In a September 20 report from MIT on the future of work, automation and ecommerce proliferation are reckoned to bring about massive changes in the logistics workforce. However, this report proposed that the resultant impact will roll out changes that will be realized in smaller steps rather than giant leaps.
For one thing, ecommerce has pumped more speed and demand for logistics and warehousing services into the trucking industry. In the wake of the ecommerce industry, the duties revolved around delivering bulk-sized goods to local retailers. But ecommerce quickly changed the endpoint for those bulk deliveries, rerouting the delivery from warehouses and distribution centers to house addresses. Similarly, this blown up the requirements for personalized packaging and shipments. Due to the sharp increase in demand, logistics companies – large corps and startups alike are now stimulating automation attempts to achieve effective process streamlining. While these technology pursuits softened the ground for innovation to seed, but along the way, they realigned the outlines of the job roles in logistics. Here are some of our thoughts:
Automation means the “killswitch” for manual labour?
Strangely, automation is riding on a hype that an abrupt, runaway technological growth can hit the workforce in unprecedented ways. Thinking of logistics employment as a tug of war between job spurring from ecommerce and losses due to automation, decisively it’s job gain that is winning at present. Especially, the MENA region, often dazed by the flow-on effect from unsteady oil prices or COVID this time, suffers from an ailing infrastructure, poor asset quality and runs behind the rest of the word in adopting automation. Top that with the easily available and cheap labor always ready to be deployed at scale for any task, fading out some turnaround-time-related realizations of automation. For the last decade, adoption of automation in MENA has been indolent and led to plummeting instances of usages. Today, modern warehouses have transformed into distribution or fulfilment centres. They indulge in accurately picking and packaging products smartly, from tiny showpieces to massive health equipment. It could be the real-deal playground for automation to flourish by liberating humans from the repetitive task. But still, humans dominate most of these routine jobs as of today. Experts observe that despite the zealous effort and investments, automation still dwindles in infancy. They cite a considerable amount of time before it becomes dreadfully functional.
Data taking charge
As elsewhere, the decades-old information systems and their sluggish application upgrades are throwing a wrench into labour and efficiency. For trucking, efficiency has trickled from the ‘allocation’ phase, where digital has improved processes such as brokering, scheduling, or reducing roll-overs. Significant innovation doesn’t mandatorily connote the latest technology always. Most of the automation present today in warehouses or logistics doesn’t resemble wired robotic arms or driverless AI-guided fleets at all. These are advanced, data-powered information systems that map and record the entire supply network and link to other tracking systems.
New breed of data-powered truckers
Hasty rotations of the then physical file system – Rolodex, used to establish relationships between the freight brokerage firms and the truckers. The larger the set of contacts, the faster the broker can employ the free truckers with a series of haul jobs.
3PL or third-party logistics were alike in operations with just one serious augmentation. Efficient route planning was an important consideration to identify the best delivery routes for multiple destinations. They were relying heavily on computerized spreadsheets by the end of the 1980s. Dealing with information 24/7, these professionals highlighted the need for digital job boards as the traditional methods couldn’t keep up with rising freight volume. Digital job boards thrived in providing the necessary means for brokers to sift through the board to find a relevant job for the drivers they have. Today, this self-service feature faces massive expansion as digital allows drivers to access the boards from their smartphones. Using machine learning, these service providers now identify a trucker’s job preferences and notifies accordingly. Automation-enabled brokerage is fast replacing the middlemen by disintermediating the freight landscape with “platformization.” Inevitably, the standardization and these systematic programs infused a healthy mix of employment. Particularly in 3PL, the hourly or gig-focused personnel transcended into a salaried workforce thoroughly trained in data science, product design, or automation.
AV (Autonomous Vehicles) in the likely less-human future
Autonomous vehicles are the true embodiment of new-age tech dreams wherein computer-controlled conveyance exacts massive psychosocial changes. Owing to the optimized routing, people could spend the time fruitfully that they would’ve anyways wasted stuck in traffic. Accidents and fatalities could decrease remarkably in an automation-altered world. In the logistics world, next-gen models of delivery systems could facilitate effortless transportation of goods in the physical world, much as the data moves through a network.
Is this narrative eligible enough to instil the fear of unemployment stemming from a lack of advanced education? Dispatching of these AVs will require combined efforts at all levels. From handling ground roles like maintenance or deploying customer services to ensuring seamless remote management – even AVs will create rooms for several jobs. For instance, roles like “maintenance officer” or “site manager” would entail tasks like keeping up the fleet health and safety standards or managing a team of safety drivers and on-site assistance. These jobs don’t require an advanced degree but some level of experience in communication and team handling. Similarly, these AV systems need scheduled maintenance and daily calibration for their connected sensors and the operating environment. A “field autonomy expert” with a decent background in repairing and electronics can fit the job requirements properly. So, as AV systems proliferate and scale, many such jobs about ensuring safety standards and operational support would surface. Plus, a large part of the future drivers will belong decidedly from the old-school world. So it means there will be a learning curve, although some basic manoeuvre training as it’s fully automated, which will open up vacancies for an educator’s job.