By Karen Reddington | In almost every industry and every region, disruptive technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and blockchain are being hailed as game changers. Organizations, both big and small, are asking themselves about the opportunities and the risks.
At FedEx, we’re asking, “what are the right technologies that we can develop and deploy today that will make a tangible difference to our customers, our people, and our communities?” It’s really all about how we can create possibilities with the promise of new technologies.
Latest forecasts expect digital transformation will add an estimated US$1.16 trillion to Asia Pacific’s GDP by 2021 (Microsoft). But relatively few consumers, despite being on the receiving end of these technologies, have yet to grasp many of the changes that are happening now. The benefits are real and, in the case of FedEx, being realized by our customers and their customers today and everyday.
The numbers are only part of the story. What really makes us excited is the potential to make life more convenient, efficient, safe and predictable.
At the most human level, technology promises and is delivering convenience, whether it’s to send or receive a package.
Paperwork can be time-consuming and tedious, and we’re constantly looking at how to cut it down. We’re developing the AI-enabled Alexa app to initiate shipments, so customers can talk their way through the process hands-free and paper-free, with the digital assistant asking the right questions to help them complete the job (FedEx). Already, our online virtual assistant is replying to FedEx-based questions instantly on our website, and it’ll only get smarter as more people use it.
Automation for efficiency and safety
Every day, FedEx handles an average of over 14 million shipments (FedEx), which means millions of opportunities to do it faster, better and more safely.
Boxes as large as refrigerators simply do not fit on the conveyor belt in our warehouses. We get a team of mobile robots, nicknamed Lucky, Dusty and Ned after the Three Amigos movie to move these unwieldy items around the facility. Unloading shipments off trucks and onto the conveyor belts for sorting can be mundane, so we’re testing robotic automation to do this tedious job. This way, our people can be freed up to do work that requires human dexterity, such as fitting odd-shaped items into tight spaces (Frederick W. Smith). We are also investing in courier robots that can carry heavier loads and travel further. It’s a real possibility that these robots will be making deliveries to homes and offices in the years ahead.
With over 180,000 FedEx vehicles on the roads daily, the logical next step is autonomous vehicles. Nine in ten road accidents are caused by human error (Frederick W. Smith). Leveraging big data and AI technologies will make our operations significantly safer and more efficient (Frederick W. Smith), particularly for heavy long-haul trucks.
While trucks that drive themselves are expected to be in the shipping industry within the next decade, we are already testing cutting-edge technology that links trucks into small groups called ‘platoons.’ Using wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication, the driver in the first truck controls the acceleration and braking of the trucks behind him (FedEx). This technology was designed to reduce wind resistance and save fuel.
Building trust and transparency
Great logistics have always been as much about information as it is about the shipments and packages themselves. So, it’s not surprising that perhaps the most far-reaching impact of technology will be felt in the virtual world, with the Internet of Things and blockchain as the key enabling technologies.
For example, it’s not just about knowing where the package is, but also how it is. Medicines, life-saving human organs, fresh food and flowers, and other perishables all need to be shipped at strictly regulated temperatures and conditions. We developed a device that provides near-real-time monitoring from inside the package. SenseAware can alert shippers whether the cargo is staying within prescribed temperature and humidity limits or has been exposed to excessive light or other factors that might compromise shipment quality.
Blockchain, meanwhile, offers a new level of transparency that can mitigate some of the most common disputes between customers sending and receiving goods involving time stamps, payments, and damages. It uses computer code to record every step of a transaction and delivery in a permanent digital ledger, which cannot be changed unless all involved agree. It even has the potential, for the first time ever, to make that information available to anybody, pushing new levels of trust and transparency for cross-border logistics (Dollar Destruction).
We are already testing the blockchain to track large, higher-value cargo, and working closely with the Blockchain in Transport Alliance or BiTA to ensure that every player in the logistics ecosystem can gain from this technology.
The Internet of Things, AI, automated transportation, and other technological advances have been offering the promise of disruption for a while. While FedEx has a clear vision of what lies ahead, we are also living out that future by developing innovations today that directly benefit our customers. Our purpose as a company is to create possibilities for businesses, and we know that the smart use of innovative technologies helps us do that in a profound and valuable way (Frederick W. Smith).
About the Author
Karen Reddington is President of Asia Pacific Division of FedEx Express, the world’s largest express transportation company. In this role, which Reddington took up in January 2015, she heads up Asia Pacific from its headquarters in Hong Kong. Reddington is responsible for leading the FedEx Express business across the region, including overall planning and implementation of corporate strategies and operations across more than 30 countries and territories with about 29,000 employees.