As labor shortages persist, technologies such as robotics, drones and driverless trucks could help retailers, transportation and logistics firms move products.

Boyden's perspectives on the news and trends that are transforming industries

At the recent Home Delivery World trade show in Philadelphia, retailers, grocers, CPG and third-party logistics firms convened to address the challenges that bedevil last-mile retail logistics. High fuel costs, inflation, driver shortages and consumer demand for fast delivery were among the top concerns. Companies with technological solutions, particularly the makers of robots, drones and driverless vehicles, came out in force, offering ways to lower the cost of workers and create new efficiencies.

Many see automation as the future, particularly at a time when labor shortages in logistics and transportation are exacerbating supply chain woes. Companies that transport goods are being hit especially hard. Some transportation executives contend that the Great Supply Chain Disruption has resulted largely from a scarcity of truck drivers and warehouse workers. On the other side of the debate are labor experts, who attribute the shortage of workers to employers’ refusal to raise wages.

Automation promises to alleviate worker shortages and cut costs, whether by improving working conditions and optimizing warehouse productivity, or by replacing human workers. Judging by the goings-on at Home Delivery World, supply chain companies are pursuing various automation technologies as well as more flexible staffing options. The largest companies are “the most focused on deploying robots,” the New York Times reports.

Locus Robotics, which makes autonomous mobile robots, has supplied 200 warehouses globally and is expanding rapidly. The company maintains that its robots are not meant to replace workers, but to complement them, relieving them of strenuous tasks such as pushing cartloads of goods. Locus also sees robotics as a solution to worker shortages, in that they can easily be scaled up and cut back, says Melissa Valentine, Director of Retail Global Accounts. This eliminates the need to hire and train temp workers.

Richard Steiner, Head of Policy and Communications at Gatik, a startup developing technology for autonomous trucks, believes driverless delivery vehicles solve the problem of attracting and retaining truck drivers. Along with robots in warehouses, this alternative is gaining popularity. UPS and Fedex, as well as Amazon and Walmart are all in various stages of testing and adding autonomous trucks to their fleets. Gatik currently runs 30 trucks between distribution centers and Walmart stores in three states.

Drones are also gaining wider adoption in last-mile retail logistics. Commercial drone delivery entered the public consciousness in 2013, when Amazon announced plans to deploy the technology. Only recently has it begun to take off. McKinsey projects nearly 1.5 million drone deliveries taking place worldwide by the end of 2022, up from less than half a million in 2021. Drone delivery companies say that in addition to enabling contactless retail, drones can improve efficiency across the supply chain.

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