September 8, 2014
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The next revolution?

I am persuaded we are on the brink of another major upheaval in logistics and supply chain, spurred largely by technological developments like 3-D printing, ubiquitous connectivity, and the coming of driverless vehicles.

By Peter Bradley

Back in the 1980s, when I first started writing about logistics, material handling, and supply chain and such, the United States' freight transportation system was in upheaval, most especially the motor carrier industry. In 1980, Congress had largely eliminated most of the economic regulation that had governed trucking operations since the 1930s, and the industry was undergoing a sea change in the way it did business.

We saw a sort of business Darwinism at work. A sudden change in the environment put many of the established giants at risk as they struggled to adapt. At the time, I had a list pinned above my desk of the 50 largest truckers in 1980. Each time one of them shuttered its operations, I crossed it off the list. Few remained when some years later I changed offices and the list disappeared.

In the meantime, an aggressive group of entrepreneurial business leaders set out to take advantage of what had become true market-based competition and transformed the freight transportation and logistics industries. Eventually, the changes served shippers well. The innovative carriers worked hard to reduce costs, deliver top-notch service, and develop new programs. Deregulation made its way to the state level, further spurring innovation. The change did not come without a cost, of course. Jobs were lost, and litigation over negotiated rates dragged on for years. Like any revolution, it brought plenty of upheaval.

I think about this now because I am persuaded we are on the brink of another major upheaval in logistics and supply chain, spurred largely by technological developments like 3-D printing, ubiquitous connectivity, the coming of driverless vehicles, and the development of services like Uber. One example: In an interview on the Big Think website, Jeremy Rifkin, a provocative economic thinker, says, "We are just beginning to see the first glimpse of an automated transport and logistics Internet." He describes a vision of businesses large and small forming a massive collaborative supply chain designed to eliminate many of the inefficiencies inherent in today's logistics networks. We already have some of that, of course, in the form of the third-party logistics industry that thrived post deregulation. But Rifkin is alluding to something much bigger and more revolutionary: an interconnected world embracing technology, energy, transport, and manufacturing that will fundamentally change economies—what he calls "the democratization of everything."

I don't expect to see such change in the next months or years. But these are the kinds of changes that can sneak up on a person or a business or a nation. And some of it—the emergence of driverless vehicles, for instance—is not that far off. It's the sort of change that could be exciting and transformative. You just don't want to be the dinosaur.

About the Author

Peter Bradley
Editor Emeritus
Peter Bradley is an award-winning career journalist with more than three decades of experience in both newspapers and national business magazines. His credentials include seven years as the transportation and supply chain editor at Purchasing Magazine and six years as the chief editor of Logistics Management.

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