Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring innovations in the industrial sector.

The field of smart autonomy technology has the potential to transform logistics and the global supply chain beyond anything that’s ever come before.

Tech like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, intelligent robotics, and advanced analytics platforms can all improve company operations, increase efficiency, and boost productivity.

Today, the question on everyone’s mind is how exactly smart autonomy and autonomous logistics will benefit the world’s supply chains. How will it change the game, and what does it have to offer?

What Can Smart Autonomy Do?

Before diving into some of the benefits, it’s important to understand what the technology is capable of. While it has come a long way over the years compared to more basic robotic and autonomous systems, smart autonomy still has its limits.

The tasks it can handle are becoming more complex over time as machine learning improves. However, overall, the technology is still mainly used for tasks and projects that flesh-and-blood employees would find repetitive or rote, or highly susceptible to human error.

With machine learning and big data on board, however, remote systems can receive programming to make logic-based decisions and take actions of their own accord, albeit in a rudimentary form.

For example, if the technology detects a problem with a supply truck in the field, the system can notify all relevant parties immediately. It could then order a replacement or recovery driver without any human input. However, it could not enable events outside of its programmed parameters unless that action was defined explicitly in its program.

This essentially means that autonomous systems must be outfitted in advance with the appropriate commands and resources to tackle a set of pre-determined events. Limited capabilities are set by the developers and engineers who build them.

How Will Autonomous Logistics Benefit the Supply Chain?

With those limitations in mind, consider the vast benefits the technology has to offer. How will it transform the modern supply chain? Here’s a look at the impact.
Improved Reliability

Autonomous systems, whether basic robotics or a data-driven platform, never tire or waver. A malfunction can hinder performance, but in general, these platforms can operate at the same pace and with the same output rate more-or-less indefinitely. Compare that to humans, who need to sleep, eat, go to the bathroom, take breaks, and sometimes burn out.

Because they can continue on the same path and at the same pace, reliability and output levels will skyrocket in the supply chain with even a modest investment in robotics systems. This is especially true for delivery vehicles and fleets.

Currently, more than 50 companies are designing autonomous vehicle control software, so the technology isn’t just on the horizon — it’s here.

Faster Deliveries

A well-oiled and non-stop machine means higher output levels and faster response times. In the supply chain, that translates to quicker and more reliable deliveries and improved profits.

However, there’s another way that more timely deliveries can be achieved with autonomous logistics. Driverless vehicles, aerial drones, and similar technologies can facilitate transportation between parties at much faster rates.

Imagine aerial delivery drones carrying goods from a local fulfilment centre right to a customer’s doorstep. The process would be much faster than traditional auto-deliveries, and there would be less traffic to contend with. Amazon is already trialling drone-based delivery in select cities.

We can expect this kind of reimagining of so-called “last-mile delivery” to have a ripple effect throughout the e-commerce and logistics industries.

More Manageable Costs

Autonomous logistics can massively reduce costs in many ways for companies and their customers and partners. Wages are eliminated with drone deliveries and driverless transport. Ongoing expenses are also typically far lower than they would be for traditional fulfilment processes. Reliability and uptime are improved as well, generating higher efficiency levels and better output.

Ark Invest estimates that drone delivery could be completed in half an hour for just 90 cents per shipment. That equates to a 90% cut in domestic shipping costs.

There are also some rather large labour shortages looming, most notably a truck driver and transport deficit. The arrival of drones and other remote-piloted or autonomous conveyances heralds an era when troubled talent pipelines don’t need to impact business operations or threaten customer satisfaction.

More Convenient Returns

Processing customer returns and sorting damaged goods can be a nightmare in the logistics world. The turnaround times tend to be extensive, which increases costs. Automation can ensure this entire process remains efficient, cost-effective, and satisfactory to all parties, including customers.

Autonomous vehicle and drone pickups could change all that and create a speedy path for completing returns and exchanges. Automated fulfilment systems can analyse and process returned merchandise to further boost the reaction times on the business side of the equation and help serve customers more effectively.

More Precise Contextual Responses

Another boon of smart and autonomous logistics operations is a steady influx of contextual data. It could include real-time information about shipments and their locations, details about a fleet in the field, updates from third parties and supply partners, and much more. This information can be used to inform corporate and business actions in the short and longer terms.

If there’s a break in the supply chain, managers can batten down the hatches faster and ensure the operation is ready for a shortage through alternative supply orders. And if a particular partner is taking longer than usual, processes can be adjusted to provide last-minute support and improve relations.

The data allows for a more precise, preventive, and successful reaction to incoming events, all in real-time. This ensures the reliability and fortitude of a business in the face of potential disasters.

Welcome to a More Streamlined Supply Chain

Autonomous logistics, which are possible at nearly every stage of the supply chain, boost team and company reliability and uptimes and lead to a more streamlined operation throughout.

The vast troves of data processed daily by these platforms also improve communication abilities and insights across the board, leading to more efficient operations throughout local, regional, and global supply chains and economies.