Lights-out warehouses may come even faster than lights-out factories.
With the rise of e-commerce, demand for warehouse space has exploded. Last year, the average warehouse ceiling height is up compared to 2001, and spending for new warehouse construction hit a peak in October 2017, with $2.3B spent on construction in that month alone.
Amazon’s historic $775M acquisition of is said to have set off an arms race among robotics makers. Riding the e-commerce wave and the industry-wide pressure to deliver orders on time, we’ve witnessed an focused on making fulfillment more efficient.
Lately, other Kiva-like companies, including and , are focusing on other areas of warehouse automation, such as picking and palletizing.
Some startups such as and have applied the classic robotic arm to package e-commerce orders, though their collaborative nature makes them suited for a number of industrial tasks. We’ve previously looked at .
Manufacturers and hardware-focused investors will continue to hunt for the next robotics maker that’s 10x better than the status quo. And the economics of cheaper and more agile robots may mean we’ll see more robots alongside humans in the short term.
AI FOR SCANNING
As computer vision melds with enterprise resource planning, fewer people and clipboards will be needed in sorting, scanning, and spotting defects.
, for example, uses computer vision inside fixed IIoT and handheld scanners. Machine vision can measure products dimensions, count the number of boxes in a pallet, and inspect the quality of boxes. Presently, this is often done with clipboards, eyeballing, and intermittent scanning.
Vision will be increasingly crucial for IIoT to “abstract away” a real-time picture of what’s happening inside a warehouse. Closing the loop, so to speak, between the physical world and bits and bytes is essential to creating the autonomous warehouse.
8. Transport & supply chain management
Once the product is packaged and palletized, getting it out the door efficiently is a daunting task. With thousands of SKU numbers and orders to manage, the complexity can be astounding — and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software has proliferated to handle it.
But there’s still room for IoT and blockchain to get even more granular with real-time supply chains.
TRUCKING & FLEET TELEMATICS IOT
In general, there is poor awareness about where items are in real time throughout the supply chain.
The fleet telematics field saw , with Verizon acquiring both and . IoT and software for shipments will only grow more important as supply chains decentralize and get automated.
Farther out, the advent of autonomous trucks could mean that autonomous systems will deliver, depalletize, and charge upon receipt of a Bill of Lading. This will bring greener, more efficient movement, as well as more simplified accounting.
Uber and Tesla both have high-profile plans for autonomous semi-trucks, and (below) recently raised nearly $20M from Y Combinator, Sam Altman, and Data Collective, among others, specifically for long-haul trucking.
As mentioned above, a number of are trying to put supply chain management software into a distributed ledger.
The willingness to explore these technologies indicates digitization here is long overdue. The highly fragmented nature of supply chains is a fitting use case for decentralized technologies and could be part of a larger trend for eliminating the inefficiencies of global commerce.
Shipping giant Maersk, for example, is working on a startup with Hyperledger that will aim to help shippers, ports, customs offices, and banks in global supply chains track freight. Maersk’s goal is to replace related paperwork with tamper-resistant digital records.
Meanwhile Pemex, the Mexican state-owned petroleum company, is assisting in developing oil-specific supply chain management software. The Petroteq project — an enterprise-grade, blockchain-based platform called PetroBLOQ — will enable oil and gas companies to conduct global transactions.
In the future, manufacturers will explore decentralized technologies to make their organizations more autonomous and their belongings (coming or going) more digitized in real-time. Blockchain not only has the promise of simplifying SCM, but also could make payments more frictionless.
Manufacturing is become increasingly more efficient, customized, modular, and automated. But factories remain in flux. Manufacturers are known to be slow adopters of technology, and many may resist making new investments. But as digitization becomes the new standard in industry, competitive pressure will escalate the inventive to evolve.
The most powerful levers manufacturers can pull will come in the form of robotics, AI, and basic IoT digitization. Richer data and smart robotics will maximize a factory’s output, while minimizing cost and defects. At the unmanned factory in Dongguan, employing robotics dropped the defect rate from 25% to .
Meanwhile, as cutting-edge categories like blockchain and AR are being piloted in industrial settings, manufacturing could eventually be taken to unprecedented levels of frictionless production and worker augmentation.
In the words of Henry Ford: “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” To reach its full potential, the manufacturing industry will need to continue to embrace new technology.