Logistics, or the coexistence of man and robot at the time of e-commerce

Antonio Perini, CEO and founder at Milkman | September 8th, 2016

“The world of warehouses, forklifts, and brown overalls, that back-room, blokey, almost forgotten world has been changed forever and thrust into the strategic limelight.” This excerpt from Sean Fleming’s last editorial for eDelivery underlines how the digital disruption has entered the logistic industry and revolutionised the balance between online and offline resources. However, as we have recently highlighted, offline resources are still essential – probably more now than ever before.

In the 80’s, receiving a commercial parcel was a rare, almost magical, occurrence. You knew it was coming and yet you didn’t know when, where and how. When, at last, the postman – who you’d see every day – had something for you, unboxing was almost a sacred ritual. For this reason, witnessing the discrepancies between what you bought on some glossy magazine and the real thing could be a harrowing experience.

Today, things are pretty different: just in Europe, in 2015, 298 million people have purchased online for a total turnover of 510 billion euros. In short, online shopping and home delivery at home has become a habit, almost like drinking coffee: for some of us it happens more often than buying in a physical store. We read reviews, zoom-in photos of products, sometimes see them in 3D. We demand to know when our online purchases will arrive, to the day and to the hour. We want to order in the morning and receive in the afternoon. We want them in one hour.

No more dusty warehouses and taciturn drivers but giant hubs, item-picking robots, GPS located vans, route-managing Apps, barcodes and electronic signatures. As a consequence, the work of delivery guy is very different from that of the postman, as delivery guy is asked to have some familiarity with technology and a certain amount of flexibility that in the past was not required at all.

The report “Of Robots and Men in Logistics” by the German strategy consulting firm Roland Berger expects robots to directly replace up to 1.5 million logistics jobs in Europe. Indeed, robots are four to six times more efficient than human operators, could reduce handling costs by 20-40% and are expected to increase revenues. No worries: the robotization of logistics will enable small providers of logistics services to be more competitive. To achieve this, new professions such as “robot integrator” and “remote platform administrator” will emerge as part of an entire ecosystem underpinning the new technology.

When asked whether robots “will steal” human jobs, Stefano Perego, Technical Advisor at Amazon, recently said: “There are features that are and will remain human. Let’s say that the introduction of robots mostly covers repetitive tasks. Picking, for instance, is an activity that will be improved by technology over time, in the sense that its robotization is very likely to happen, and in part it already exists. When I think of the future, I see robots working side by side to humans. And there is another point to be made: machines do not work by themselves. Hence, the human role and skills will change.

Humans are, and will always be, an asset. Their memory and adaptability are irreplaceable in the last-mile: couriers are the “human face” that the retailer shows to customers, so they have the responsibility to represent the endgame of the Retailer’s strategy, because their failure or success is the Retailer’s failure or success.