Top 10 Trends in the Future of Material Handling

posted on: Friday February 21, 2014

After 18 months in the making, the knowledge and foresight of over 100 material handling experts was released in the U.S. Roadmap for Material xtraproductdisplayrevaHandling & Logistics. The report projects out to 2025 with some realistic and thoughtful predictions based on the industry’s current challenges and future capabilities.

Josh Bond of Modern Materials Handling covered the release of the roadmap in “The U.S. Roadmap for Material Handling & Logistics: Why 2025 matters today.” Bond describes the document as an attempt by the industry to ask how they should be preparing for the future.  “‘It’s one thing to predict what the industry might look like in 2025, but the roadmap is very much a good way to improve the now,’ says Gary Forger, senior vice president of professional development for MHI and a co-editor of the roadmap. ‘Change is upon us. The best practices we’ll need going forward are being proven and too many are woefully behind.’”

Contributors to the road map include materials handling and logistics practitioners, suppliers, associations, government, and academia. They attended four roundtable discussions over two months to answer the question, “What do you see now and in the future?”

Co-editors did not expect or attempt a top-ten list of themes to emerge, but ten mega-trends unfolded. This is a summary of what material handlers need to be formatting to now and in the future.

  1. Changing Workforce: “Of all the conversation topics from all the workshops, the issue of the changing workforce sparked the most passionate response.” This should not surprise anyone who is currently in the industry. The workforce is getting older, and it is increasingly difficult to find quality candidates to hire. Bond summarizes, “Going forward, the roadmap suggests industry, academia and government join in a renewed effort to increase workforce demographics including women, workers under 35, people with disabilities and veterans.”
  2. E-Commerce: The usage and availability of today’s technology is forcing an online and omni-channel presence from retailers. As we head further into the future, this will only strengthen. Therefore, “By 2025, the report suggests, all shipments should be trackable in real time from the instant an order is placed to the instant of delivery, both in transit and in facilities, at the level of individual items and independent of carrier or transportation mode. In addition, typical order-to-ship processing times in e-commerce distribution should be sufficient to support same-day delivery of in-stock items.”
  3. Unconventional Competition: While price and service will continue to define competition, the way in which competitors work together to keep up with cost may look a lot different. “…By 2025, a significant portion of shippers should be sharing transportation assets as a standard business practice.” Companies will find they can save on costs by sharing truck space. This will take a lot of trust, but the experts agreed these would be terms that could eventually be agreed upon.
  4. Mass Personalization: As is being accomplished in several industries, material handlers will need to accommodate personalized item requests at mass-produced prices. So far this is made possible by flexible manufacturing and automation among other things. “…The Holy Grail of retailing is the ability to deliver custom products at mass-production prices. What’s more, customers will increasingly expect those products to reach them when and where they want.”
  5. Urbanization: Half the population resides in urban areas, and this trend will continue moving forward. Retailers will have to meet consumer demands by transporting smaller quantities of a wider range of products to more distant and remote locations. “To tackle that challenge by 2025, the 15 largest U.S. cities should have at least one open shared self-service parcel delivery kiosk network available for use by multiple retailers…”
  6. Mobile and Wearable Computing: Consumers are growing more accustomed to using mobile devices and wearables like Google Glass to share, acquire, and send information. “The roadmap suggests that by 2025, control and execution systems featuring wearable computing devices should be developed and widely adopted in transportation, warehousing and manufacturing.”
  7. Robotics and Automation: Right now automation is a luxury and an innovation in the way that order picking, real-time tracking, and other applications are carried out. It seems to be the only way to keep up with the growing demands of the consumer in a fast-paced, cost-efficient manner. This will become more mainstream moving forward. “By 2025, the roadmap points to affordable robotic order picking systems being available that support high-throughput, single-piece picking in both part-to-picker and picker-to-part configurations. And, economical, high-speed automation to load and unload trucks should be available, both at the carton and pallet level.”
  8. Sensors and Communication: Working in conjunction with automation will be sensors and their communication capabilities. An entire digital system may handle everything from tracking, maintenance, and decision-making where product orders and shipments are concerned. “The roadmap offers that by 2025, major intermodal hubs throughout the United States should have the ability to handle standardized containers at the unit-load and carton level, plus load/unload integration with freight containers. And, it further suggests that universally accepted data formats for all types of sensors should be established.”
  9. Predictive analytics and the Cloud: As we continue to utilize automation, sensors, and real-time technologies, we will rely more heavily on the Cloud for information sharing. This will help to predict trends and needs as well. Hot topics on social media can be recognized and used to anticipate upcoming demand. “…Most applications accessed by logistics and supply chain professionals should be cloud based and that vehicle routing and scheduling should use real-time traffic feeds as well as support dynamic rerouting.”
  10. Sustainability: Environmental concerns affect the decisions of many material handlers. Many manufacturers are incorporating green operations to reduce their carbon footprint. This issue will continue to grow in significance. “The roadmap offers many capabilities with regard to sustainability. By 2025, the industry should have developed standard, accepted metrics for assessing environmental impact; consumers should have a better understanding of the environmental consequences of their choices; energy usage by transportation and material handling technologies should continue to require less energy, or be powered by alternative forms of energy; and LEED-certifiable manufacturing and distribution facilities should include scoring for materials handling equipment. “

This list is an exciting look at what is to come. A lot of the ideas in the list are already part of the material handling culture, just on a smaller scale. Some of the ideas would have sounded like science fiction twenty years ago, and much of it will be available well before 2025.

Bond quotes Bill Ferrell, a professor in Clemson University’s industrial engineering department and a co-editor of the roadmap: “‘I think this is a believable document. It’s not Star Wars stuff,’ Ferrell says. ‘If you like to save money, if you are environmentally minded, if you like doing things more efficiently and effectively, if you care about the quality of life for your employees, there’s something in there for you. I understand operations folks need to do their jobs, but don’t dismiss the roadmap out of hand. There are some dots that are reasonably easy to connect.’”

For Bond’s full article, visit here.

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