Logistics in Industry 4.0

The fourth industrial revolution has begun and, according to various analysts, will enter into full swing in 2018 before accelerating over the years to follow. Let’s take a close look at this evolution with a specific examination of the world of logistics.

By definition, the goal of logistics is to optimise the service provided to customers, to simplify processes and to improve operating efficiency, at the same time coordinating the procurement of goods, the storage of products and effective distribution.

The key to the development of logistics is without doubt the integration of technological innovations with high standards of automation, such as 3D printing, the Internet of Things, online bots for pre and post sales assistance, autonomous cars and augmented reality. These innovations make it possible to improve distribution processes, transport goods efficiently and improve customer services. The most important technology innovation, behind the real evolution of logistics, is the development of artificial intelligence. The implementation of autonomous “AI” makes it possible to integrate the work of manufacturers, carriers, distributors and the logistics apparatus, and to increase the visibility of distribution processes. AI is supplemented by the development of drones and cloud systems applied to logistics. Let’s take a detailed look at the main evolutions in this sector.

Artificial vision. The implementation of AI has also led to the introduction of “visibility” systems, also known as “artificial vision systems”. These technology platforms provide up-to-date real time information on the status of transport, making it possible to monitor vehicles and track deliveries. These systems are also able to measure the volume of shipments in order to improve sorting, storage and distribution procedures. Connected to artificial vision systems is the development of technologies for the digitalisation of paper documents and Mobile Logistics Apps, which are able to significantly improve the traceability of information.

The role of automation. Another trend making firm headway in the logistics sector is the development of automation systems, in particular the use of robots and packaging automation, control and storage systems. The benefits of automation include the optimisation of the traceability, palletising and transportation of products in warehouses and distribution centres. The increasing drive towards this type of automation has without doubt been spurred by the major developments that have taken place in the e-commerce sector in the last decade.

Robotics. A direct consequence of industrial automation is the explosion in the growth of robots at global level. According to the forecasts of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), by 2018 annual sales of industrial robots will hit the 400,000 unit mark, almost twice as many as at the end of 2016. In Europe, the forecasts for this year point towards an 8%-10% increase to 56,000 units of robots sold (a new high, for the third successive year). The French robots market has grown by 39% to reach new record levels. In Spain there has been a moderate increase in sales of industrial robots, which have reached a new peak of 3900 units. Sales of industrial robots in the UK rose for the first time since 2012. In all other countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia there was a big increase in robot sales in 2016, as in 2015. Supplies of robots will increase by 16% in the Americas, by 21% in Asia/Australia and by 8% in Europe for an estimated figure of over 1.7 million new industrial robots installed in factories across the world between 2017 and 2020.

Estimated annual wordwide supply of industrial robots (2008-2016 and 2017*-2020*)

The situation in Italy. Italy plays a central role in the robotics sector and is the second biggest European market after Germany. In fact, in 2014 over 6200 industrial robots were installed, a 32% increase compared with 2013, placing the country in seventh place in the world rankings of robot installations. Investments in robots fell slightly in 2016 compared with the peak of 6700 units in 2015. The level of robotisation in Italy is very high, particularly in comparison with the size of manufacturing industry: there are 155 robots for every 10,000 workers. Thanks to these figures Italy is among the world’s top ten nations in terms of robotisation, together with giants such as China, South Korea, Japan and the USA. The future looks very rosy with robot installation forecasts ranging between +5% and +10% per year up to 2018. In the next few years Italy should therefore consolidate its position on the market.

Estimated worldwide annual shipments fo industrial robots by regions

In conclusion, the combination of all of the technologies mentioned will make it possible to significantly improve the speed, quality and efficiency of distribution processes. In the next few years these technological innovations will have a huge impact on employment, creating millions of new professional roles and converting those no longer requested by the job market.

In fact, although automation and AI will make some professions obsolete, at the same time new experts will be needed to oversee the new systems as human input will always be required in some form, regardless of the technological progresses made.

Changes are already taking place in the logistics industry, knocking at our doors with increasing autonomy.