By D. A. Rupprecht
The future for contactless product delivery is already here, and a pandemic seems to already be moving this trend forward.
It just needs companies to implement and customers to accept the new delivery and tracking methods, along with other innovations, that will make this so.
When this happens, we may one day look back and quietly thank the lowly coronavirus for catapulting us into a brighter future.
One of the more iconic images from the early days of this disease comes from late March 2020, during San Francisco’s citywide coronavirus lockdown, when “aspiring drone racing pilot” David Chen delivered a single roll of much-needed toilet paper to his friend Ian Chan in another part of the city.
Chan captured the delivery on video and posted it to his Twitter feed, which ironically went viral.
Yet this is but a small sliver of the world to come.
Autonomous Vehicles to the Rescue
Another key use for unmanned vehicles occurred even earlier in China. Autonomous driving proved essential in that country’s fight against COVID-19, with dozens of driverless vehicles moving medical supplies and food for frontline healthcare workers into infected areas.
Baidu Intelligent Driving Group – a leader in autonomous vehicle technology in China – provided vehicles to assist with cleaning, logistics, disinfecting, and transportation.
Its general manager and vice president, Zhenyu Li, recognized how the combination of automation and AI could help in such wide-ranging emergencies. Baidu partnered with a local startup, Neolix, to deliver supplies to Beijing’s Haidian Hospital, supplying it with food for staff and patients.
Yet even before the pandemic, companies like Tesla championed AI and machine learning in the manufacturing process.
Gigafactories: AI Meets Automation
While Tesla CEO Elon Musk moved electric vehicles into the mainstream, it is Tesla’s idea of the Gigafactory, with its vision of artificial intelligence (AI) software controlling assembly lines, that moved us further towards an automated future.
Tesla’s assembly line robots essentially construct other robots – those Tesla vehicles that learn to drive on their own.
It’s really the miracle of this software used in Tesla’s manufacturing process, which allows machines to learn, that will in the not too distant future help run our distribution systems worldwide.
While initially Musk could not make his Nevada Gigafactory full-automated, because the software wasn’t quite ready to deal with the unexpected, AI has made giant strides to catch up to his vision.
Though Tesla’s main goal was to make transport sustainable, its manufacturing techniques have also driven us along the road to more and better automation.
The key is in the AI software, with its groundbreaking applications that will soon be utilized across industries.
Automation on the Oceans
The next big leap in maritime technology, like that on land, will involve unmanned ships crossing oceans with goods. Operated and monitored initially from onshore stations, they will become ever-more automated.
Soon they will become able to navigate on their own through the use of sensors and high-resolution cameras, combined with innovative satellite communication systems, to keep them on-course and away from danger.
A study by Allianz found that the vast majority – at least 75 percent – of maritime accidents were caused by human error.
Autonomous and semi-autonomous systems already reduce risk for humans in other areas, so it’s natural that automating ships will figure into the future of ocean-going vessels.
Even if shipping never becomes fully-automated, AI algorithms combined with data collected by a ship’s instruments will enhance crews’ decision-making to make ships safer.
Which brings us to block chain.
Unchaining Trade with Block Chain
When ships that are part of blockchain networks leave port, all parties involved in the trade are kept informed of the progress.
Information about the shipment date, estimated arrival time, product quantities, customs information, inspections, QA verification, and other requirements are accessible to all parties.
Further, logistical blockchain reduces bureaucracy and paperwork by tracking how products move from manufacturer, to distributer, to wholesaler, to retailer, and finally to the consumer.
Though blockchain provides benefits throughout the supply chain, it’s still in its infancy and will only come into its own once the logistics industry catches up to the technology.
Basically, when it comes into its own, blockchain will greatly enhance and promote global trade.
Warehouses are staging areas from where goods come to consumers that need them. While Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos expects commercial robots will replace warehouse workers in the next 10 years, another company is already making this a reality.
Ocado – a supermarket in the United Kingdom – uses what’s called a ‘hive-grid-machine’ to execute 65,000 weekly orders. It moves, sorts, and lifts things, just like a warehouse worker, and this automation dramatically reduces labor costs and the time it takes for orders to reach customers.
AI can already conduct basic warehouse operations, conducting inventory and processing other data. It can even predict demand for certain products well in advance, which results in lower transport costs and increased revenue.
Such an AI system can also modify orders and re-route goods in transit. This logistical agility leads not only to lower costs, but also to better service delivery.These systems can also improve shipping supplies between warehouses.
Order Management Systems Meet Marketing
A symbiosis between giant corporations and smaller businesses is already occurring with small e-commerce shops on Shopify, Amazon, and other platforms.
Meanwhile, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies provide order management systems (OMS) that help these smaller entities – including those that only sell online – to trade more effectively.
An OMS helps companies fulfill their orders by combining order processing, customer service, inventory, warehouse management, accounting, and other processes into a single system.
As more people buy online, marketing too will change. The automated nature of shipping labels already allows us to see where a package is on its journey to us, and tracking where it is gives customers some sense of how long before they receive it.
But what if it could also become a means of marketing?
Saif Abbas – head of growth at Incify.co – believes one of the best ways for e-commerce businesses to strengthen their brands comes from customizing labels to incorporate marketing messages that encourage repeat customers, along with referrals.
This type of easily-affordable marketing is already available to small business owners, and one savvy label manufacturer, Enko Products, even describes how to create custom labeling templates using Microsoft’s Word software.
And finally, once that nicely-wrapped package is about to arrive at a customer’s door, here come the drones.
An Invasion of Drones
Drones have proved useful to delivering to inaccessible places. They are already used to deliver to remote hospitals in Rwanda by Zipline International, a delivery and logistics company.
Many established companies are testing how they can improve deliveries, including Amazon, Alibaba, UPS, Walmart, and even many European delivery companies.
Though it seemed fanciful just a few years ago, using drones for deliveries – as David Chan’s toilet roll delivery to Ian Chan – seems set to become commonplace, with drones buzzing down from the sky with parcels right at our doorsteps. As the technology improves, we’re likely to see drones used increasingly, replacing less efficient means for delivery.
While some may feel sad at the loss of a delivery people’s jobs, this automation may spur on a more efficient age.
Streamlining and organizing how companies fulfill and customers receive their order will become another piece in the logistics puzzle to bring products directly to customers’ homes.
When all these small steps coalesce – AI and machine learning in robotic factories, self-propelled ships and trucks, and drones delivering products to consumer’s doors, along with an airtight payment system – we will then live in a truly automated world.
In that moment, when we accept that package from a small e-commerce shop in Vietnam, we may perhaps reflect on how a tiny virus that leapt from a small winged mammal came to make such monumental changes to our world.
Author’s bio: D. A. Rupprecht is a freelance writer and indie novelist who, during normal times, is based between the United States and South Africa.