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Focus: Distribution/Materials Handling

Feature Article from Our Distribution and Materials Handling Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- Nov. 5, 2013 -

Supply Chain News: Material Handling Roadmap Takes a Peak at Logistics 2025

Draft Report Identifies Key Trends Impacting Materials Handling and How Industry Must Respond


 SCDigest Editorial Staff

Since early this year, MHI (formerly the Material Handling Industry Association) has been working on what it calls a roadmap for the materials handling industry.

One of the catalysts for the effort was a similar program from the Robotics Virtual Organization (Robotics VO), which released a conceptually similar roadmap in March of this year. MHI believes that the role of materials handling systems in the overall economy is under-recognized, and hopes this document and related outreach efforts will help raise the industry's profile.

SCDigest Says:

We will likely see much greater use of shared resources in transportation and warehousing, commonly across fierce competitors, the report says.
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The first draft of the report, which tries to forecast changes and developments out through 2025, was put out for review in early October (See MHI Roadmap Draft 1). A revision of that draft based on any commentary received was suppose to be on the roadmap web site by Nov. 1, but at the time this article is being written it has not yet been posted.

SCDigest summarizes that first draft here, suspecting the second draft will have at best only modest changes.

The roadmap development effort is being led by Kevin Gue of Auburn University. The input to the report was largely gathered from a series of four meetings around the country in late spring and early summer with 25-30 industry practitioners, consultants, academics, and others, where participants discussed future trends and needs. (SCDigest editor Dan Gilmore was among the attendees.)

Gue and a few others took all those inputs and produced the first draft report. It is really as much of a supply chain document as it is one more narrowly focused on materials handling as we might normally think about it, but the logic is that a number of macro-business and supply chain trends will naturally drive what material handling systems need to do in the future.

The 10 key trends identified in the report are:

The Growth of Ecommerce: We are witnessing only the beginning of a profound transformation in the way Americans buy products. This transformation obviously in turn has a huge impact on order fulfillment requirements - the report sees not only same day delivery coming, but almost instantaneously delivery to wherever the customer ordering from a smart phone is at the present.

Relentless Competition: This trend is more geared to the materials handling and logistics industries than general business, though certainly there is extremely aggressive competition there too on a now global basis. The market in material handling and logistics is likely to remain fragmented and that competition will continue to drive costs down and service up.

Mass Personalization: This concept is a kind of cross between having products tailored to meet individual needs (often called mass customization in the past) and the multi-channel concept, meaning customers will want to be able to order wherever and whenever through multiple points of interaction, and have the delivery meet their needs.

Urbanization: Both globally and in the US, more and more of the population is living in cities. If the trend continues in the US, this will present both logistics challenges in delivering goods, and assortment challenges, as the urban environment usually is more diverse than non-urban areas.

Mobile and Wearable Computing: This is not meant to refer to distribution centers and factory floors, but rather the general population, in which virtually everyone has the "internet in their pocket" via a smart phone, and transformative technologies such as Google glasses are coming. At minimum, this means consumers will be connected all the time.

Advances in Technology: We can expect to see huge gains in the robotic field by 2025, and see broad use of driver-less trucks and cars, the report says, among many other advances that will impact materials handling.

(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below )


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Sensors & the Internet of Things: By 2025, sensors that automatically communicate with the internet without human intervention should be almost ubiquitous, the report says, vastly changing the world. As everything is connected, feedback loops on changes and problems become real-time and highly intelligent. This is a game changer.

Big Data & Predictive Analytics: New data sources (social media, sensors) are generating massive amounts of information that might be mined for insights and actionable intelligence. The "big data" requires a new generation of analytics to find that insight, often connecting data across sources. The field will have matured greatly by 2025.

The Changing Workforce: Demographics is destiny, and the US workforce (as well as in many other developed countries) is aging. Available jobs are increasingly also going to require more skilled labor. Companies in distribution and manufacturing will need to invest in more training, and tap new labor pools, such as women, veterans and the disabled. But attracting younger workers into logistics is a real challenge.

Sustainability: It isn't going away, the report says, and will likely be a key factor in most supply chain decisions.

Two Logistics Streams

The report interestingly sees sort of two paths for logistics. The first is high-speed, high-value logistics, which can obviously be seen in all the action of late around e-fulfillment and same-day (or even faster) delivery service.

To get there, the report expects lots of investment in visibility capabilities, including "the internet of things," widespread use of GPS capabilities, Cloud-accessible information, predictive technologies relative to precise arrival times, and more.

But there will also be a stream for "low cost, low-impact" logistics as well, in which greater levels of collaboration will emerge across trading partners to drive out costs, but within a framework where our logistics systems substantially reduce the environmental footprint they create.

But those drivers will likely result in much greater use of shared resources in transportation and warehousing, commonly across fierce competitors, the report says.

As far as materials handling systems themselves, the report predicts big growth in robotic order picking, much wider use of high speed, automatic trailer loading and unloading, and improved designs for systems such as AS/RS that make them a lot more flexible as needs change.

There is more, but we will save some of that for when the final report is formally released.

Any reaction to this MHI roadmap summary? What would you add, especially to the trends? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button (email) or section below.

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