Finnish government to launch autonomous cargo ships by 2025

By Ben Ames | September 23, 2016 | 7:28 AM

Plans to launch robotic cargo ships took another step forward this week when the Finnish government announced plans to launch a suite of unmanned maritime products and services by 2025.

In pursuit of that goal, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation—known as Tekes—will help finance the development of an autonomous marine ecosystem by a combination of information and communications technology (ICT) startup firms and established marine suppliers. And once those new teams are ready to test their robo-ships, Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications has promised to apply flexible standards for the trials of autonomous vessels in the country’s waters.

“We are especially enthusiastic about colliding our world class ICT start-up scene with strong maritime players,” Tekes program manager Piia Moilanen said in a release. “New networks will boost exchanging ideas and create pioneering community for intelligent shipping.”

As a first step toward that goal, the shipping initiative has convened a group of industry partners led by Finnish incubator DIMECC Ltd., an acronym for digital, internet, materials & engineering co-creation. The group hopes to draft a common roadmap for reaching autonomous marine operations by coordinating development between businesses, research institutes, engineering societies, and government authorities.

One of those partners will be Rolls-Royce, the marine, automotive, and aeronautic engine manufacturer that recently announced a plan to build a demonstration version by 2020 of a shore-based control center for remote-controlled cargo ships.

Starship robots deliver donuts in San Francisco

By Ben Ames | September 22, 2016 | 12:27 PM

San Francisco residents see a lot of curious things on the sidewalks that helped launch the hippy movement of the 1960s. But even jaded Californians could be forgiven for gaping when a self-driving, Estonian, robotic delivery vehicle cruised down the Richmond District’s Balboa Street this week.

The autonomous, six-wheeled, picnic cooler steered carefully down the sidewalk at a pedestrian 4 mph before stopping at a predetermined address, opening its lid, and releasing its precious cargo of fresh pastries.

In addition to delivering donuts, the promise of driverless parcel transport could have huge implications for last-mile logistics. But while Amazon.com Inc. is still testing its aerial drones, these rolling robots are well into their demonstration phase.

The vehicles are a product of Starship Technologies, an Estonian startup staffed by two founders of Skype, the Swedish voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) telephony company now owned by Microsoft Corp.

Starship ran earlier tests of the 40-pound, single-package delivery platforms earlier this year at various sites in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and said in March that it said to launch U.S. trials soon.

That day is now here, and curious onlookers can see proof at Starship’s Instagram site. No word yet on whether the robots have been trained to take selfies.

Bloomberg Businessweek asks: "Will Amazon kill FedEx?"

By Martha Spizziri | September 09, 2016 | 9:38 AM | Categories: Transportation

In case you missed it: last week, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article titled "Will Amazon Kill FedEx?" 

As the title indicates, the piece speculates that Amazon aims to upend FedEx and UPS—a topic we've written about here and elsewhere.

A few of the more interesting facts from the Bloomberg article:

  • There's been resistance to Amazon's expansion in at least a couple of major European cities.
  • According to a June Deutsche Bank report, Amazon has patented a technology called "anticipatory package shipping," which will allow it to figure out when a customer will need products replenished and have a package ready in advance. The technology should save Amazon money, since it potentially could use a slower shipping method and still get shipments to customers exactly when they're needed.
  • Also from the Deutsche Bank study: Amazon has employed "hundreds of Ph.D. mathematicians" whose job is to model logistics networks.

There's also a short (about 10 minutes) interview with the article's author.

Amazon also recently hired lawyer Seth Bloom, who used to be general counsel to the Senate Antitrust Committee, as a lobbyist.

What’s the difference between delivering passengers and delivering parcels?

By Ben Ames | August 29, 2016 | 9:08 AM

Boston residents learned this week that a “pop up mass transit” system called Bridj was experimenting with delivering parcels as well as passengers, and could soon use neighborhood lockboxes and mobile robots to carry each package to its final destination.

“We’re going to start to introduce autonomous vehicles and autonomous delivery devices over the coming months, using Boston as a laboratory,” the firm’s 26-year-old cofounder and chief executive, Matthew George, told the Boston Globe.

Commuters in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City can already use a smartphone app to summon one of Bridj’s 14-person mini-buses, which use routing software to calculate malleable, on-the-fly bus routes. Like a shared ride on the taxi-alternative service Uber Technologies Inc., the two-year-old business is touted as an alternative to typical mass transit options like fixed-route commuter buses or subway networks.

But just as Uber has extended its ride-hailing system to last-mile parcel delivery, Bridj is also exploring ways to put boxes as well as butts in its vehicles’ seats. In a twist on other last-mile parcel delivery services, Bridj plans to use its passenger vans to drop items at local lock-boxes, then deploy either human couriers or small robots to carry each box to its final street address.

