Back to the Future: My 2014 Supply Chain Predictions, Revisited

Robert Nathan

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

“Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.” – Doc Brown

If you’re a subscriber to this blog, you know that we often write about the future of supply chain. To understand where we’re headed as an industry, we look at technology trends, regulatory pressures, infrastructure changes, data, and more.  While we may not hit every nail on the head with our predictions, I’m a firm believer that to get a handle on what’s to come, we must understand where we are today, visualize a desired outcome, and act on it—create your own future, if you will.

Back in 2014, I wrote an article for Material Handling & Logistics about our role in building tomorrow’s supply chain.  I thought it would be an interesting exercise to revisit the topics we covered 3.5 years ago, and look at where we are today.  Shall we hop in the DeLorean?

2014 Prediction: Robot-operated trucks and freight drones will become common modes for delivering goods.

It may still be 5 to 10 years before we see unmanned trucks rolling down the highway, but there have been significant technological advancements in the autonomous vehicle space since 2014.  Several companies, including Uber and Google, are fervently testing self-driving functionality in commercial trucks. In 2016, Uber’s Advanced Technology Group reached a major milestone, successfully moving a and 18-wheeler full of Budweiser 120 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. This highway trek marked the first time a self-driving truck has ever been used for a commercial shipment (Uber). Similarly, Google’s Waymo has recently entered the autonomous truck market. With more than eight years of data gathered from their autonomous passenger cars, the company is now figuring out how to apply that knowledge to trucks. Later this year, they’re planning to begin road tests in Arizona with a human backup driver behind the wheel (Wired).

Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads. We may not have flying cars yet, but the use of drones has skyrocketed over the past few years. Originally intended for military operations, drones are rapidly expanding to commercial, recreational, agricultural, and other applications—including product deliveries. Both Amazon and Google have been exploring drones as a mode for delivering items ordered online.  Just last month, Amazon filed for a patent that outlines a future vision where drones would deliver goods from vertical cylindrical structures to consumers’ homes.  How would that work?  First, trucks would deliver products to the towers. Then robots would move the products to drone launch pads on various floors of the building.  From there, the drones would carry out the last-mile delivery (Forbes).  There are still regulatory hurdles to jump through before this is a reality, but the FAA estimates that there could be as many as 1.6 million commercial drones in use by 2021 (Business Insider).

2014 Prediction: Underground railroads will emerge to mitigate congestion.

Speaking of not needing roads…in 2014, I wrote that we were not far from discussing the use of underground railroads to mitigate congestion. At the time, Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop seemed like a far-fetched idea, but we’re getting closer to that reality. According to recent reports, Musk has received verbal approval from the government to build an ultrafast, underground tube train that would get passengers from New York to Washington D.C. in under 30 minutes (npr). It’s not clear when construction will begin, but recent tests have been promising. The latest test pod traveled 1,433 feet underground at a speed of 192 miles per hour, approximately 4.5 times longer and 3 times faster than the previous test (Fortune). Great Scott! The technology behind Hyperloop could bring major efficiencies to transportation—for both commuters and freight traveling through the supply chain—and we could see the first routes start to emerge in the next five years.

2014 Prediction: Supply chain complexity will increase, and we will need to harness big data to make decisions in real-time.

“Big data” has been a hot topic in all industries for years.  In 2014, I predicted that we’d see start to see more logistics companies leveraging data to increase visibility and make decisions in real-time.  Since then, the meaning of “visibility” has begun to evolve.  Once perceived as a basic capability that allows shippers to track and trace freight loads, the emerging definition is quickly becoming far more than that. Smart companies are now pushing boundaries with new tools that allow predictive decision-making and proactive problem-solving, yielding an end-to-end supply chain view that solves problems before they can start.

The future of shipping visibility goes well beyond static views of trucks on a map, instead promoting an active approach to managing supply chains. Rather than settling for summary reports, shippers can affect freight while it’s in transport—effectively creating their day’s news instead of reading about it after the fact. For example, 10-4 systems will send users alerts regarding traffic problems that may delay shipments.  Marty McFly would approve. Check out our recent blog post on visibility for more on this topic.

2014 Prediction: The rise of megacities will create infrastructure challenges.

In my MH&L article, I posed these questions:

  • How will our rapidly aging infrastructure handle the increasing freight volumes needed to serve the world’s growing population while also meeting increased demand for sustainable transport options?
  • How can we transform the transportation infrastructure so it will support the development of megacities rather than hinder growth?

This is heavy.  I believe infrastructure challenges still pose a threat to the supply chain as megacities continue to emerge and grow, and that development and innovation are outpacing necessary infrastructure improvements.  The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave the U.S. a D+ grade in 2017. We clearly have a lot of work to do to ensure our country is built for the future. 

This was a hot topic on the 2016 campaign trail and will continue to be a major priority over the coming years.  Change won’t come from any single entity.  Infrastructure resilience is a shared responsibility among government officials, business leaders, non-profit organizations, and investors. The time to act is now.

The thesis from my 2014 article has remained the same, so I’ll reiterate it here:

“As members of today’s supply chain, transportation and logistics communities, it is our moral obligation to collectively consider how we can make a positive contribution to society and the evolution of its people. We must imagine the future, foresee potential issues we will face and define a supply chain infrastructure that will support this new way of life.”

While 2014 may not seem like that long ago, we live in a world where technology is developing and changing at an exponential rate.  In the next 3.5 years, we’ll continue to see rapid evolution, so buckle up.  Like Doc Brown said, “if my calculations are correct…. you’re gonna see some serious sh*t.”

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