Transport Intelligence CEO John Manners-Bell talks tech innovation and supply chain in 2030

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Transport Intelligence CEO John Manners-Bell talks tech innovation and supply chain in 2030

John Manners-Bell, CEO of Transport Intelligence, is co-author of the book ‘Logistics and Supply Chain Innovation’, the 2nd edition of which is to be released on November 3rd. The text explores the technological disruptions of the logistics and supply chain industry and provides step-by-step guidance to adapting business plans and strategies.

The 2nd edition of the book, published by Kogan Page, also includes a detailed and up-to-date overview of all the major trends transforming the supply chain and logistics industry, including blockchain, automation and AI.

Ahead of the launch of the book, we caught up with John Manners-Bell to get his thoughts on numerous key issues influencing the future of supply chain, all of which are covered in the text itself.

In this second part of two interview series, we hone in on the future of both logistics and supply chain, discussing automation, regulation and how working life may look like for supply chain managers in 2030.

The book refers to how automation has the potential to remove and de-skill jobs. When contemplating this development, one might first think of robots in warehouses or autonomous trucks. However, as the power of AI grows stronger, and digital tools give us access to an ever-increasing myriad of data, could we ever get to the point where the ‘art’ of a supply chain manager is severely limited, or indeed a moment when AI itself can manage a company’s supply chain?

There are two answers to this. In a world of spreadsheets and blank sheets of paper, then I think AI really does have that potential to eliminate a lot of the human roles from the supply chain.

The vast amount of data being collected now is too much for the human brain to process and make the right decisions. So consequently, we’re going to need more machine learning and artificial intelligence in place to make decisions based on the number of set parameters.

Therefore, if there’s disruption at some point during the supply chain or with the logistics, then there will be a decision made automatically to switch maybe a container from one port to another, without actually having any human intervention at all. So in an ideal world, that will be the case.

However, as everybody knows, the logistics and freight forwarding worlds don’t always work within the utopia. There are always different factors involved whether it be political, economic, or social. These will actually need a human to be able to process additional information as it arrives. That could be a strike within a transport market, or within a warehouse system. When there is something that comes up that’s out-of-the-ordinary, then only a human being will be able to deal with that.

It’s the same with customs and dealing with governments. In terms of the actual trade process, if you’re looking at the international supply chains, then it’s going to be really hard for AI to be able to have the capacity to deal with changes regarding geopolitical uncertainty and so on. Certainly not in the way that many supply chain managers are able to at the moment.

So there will be humans involved for a long time. Their job will change, I believe, because it will be made easier for them. They will have more data and information at their fingertips to be able to help them guide those decisions. A lot of the procedural data-driven decisions will be undertaken for them.

To what extent does legislation and regulation in the world’s major economies need to catch up so as to take account of technological innovations in logistics and supply chain? With regards to this, how could countries gain an advantage by facilitating changes via regulation or deregulation more quickly?

It’s a massive issue. If you don’t get the regulation and legislation worked out, then we won’t see new innovations like autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles in closed loop areas or robotics within warehouses are obviously far easier to implement, and that’s why they are being adopted to the extent they are. On the roads, however, you see very little of that.

If you went to America you’d be amazed to see there are trials of driverless vehicles that are making headway in some states. This is nonetheless on a state-by-state basis. In Europe, the transport market has never really had a single legislation covering the EU in many respects. There are different vehicle sizes allowed in different countries for example.

In some respects there are EU-wide laws that regulate drivers’ hours, but in other respects things are very fragmented.

So the framework and legislation to allow the autonomous vehicle trials to take place is happening on a country-by-country basis. However, when moving on from that, there are huge problems to be faced in terms of liability.

Who will be liable if an autonomous vehicle has an accident. Who is to blame? Is it the vehicle manufacturer? Is it those maintaining the trucks? Or is it the technology companies? If there’s someone in the vehicle at the time, can they be held liable?

Those are huge issues. Obviously, the speed that governments and legal systems work is very slow. There are people who just don’t know how to deal with many of these big questions. That’s why it’s all taking a long time.

Finally, what will the working activities of those involved in managing and supervising supply chains look like in 2030? What new challenges will they face and what issues they are grappling with now do you foresee will be much easier to mitigate?

It will really revolve around automation, which is going to be key. I certainly don’t believe we’re going to have driverless vehicles by 2030. But I think in terms of where you have private facilities like warehouses, ports, docks, airports or whatever, then there is a lot more scope for automation.

If you look at what Amazon has been doing with robotics, you can see that more and more warehouses will become automated. Some will go to this dark-warehouse type approach where all you have is robots within a warehouse and a few people going around doing maintenance and repairs.

A lot of work processes are repetitive. You’re going to be able to automate those if they are capable of being digitalised.

If we look at the freight forwarding industry, a lot of time is spent actually phoning to get quotes for freight from an air cargo company or with a shipping line. That’s very low value and repetitive. It’s one of the things which is being addressed very successfully by platforms providing quotes and booking systems and things like that. You don’t need people to do that.

Likewise, the same will be true of repetitive tasks in warehouses like picking goods off shelves, then packing and labelling them. These jobs will be able to be automated reasonably easily. That’s what’s happening.

You can see there will be a lot fewer people working in the industry by 2030 in terms of its intensity. Whether there are more or less people working in industry overall by that time will depend on whether the global economy has grown.

In general, however, there will be far more robots and fewer people in these jobs. What people will be doing is undertaking far more-value added jobs. A lot of people will be working on the technology side, for example, ensuring that the robots are working.

In terms of freight forwarding, there’ll be the people doing the really difficult tasks regarding trade processes; dealing with customs and all the different agencies involved in the international movement of goods.

Therefore, as regards the humans working within the industry, everything will be moving up the value chain. This will make the industry a more attractive place to work, which in turn shall attract a lot more women into a sector that has been very male dominated.

Again, this will have a positive impact in terms of bringing in new ideas and increasing the quality of every aspect of the industry.

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