The idea faces several hurdles before it takes off in practice, since Bridj hasn’t yet chosen a delivery robot from its experiments with manufacturers, or obtained permission from the city of Boston to drive the autonomous critters down urban sidewalks. Another specter is potential vandalism or cargo theft committed on the slow-moving bots.

Despite these challenges, Bridj’s ideas on ways to improve last-mile delivery are hardly unique. In recent months, inventors in both Israel and in England have unveiled similar plans to dispatch packages to urban locations in wheeled autonomous robots.

The concept of using centralized lockers as distribution hubs for urban neighborhoods is even more popular, with pilot projects underway by some of the industry’s biggest names, including Atlanta-based supply chain giant UPS Inc., Durham, N.C.-based Bell and Howell LLC, and German transport and logistics firm Deutsche Post DHL Group.

Bridj hopes to emerge from this pack of parcel-toting hopefuls by building its service from a mixture of all three popular ideas—ride hailing, central lockboxes, and robot delivery. Only time will tell if the creative recipe works.

Self-driving car startup nuTonomy races Uber & Google to develop robo-taxis

By Ben Ames | August 26, 2016 | 11:02 AM

The race to develop self-driving vehicles took another lurching step forward yesterday when a Cambridge, Mass.-based tech startup called nuTonomy Inc. launched a public trial of its robo-taxi service on the bustling streets of Singapore.

The news comes just days after iconic ride-hailing service Uber Technologies Inc. accelerated its own effort to create self-driving taxis when it paid a reported $680 million to buy the San Francisco-based, autonomous trucking startup Otto and unveiled a $300 million deal with Volvo Car Group to build the technology into sedans and SUVs.

The sight of nuTonomy’s cars may be familiar to Singapore locals, since the company has been running daily autonomous vehicle tests in the city’s one-north business district since April. But those tests took on a high-octane flare on Aug. 25 when nuTonomy first invited residents to use its ride-hailing smartphone app to book a free ride in a self-driving car.

Passengers will not be completely alone, since a nuTonomy engineer rides along in each vehicle, monitoring performance and preparing to seize control if needed.

Formed in 2013 by a pair of robotics engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) named Karl Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, nuTonomy has developed specialized autonomous driving software. The company works with partners to integrate that software with sensors and processors, then installs the entire system in a Renault Zoe or Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicle.

In May, nuTonomy got a turbo boost in its race to test autonomous cars on public roads before industry heavyweights like Uber, General Motors Co. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google self-driving car when the company announced it had raised $16 million in funding from Highland Capital Partners LLC and Singapore’s economic development body.

Despite the impressive technology and jaw-dropping investment funds fueling the autonomous vehicle sector, industry experts say it will be at least another decade until providers can clear the regulatory and social speed bumps of unleashing unchaperoned robo-taxis on public streets.

In the meantime, nuTonomy is posting videos of the ongoing tests of its self-driving cars with unseen engineers riding shotgun.

The bimodal imperative

By Toby Gooley | July 19, 2016 | 2:41 PM | Categories: Supply Chain

In May I attended Gartner’s Supply Chain Executive Conference in Phoenix, Ariz. The conference sessions covered everything from software to sales and operations planning to supply chain strategy and much, much more. (I suspect I wasn’t the only one who wanted to clone myself in order to attend more sessions.) There were numerous opportunities to learn from Gartner analysts, technology providers, and supply chain leaders from a wide range of industries. And, of course, the event featured announcements of Gartner’s Top 25 Supply Chains list as well as their annual “Magic Quadrant” assessments of software and logistics service providers.

There were so many sessions, topics, demonstrations, and discussions packed into each day of the conference that it would be hard to identify a single, overarching message. But if I had to focus on just one, it would be this: to succeed in business now and in the future, you need to follow two distinct supply chain paths.

Gartner calls this principle the “bimodal supply chain.” Here—in very simplified terms—is how Chief of Research David A. Willis described it in his opening keynote. You can think of Mode 1 as analog and designed for stability, efficiency, and operational excellence. Mode 2 is digital and designed for agility and innovation—an approach supported by advanced analytics, automation, and connectivity. A company that follows both paths will be “industrialized and innovative, lean and effective but agile,” he said.

The digital side of the supply chain will encompass e-commerce, the Internet of Things, predictive analytics, “big data,” machine-to-machine communication, and demand sensing, among other things. Algorithms will rule the day, and data scientists, analysts, and information technologists will become an integral part of supply chain organizations, Willis predicted.

Does this mean the end of “old school” supply chain management? Definitely not. Willis emphasized that the digital and analog sides of supply chain operations are not in competition; rather, they are complementary and should work together. He cited the example of the home goods retailer Williams-Sonoma, which now derives half of its revenue from online business. The company had to devote considerable resources to adapting its supply chain and its information technology resources to serve that channel, but it did not sacrifice growth in its brick-and-mortar retail channel or disrupt its traditional operations.

