November 26, 2018
Column | big picture

The future may be here now

The technologies that could shape tomorrow's supply chains might already be available—if only we knew how to apply them.

By David Maloney

I was recently talking with my friend Joe Tillman of TSquared Logistics. Joe had given a presentation where he mentioned that many of today's most commonly used technologies actually required years to find practical applications. Joe helped me assemble a few examples.

For instance, autonomous cars and trucks have been envisioned for decades. Way back in 1925, a radio-controlled car successfully navigated heavy traffic down Broadway and Fifth Avenue in New York City. A June 1995 article in Popular Science detailed a joint venture between the military and a robotics company to develop self-driving convoy trucks that used satellite positioning, inertial guidance systems, and ground sensors for navigation. Yet we are just now seeing these self-driving concepts becoming reality.

Radio-frequency identification systems were first patented in 1973. Although the military was an early adopter, it took some 30 years before the technology became cost-effective for commercial applications.

The patent for bar codes was issued in 1952, but it was not until the creation of the universal product code (UPC) that the technology caught on. On June 26, 1974, a pack of Juicy Fruit gum became the first product ever scanned, when a clerk slid it over a bar-code reader at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio.

Bluetooth relies on spread spectrum and frequency-hopping technology famously developed during World War II by amateur inventor and Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil. Their original 1942 patent was for technology designed to prevent the jamming of radio signals controlling torpedoes. It was never applied that way, but the technology has since made its way into many of the mobile products that underpin the modern supply chain.

Most people assume blockchain technology is a recent innovation. But that's not actually the case. Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta came up with the idea back in 1991 as a tamperproof way to timestamp documents.

The desire for machines that mimic human motions and perform tasks has been around for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci sketched mechanical men in 1495. In the 1730s, French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson exhibited several life-sized automatons, including a mechanical duck that appeared to eat from his hand. The term "robot" was coined by Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920 play, "R.U.R."

As this short list shows, it's not unusual for technologies to require years to find their way. Often, good ideas just need the right timing or a favorable return on investment. Many concepts have to wait for advancements in other technologies, such as computing power, to help move them along.

Who knows, the next technology to revolutionize our supply chains may have already been invented and is just waiting for someone to come along with the right way to apply it.

About the Author

David Maloney
Editorial Director
David Maloney has been a journalist for more than 35 years and is currently the editorial director for DC Velocity and Supply Chain Quarterly magazines. In this role, he is responsible for the editorial content of both brands of Agile Business Media. Dave joined DC Velocity in April of 2004. Prior to that, he was a senior editor for Modern Materials Handling magazine. Dave also has extensive experience as a broadcast journalist. Before writing for supply chain publications, he was a journalist, television producer and director in Pittsburgh. Dave combines a background of reporting on logistics with his video production experience to bring new opportunities to DC Velocity readers, including web videos highlighting top distribution and logistics facilities, webcasts and other cross-media projects. He continues to live and work in the Pittsburgh area.

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