2018 was a banner year for logistics technology. Whether we were wrangling with the buzz around blockchain, figuring out how we're going to leverage the power of AI, or marveling at the influx of money into tech, everyone in the industry could feel the increased momentum.
I personally haven't seen this much excitement since the first wave of web portals launched almost two decades ago. Like the heady times of the dot-com boom, there are a lot of great things being built, and they're surrounded by a lot of meaningless noise.
Here's a list of some of the biggest trends and technologies in the logistics space with some highly subjective commentary on each one.
TLDR: The buzz is too hot, but there is real value under the hype.
Of course, I had to start with blockchain. It got all the buzz. In fact, its outsized position in the conversation pushed way beyond the realities of the technology today.
I believe that blockchain will have a real impact in the industry, though the jury is still out on some of the more ambitious use cases.
While, I remain bullish on the technology as a whole, we definitely have to work out complicated business issues around privacy, intellectual property, immutability, and transparency before we can use it for more complex use cases. If we can do this, the sky is the limit. Of course, we've tried this before (see EDI), and a lot of failed projects will be left in the wake of the experimentation.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
TLDR: It's real, it's here, and it's going to be everywhere.
I feel bad for the AI crowd. They came out of 2017 with all of the momentum and then suddenly got lumped in with blockchain in so many articles and conference talks about emerging tech. This wasn't fair because AI is real, and it's ready to go today. Don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of hype around this technology. There are also concrete applications.
The great thing about AI (contrasted with blockchain) is that you don't have to reinvent business models to see how it applies. Smarter, faster decision making is always in vogue, and that's what AI brings to the table.
The AI world is split right now between focused startups building AI focused tools (like Teknowlogi and TNX) and incumbents embedding AI into their platforms (like JDA and DHL). I think there's room for both approaches as AI pervades everything in the industry. If you can find data, someone will be using it for prediction or to direct resources more effectively.
Internet of Things (IOT)
The Electronic Logging Device (ELD) mandate helped push IOT over the top. Other use cases like temperature and other environment sensors and container based geolocation are getting their moments in the sun as well.
As we close out 2018, I don’t think there’s any debate on the viability of IOT or the value it has brought to the supply chain. As devices get even cheaper and 5G rolls out, IOT will continue to seep into even more areas. One really cool future innovation around IOT involves it’s interaction with blockchain to create digital twins.
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)
Everyone loves talking about their APIs. “We have an API.” “Do you have an API?”
As someone who actually knows how to program a computer, this is a little weird to me. An API is a piece of functionality that lets two computers talk in real time. That’s pretty cool. In fact, when it’s applied properly to the right business problem, it’s freaking amazing. Getting real time parcel rates directly into a shopper’s online cart within 800 milliseconds? (Like we did for a customer this year.) Sign me up!
My concern is that many executives (and salespeople) are waiving around APIs like they’re a magic wand. “If you have an API and I have an API, then all of our integration problems go away and everything just works now and forever.” Not really. At some level, integrating with APIs is even harder than working with EDI since every company has its own flavor.
That’s why we built our FLOW product this year. It helps companies with different APIs start to work together (and to work with all the legacy systems already out in the wild).
I’m hoping that in 2019 we can give “API” back to the programmers. Let the buzzword rest and talk about business process integration instead. It’s less sexy, but way more relevant.
Supply Chain Digitization
I saved this one for last, because I’ve spent the whole year trying to figure out where I stand on it. Frankly, I still don’t know.
I think part of my conflict is rooted in how poorly defined this term is. I know what an API looks like. I can verify if you’re actually using a blockchain. Even AI (which is certainly abused) can be validated by asking how things are done under the hood. But what is digitization? When am I digitized? Is this different than the paperless initiatives that we’ve been pushing for 25 years (or more)?
If digitization is the banner under which we’ll all rally to bring modern technology using AI, blockchain, APIs, and the rest to our industry, then I’m all for it.
If it’s a code word for “no people” and fully autonomous supply chains, then I think it’s vaporware at best.
If it’s another marketing term flowing through the hype cycle, then I hope nobody’s getting too distracted.
Maybe in 2019, we’ll see some people start to question the word and start to insist on a clear definition. Our work on the digital supply chain is a starting point for that conversation.
What’s Coming in 2019
My prediction is that 2019 will be a very different year than 2018. During 2015-2017 a lot of the new technologies that I’ve mentioned started to hit the mainstream or step into the hype cycle. In 2018, we began to wrestle with what they could do individually.
In 2019, I’m predicting that the hot topics will be convergence and interoperability. With all of these new technologies starting to move into production workflows (and supporting real shipments), the hard work is about to begin.
As an industry, we’re going to have to figure out how your IOT sensor is going to fit into my blockchain visibility scheme. We’re going to have to address that your API is modeled off of a bill of lading world view and mine is based on purchase orders. We’re going to have to figure out where AI brings a real ROI and where its complete overkill.
This is the hard part where we figure out what we should do instead of what we could do. It’s also the fun part where we start to see concrete results.
The companies that are prepared with strong fundamentals, integration best practices, and real business models are going to do great in 2019. The companies with vaporware and hype are going to see their clients’ patience start to wane.
I’m personally excited to get to the business of getting business done. At Chain.io, we’re here to help you move from isolated processes and legacy systems to the world where technology and supply chain converge.Book a Meeting