The “bimodal supply chain” is catching on as a management strategy, becoming a guiding principle for companies like HP, Schneider Electric, and Discount Tire. Gartner, of course, has a vested interest in pushing the concept; the more companies buy into it, the more opportunities to sell its advisory services and research papers on the topic. But the bimodal supply chain is neither a gimmick nor an empty promise. In fact, it makes perfect sense for companies in almost every industry. Who could argue with a strategy that encourages supply chain organizations to prepare for the data-driven business of the future while reinforcing the value of good, old-fashioned operational excellence?

Truck drivers will be replaced by autonomous vehicles within 10 years, former Facebook executive warns

By Ben Ames | July 13, 2016 | 8:05 PM

The relentless drive of Silicon Valley startup companies is on track to make the truck driving profession obsolete within a decade, according to a former Facebook executive who recently published a tell-all memoir about his years at the huge social media firm.

Speaking in a radio interview with Boston’s WBUR on July 13, author Antonio García Martinez discussed his business book "Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley."

Named for a software application used by the online movie-rental company Netflix to model the impact of unpredictable events on its ability to stream movies and TV shows to its customers, the term “chaos monkeys” also describes the futility of predicting which tech startups will succeed and what impact they will have on society, he said.

“Just imagine a wild monkey rampaging through a large computer center, kicking over boxes and pulling on cables. Silicon Valley right now is sort of like the zoo where the chaos monkeys are kept,” Martinez said on WBUR’s On Point program.

“They run around society and they pull the plug on things like taxis, and they ship an app called Uber, where anyone can become a taxi driver. Or they pull the plug on hotels and anyone with a spare bedroom or a weekend cottage can suddenly become an innkeeper [with Airbnb],” he said.

Driven by that creative instinct, waves of technology startups are sweeping through American society, “pulling the plug” on many traditional industries in a frantic search for the next great business success. However, no firm has the motivation—or even the capability—to forecast how its invention will affect the personal lives of fellow citizens, he said.

“Consider what will happen to truck drivers when autonomous vehicles are standard; and that’s going to happen in 10 years,” Martinez said. “If you look at a map of the most popular job in every U.S. state, for a large number of states, truck driving is the most popular profession—it’s the one way that non-college educated people can make a good living--and that’s going to go away in 10 years. That’s not going to exist as a job in 10 years. And nobody is thinking about that. I think that’s going to be a real problem down the line.”

Quoting the venture capitalist and former Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, Martinez predicted that the future will soon hold only two types of jobs—you’ll either tell the computer what to do, or you’ll be told by the computer what to do.

“I think that will be the reality for a large swath of the economy, and what happens in that world is a real question. There are not going to be jobs for a lot of people in this economy within 10 to 20 years,” Martinez said. “When the chaos monkeys visit, it’s a question of is your life going to be the same before and after?”

Engineers refine safety standards as collaborative robots enter the warehouse

By Ben Ames | May 12, 2016 | 12:02 PM

Now that robots are becoming a common sight in many warehouses, logistics companies face a new challenge—how to design their robots and train their employees to work together in safe, productive teams? That issue was a central topic last week at the RIA’s International Collaborative Robots Workshop, held in Boston May 3 and 4.

The traditional standard for ensuring safe relations in mixed human/robot workplaces has been to encase the robots in cages, isolating them to guarantee they would not crush a human worker’s hand or roll over his foot. A slightly more flexible approach set safety distances, so that robots run slower—or even stop—as humans cross light curtains and cross into pre-determined danger zones.

However, those approaches become unwieldy as robots increasingly move around the warehouse, shuttling merchandise from point to point. So the latest strategies involve power and force limiting, Roberta Nelson Shea, global marketing manager for safety components at Rockwell Automation, said in a session at the conference.

Engineers are drafting design standards through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) that will govern how quickly robots can move when sensors show they are near various points of the human body. For example, a moving part might slow slightly when it is near a worker’s leg, but move nearly to a stop if it s near a human’s face or neck.

These safety steps can allow warehouses to achieve better productivity by using collaborative robots—known as “Cobots”—to work alongside humans. Depending on their proximity, designers can also adjust the robot’s payload limit, speed, reach, arm stiffness, and force sensors, said Corey Ryan, manager of medical robotics at Kuka Robotics Corp.

For example, one of Kuka’s robots that works on the dishwasher assembly line at a Maytag plant features a safety feature that will automatically stop the robot in the midst of any task when a person touches the robotic arm. When the employee touches the arm again, the robot resumes its work.

Additional ISO standards require robot manufacturers to install redundant software and sensors to ensure they stay within those parameters, Ryan said.

