a few paths forward that Amazon and others may take in the driverless future, and here are our favorites, as detailed by Red Stag Fulfillment in their article on The Future of Distribution.
Drones are the easiest thing to point to as a future for distribution. There are already trials and some autonomous units don’t need an operator. The biggest concern is that they’re limited to about 10 lbs. with a 10-mile delivery radius, and they seem fairly easy to compromise.
Also, how will a delivery drone deal with a multi-unit home? Where will it drop off goods at an apartment building? How many consumers would buy and install a drone landing page so they could get a package?
What this may end up creating for a short time is a central location where packages are dropped off and then picked up by the user whenever it’s convenient. However, that part of the model feels old and antiquated.
The autonomous vehicle rage makes the daily commute sound nice, but it could make the biggest impact in deliveries. Image an autonomous truck that doesn’t have to worry about HOS rules. It never speeds and can automatically adjust to road conditions or traffic updates, always with a preference for low-traffic routes.
RFID tags already provide trucks with plenty of information on cargo, so it isn’t farfetched to think they could supply trucks with delivery information when they reach a warehouse gate. It’s a more predictable and stable supply chain.
Full automation should be put in the “likely reality” category perhaps ahead of either drones or driverless cars. Current technology already does much of our sorting and order/inventory management. Amazon’s Kiva robots can even do some basic picking.
Manufacturers have long used cameras for quality control, so that isn’t a stretch in the warehouse either. One thing that may be difficult is recreating the custom packaging that’s taken the industry by storm. But then again, that’s just about teaching a robot proper filling order and paper-folding with a quality-check from an optical sensor.
Robots may also learn to be more delicate than humans and can have tighter controls on governance – never skimping on the bubble wrap.
Who Will Connect the Dots?
This is going to seem a little far-fetched (excuse the pun) but we think that the old-shaped, extra-sensitive or especially unusual item will be the perfect place to look in order to know that the future has arrived.
Unusual items to not be local and they don’t fit well within automated systems. They’ll have extra packaging requirements, need specific carrying instructions, have limited pre-staging options, and will require every point the supply chain to touch.
The future of unusual item shipping may involve something as complicated as specialized trucks that can bring a selection of goods to a local planning area and then have drones fly from the truck to the customer’s home. This will likely require a human driver initially to ensure that a safe and secure parking location is chosen for the delivery base.
Or, we could be looking at a more routine distribution side of the supply chain, with production taking the new route. 3D printing continues to improve and may allow manufacturers to set up local production facilities for these kinds of orders, so that geography is no longer a limiting or controlling factor.
The future of distribution is likely going to be the same kind of disruption we see in many other areas of tech. It’s exciting to think about these scenarios coming to fruiting, and perhaps more exciting to see what we didn’t expect becoming reality.