Driverless Trucks, Robots and Chatbots Could Reshape the Supply Chain

January 05, 2017 by Tiffany Hsu, @tiffkhsu

Self-driving trucks are on the forefront of a slew of innovations set to reshape the supply chain industry.

Companies are exploring automated vehicles, robotic manufacturing and distribution, so-called chatbot communication and more as they contend with technological advances and the rise of online shopping, according to a new report from logistics information company Eye For Transport, or EFT.

“The emergence of e-commerce has caused significant shifts within the supply chain as a whole,” researchers wrote in the report. “Organizations — retailers, suppliers and service providers alike — are all aligning their strategies and technology purchases to take advantage of this booming trend.”

Over the holidays, retailers recorded a record $91.7 billion in online sales — up 11 percent year-over-year, according to Adobe Digital Insights. Mobile devices alone funneled $28.4 billion in sales, a 23 percent increase from the previous year.

Some 51 percent of supply chain companies believe their operations will include driverless trucks by 2025, according to survey results released Thursday. Three percent plan on employing autonomous vehicles this year, while nearly 4 percent anticipate using them in 2018.

Only 14 percent of respondents said they don’t expect to ever use the technology.

Driverless trucks get an even better reception in Europe, where a fleet of autonomous trucks platooned in formation across the continent in April. A platoon is where tightly contained, digitally connected packs of two or more trucks drive in formation to reduce wind resistance and increase fuel efficiency. In Europe, 59 percent of supply chain businesses say they will tap into the trend within the next nine years.

In the U.S., driverless vehicle regulation is still in development and trucking trade groups are urging caution as the technology evolves.

But many companies are not waiting: Otto, an Uber-owned self-driving truck business, used an autonomous truck to haul a massive load of Budweiser beer across Colorado in October. Ford, UPS, FedEx and — this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — Mercedes-Benz have all expressed interest or started testing their own models.

Although, the EFT report does not discuss innovations such as drone delivery or 3-D printing, it didn’t stop at driverless trucks.

More than half of supply chain companies have so-called innovation centers to help test out new concepts. Of those, 20 percent have achieved a return on their investment, while half expect a payoff in the next two years.

Robots are also on the rise, even though less than a quarter of organizations currently use them in their work, researchers found.

Propelled by algorithms that allow them to accomplish more complex tasks, robots can help companies improve efficiency, cut costs, keep pace with competitors and limit errors, according to respondents.

Among early adopters, 41 percent use robots for manufacturing applications. The machines are also popular for warehouse and automated distribution functions.

Chatbots, applications designed to mimic intelligent conversation, are another up-and-coming supply chain technology, according to EFT. They have great potential in customer service settings, the report found.

But for now, only 7 percent of surveyed companies use chatbots, although 17 percent are considering using them for tasks such as order placement and customer management.

“Chatbots are clearly not about to take the supply chain by storm, but the fact that there is some early adoption and interest in investing in the technology suggest that we are just at an early phase of the technology,” researchers wrote in the report.




Automated Truck Platoon Test on the... x
Automated Truck Platoon Test on the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles.

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