This is the question I’ve been asking myself after spending last week at Manifest: The Future of Logistics. For those that didn’t attend, Manifest is CES for the logistics world and is a showcase of the latest and greatest innovations in warehouse autonomy, AI, robotics and EV’s.
My prediction is that within 10 years we will start to see [some] deliveries being 100% autonomous (i.e.: untouched by a human hand at any point in the outbound parcel journey).
Before we go further, let’s address the flying elephant in the room – Drones. Back in 2013, Jeff Bezos led us all to believe that drone deliveries would be commonplace by 2018. That hasn’t happened; in fact the parcel industry has come to accept that drone deliveries won’t be happening any time soon (at least not for residential delivery) given the FAA’s reluctance to endorse Amazon’s Prime Air drone program after recent crashes and the subsequent downsizing of the drone division in the recent layoffs. Nor will we see last mile delivery robots rolling up to our doorstep. FedEx recently announced they’ve abandoned their plans for delivery robots while Starship downsized their workforce and cut delivery locations in 2022 and never found a compelling use case for parcel, instead focusing their robots on serving the food delivery sector.
But while drones and cute little robots on wheels probably never were the answer for an autonomous last mile delivery, investment from prominent VC firms into innovation in other areas of the outbound parcel journey have continued to flow. Let’s take a look at where we are today:
- Warehouse picking. Without a doubt the part of the journey that has seen the most investment in robotics. Very few 3PL’s retailers are opening new ecommerce warehouses today that are not at least partially automated. While Amazon Robotics clearly leads the pack with 12 different robotic solutions for different use cases deployed across their distribution centers, there are numerous other well-funded vendors in this space that are democratizing access to this technology for the mainstream, including 6 River Systems (owned by Shopify), Swisslog, Fetch, Locus Robotics and many many more.
- Pack and sorting. Firms like Righthand Robotics, Dorabot and Oneplus Robotics have developed increasingly sophisticated automation solutions for sorting orders and physically pacing items into boxes.
- Palletizing, loading and unloading. AI-driven and autonomous forklifts can be deployed to load gaylords directly into the carrier’s trailer, while robots like Boston Dynamic’s Stretch and Pickle Robot can load / stack and unload individual packages from a trailer, automating one of the most human intensive part of today’s warehouse operations.
- EV / Autonomous Trucks. Tesla’s recent production launch of the Semi combined with their leadership in autonomous driving, as well as the numerous other autonomous trucking vendors including Daimler, Waymo and Freightliner are all vying to seize a part of the $30b truck manufacturing market in the US.
- Autonomous Air Cargo: Speed matters and already a growing number of vendors (Elroy Air, Natilus, Pyka, Dronamics to name a few) are bringing autonomous cargo aircraft to market, which will dramatically reduce the costs of moving cargo point to point in the air, and enable more online orders to rapidly transit the country in the middle mile.
- Last Mile. Firms like Cruise and Aurrigo have already developed prototype autonomous last mile delivery vehicles that are designed from the ground up to be humanless. These “vans” will drive autonomously on routes from the last mile sortation center to the consumer’s street, then enable either the consumer to collect their order from a secure locker (won’t work for parcels, only for food delivery) or allow a ride along robot (see next bullet) to take the order from the vehicle to the porch / doorstep.
- Doorstep delivery. Getting the package from the [autonomous, driverless] delivery van to the consumer’s doorstep / apartment (including ringing the doorbell and handing the package to someone in the household) is probably the hardest part of the outbound parcel journey to automate. But robotics solutions like Boston Dynamics Spot and the forthcoming Tesla Bot have the ability to solve the last leg of the journey. The key here is that the robot has to take the parcel to the customers door, not the other way around, i.e. the customer comes out of their house to retrieve the parcel from a lock box embedded in the robot (i.e. Starship). Parcel delivery is very different from food delivery – with a parcel, the customer is not waiting around for the delivery.
To all the naysayers that say this isn’t happening anytime soon, the technology is here today, the only thing holding this futuristic state back is end-to-end integration of this journey workflow and regulatory changes. Will a package move completely from a warehouse shelf to the customer’s porch without ever being touched by a human hand? Probably yes, but there may be steps along the way that still require human supervision and/or interaction for the foreseeable future. The biggest problem today is that the current solutions are being developed in silos by an increasingly diverse set of vendors. Each solution lacks an integration and autonomous handoff from the upstream phase in the workflow to the next stage downstream. But like with any new technology segment we will see consolidation of vendors and solutions in the next 10 years that will drive the integration of the phases outlined above, and reduce the costs and complexity for 3PL’s and their carrier partners to build a fully autonomous outbound parcel solution.
Consumers will love it (when did you last have a conversation with your delivery driver anyway) as it will make shipping faster, greener and cheaper – so don’t worry about consumers getting freaked out by robotic dogs walking up their drive, there are far crazier things going on in the world.
It will be great for retailers, driving fixed costs out of supply chain and parcel transportation, enabling operations to truly be 24×7 (dramatically speeding up TinT) and enabling a further shift from physical to digital retail.
Losing in this transformation will be the millions of workers that will have their jobs replaced by AI and automation. But like every major industry disruption, there will be hundreds of thousands of new jobs created in software development, maintenance, analytics and operational oversight roles across the hundreds or thousands of new vendors that are already emerging to serve this new reality.
These are indeed exciting times in logistics – personally I’m looking forward to when Spot® rings my doorbell with my order in his mouth.