As robots emerge from their cages and begin to collaborate with human colleagues, designers can use a variety of standards to deliver the ideal level of collaboration, said Nicolas de Keijser, of ABB Robotics. This can range from:

  • no collaboration (with the robot secured behind a safety fence),
  • fenceless operation (allowing robots to move without physical safety structures separating them from workers),
  • sporadic interaction (where human occasionally reload a machine, or feed materials in and out of the workflow)
  • open co-working (where the robot constantly interacts with human employees).

Whether robots are serving to assemble devices, test products, deliver tools, move pallets, or swap parcels with a conveyor, these mechanical colleagues are here to stay. Collaboration between human employees and their robotic collaborators could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Beyond the bottom line

By Toby Gooley | May 02, 2016 | 1:17 PM


Each month DC Velocity publishes a brief news item variously titled “Good deeds,” “Logistics gives back,” or (when we’re feeling a bit silly) “Monthly mitzvahs.” These articles list some recent public service activities and charitable donations by companies in the logistics, material handling, and supply chain space. Some sponsor fundraising events like golf tournaments or road races; others donate money, supplies, and/or their employees’ time and labor to local or national charities. Whether small or large, in cash or in kind, these donations can make an appreciable difference to nonprofit organizations.

Over the years that we’ve been collecting that information, it’s become clear that a significant number of businesses in our field have made such “good deeds” part of their corporate culture. Gina Manis-Anderson thinks more companies should do the same—and that if they did, they’d find that the benefits flow in both directions.

Manis-Anderson, a former supply chain executive, is the co-founder and CEO of Savii Group. The firm acts as a buyers advocate to help companies find hidden savings across dozens of product and service categories and is paid based on the amount of money it saves its clients. But Savii offers them something more: the opportunity to direct some of its performance fees to a nonprofit of the client’s choice.

Savii calls this “Foundraising” (a term the company has trademarked) because the donations do not cut into a company’s bottom line; instead, they come from savings uncovered through better management of indirect expenses, including the procurement of supplies and services. Among the companies that have taken advantage of this arrangement are Ulta Beauty Supply, Baker Electric, and Century 21.

Manis-Anderson and her colleagues say they can document that companies achieve a measurable return on investment when they use the financial resources they’ve freed up through smarter spend and supplier management to fund initiatives that matter to their company, their employees, and their community. It’s powerful, she says, when CEOs say to people, “I don’t need you to cut your budget by a million dollars. I want you to find a million dollars so you can not only do your job better, but also make the world a better place.”

The supply chain and procurement functions are well suited to help a business that aims to “marry profits with purpose,” as Manis-Anderson puts it. After all, eliminating waste, improving efficiency, and supporting profitable growth are all part of a supply chain organization’s charge. From what I can see, you don’t have to work for a huge corporation to do as Savii’s clients have done. If you’re going to provide your company with “found money,” why not use some of that windfall for a good cause?

Two books pull back curtain on "logistical magic" of modern life

By Ben Ames | April 25, 2016 | 1:44 PM

Most citizens of the global economy take logistics for granted, not pondering how their purchases arrive on their doorsteps as long as each parcel arrives cheap and fast.

Two books that have hit retail shelves in recent months may change that, however. The first examines the “logistical magic behind every trip we take and every click we make,” while the other takes a critical look at the crumbling status of American infrastructure like roads and bridges.

In Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation, author Edward Humes digs into “the hidden and costly wonders of our buy-it-now, get-it-today world of transportation.”

Humes uses interviews and data to explore the impact that ports, traffic-control centers, and research labs are having on our transportation future. He looks at the complex movements of humans and goods from multiple perspectives, such as the increasing number of Americans who live without cars and the great distance UPS goes to deliver a leopard-printed phone case.

Finally, the author makes the whole equation personal by tracking one day in the life of his Southern California family, examining their commutes, traffic jams, grocery stops, and online shopping excursions.

In The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure, author Henry Petroski takes a sobering look at the state of American roads and bridges.

He quickly concludes that our infrastructure is at a crisis state, citing The American Society of Civil Engineers for its recent dismal grading of U.S. roads (D) and bridges (C+). Most alarming, the society described 65,000 American bridges as "structurally deficient."

Better maintenance is essential to America's economic health, he argues. And that judgment will affect everything from interstate highways—with their attending guardrails, stop signs, and traffic lights—to local civic features such as potholes, gutters, and curbs.

Of course, supply chain professionals work with many of these challenges every day. But thanks to these two new additions to the neighborhood bookstore or e-commerce cart, our friends and family may finally gain a better appreciation of what truly happens behind the curtain of global logistics to make our modern world go ‘round.

The opinions expressed herein are those solely of the participants, and do not necessarily represent the views of Agile Business Media, LLC., its properties or its employees.

Thoughts from our editors.

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