There’s no shortage of technology tools available to help improve business operations, and the number of solutions keeps growing as companies look for ways to automate more processes and workflows.
Indeed, worldwide IT spending is expected to reach $5.1 trillion next year, an 8% increase over 2023, according to Gartner Inc. data published in October. Investments in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will help drive the trend, which is already well established in logistics and supply chain. A separate Gartner study from this past spring showed that most chief supply chain officers (CSCOs) expected to have an easier time getting new technology investments funded in 2023, thanks in large part to a better understanding of the link between business and technology planning among leaders at all levels.
“The last three years of uncertainty have blurred the line between business and technology strategies to the point that they must be considered together,” Simon Jacobson, vice president/analyst in Gartner’s Supply Chain Practice, said in a statement describing the spring report's findings. “Supply chain leaders must have an understanding of the strategic, disruptive, and unavoidable technologies that will impact their planning processes over the next five years.”
Budding companies are taking note, with many startups and rising tech firms focused on developing software solutions for the myriad supply chain challenges facing shippers, carriers, and logistics service providers today. From trucking industry solutions that gather and centralize truck telematics data, to visibility-enhancing solutions for inventory tracking in the warehouse and apps that make it easier to hire seasonal help and optimize labor planning, technology is helping to improve virtually every aspect of supply chain management. Here’s a look at some emerging tech players that are making inroads across the industry.
Software engineers and entrepreneurs Dhruv Gupta and Jinyan Zang learned during the Covid-19 pandemic that tracking people and items is one of the most difficult things you can ask software to do. The two, both Harvard University graduates, had worked on separate eye-opening projects during the crisis: Gupta had volunteered for a project designing a system to track and redistribute personal protective equipment (PPE), and Zang had been asked to develop Covid contact tracing software for the university. When that work was finished, the two decided to combine their experience—which also included other projects in urban logistics—and use it to track data for the trucking industry. The entrepreneurs launched Axle Technologies in 2022.
“We realized that carriers, brokers, and shippers weren’t getting the full value of technology available to them,” explains Gupta, who serves as the company’s CEO. “There is this explosion of [technology] companies trying to serve truckers … [And] we realized that one of the core things missing is real-time visibility into the vehicles and drivers; the bottleneck ended up being a data problem.”
Gupta and Zang explain that valuable data was getting hung up in the cabs of trucks, most of which are equipped with electronic logging devices (ELDs), which are used to track commercial drivers’ federally regulated hours of service (HOS)—the amount of time a driver spends driving per day as well as how many hours he or she is on-duty and off-duty each week. ELDs also track real-time location, fuel levels, speed, and other factors, creating a trove of information that shippers, carriers, and other business partners can use for better decision-making in their transportation networks. But with hundreds of different ELDs on the market, aggregating and analyzing that data was nearly impossible.
Gupta and Zang’s solution? An application programming interface (API) that brings together all of the disparate data sources across the trucking industry into one platform. The solution allows trucking industry business partners—including transportation management system (TMS) providers, insurance companies, fuel card providers, and more—to connect seamlessly to carriers’ vehicle data, replacing time-consuming integration and onboarding processes for each ELD or telematics device in a fleet.
“We work with all the folks that the carriers are using,” Zang says, explaining that, with Axle, carriers can connect with business partners via a dashboard that allows them to share their telematics data with members of the network. “It’s an easy, one-time onboarding process to get permission and get the data to start flowing.”
Axle Technologies is already working with some of the largest software companies, brokers, and other trucking industry service providers and has more than 5,000 vehicles on its platform. The company raised $2.6 million in an initial funding round last year and is focused on its mission to streamline the trucking industry for all parties.
As Zang, who serves as Axle Technologies’ COO, explains: “We’re building a data platform for trucking and logistics—enabling all these companies in the space to work faster.”
Warehouse automation company Gather AI has a similar goal, and it’s combining hardware, software, imaging, and artificial intelligence to make it happen. Founded in 2018 by three Carnegie Mellon robotics-program graduates, the company focuses on deep learning, autonomy, and computer vision and helped create the world’s first full-scale autonomous helicopter, technology that is now being deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Founders Sankalp Arora, Daniel Maturana, and Geetesh Dubey were looking for a way to commercialize that technology and found that warehousing was the next logical step. They began developing drones that could be used in large, high-velocity warehouses to monitor inventory as part of a larger automation strategy, developing their first solution for an aircargo industry customer.
“You have tons of goods moving in and out; it’s a highly dense environment that lacks GPS [global positioning system data], cell signals, or the ability to use traditional flight marking technology,” explains Sean Mitchell, Gather AI’s vice president of customer success. “It really became an exciting problem for the team to solve.”
Gather AI’s warehouse drones automate the manual process of cycle counting in those large warehouses, where wireless connections can be difficult to establish. In manual operations, associates typically use a combination of scanners and forklifts to gather data from pallets that are stacked throughout the dense, high-reaching aisles. But with Gather AI’s solution, workers can program drones to autonomously navigate the aisles; they fly from bin location to bin location, taking pictures of each bin’s contents. The pictures can be analyzed locally, providing immediate inventory analytics, but they can also be uploaded to the cloud, where they are analyzed and compared with what’s in the company’s warehouse management system (WMS). The Gather AI system does this by returning the drone to a home base, where a wireless connection can be established for uploading.
The process dramatically speeds cycle counting and improves inventory accuracy, according to Mitchell. Manually, a human can count about 45 to 60 pallets per hour, but an individual operating a single drone can count between 300 and 450 pallets per hour. And one individual can run up to three drones at a time.
But the biggest difference is in the analytics: Warehouse managers gain greater visibility into inventory thanks to Gather AI’s web dashboard, which allows them to match what’s on the floor with what’s in the system, making it easier to identify exceptions and better plan movement throughout the facility.
Gather AI implemented its first warehouse drone solution at an aircargo facility for Emirates Airlines in 2018 and has since branched out to serve companies in other industries with similar warehousing challenges. Those include large third-party logistics service providers (3PLs) such as Barrett Distribution Centers, NFI Logistics, and Langham Logistics as well as food-service distributor DPI Specialty Foods and the Department of Defense’s Army & Air Force Exchange Service.
Dave Dempsey watched Uber disrupt the rideshare industry and quickly saw an opportunity to do something similar in the world of labor and employment. A former PepsiCo executive, Dempsey teamed up with some like-minded colleagues and friends after retiring from the food and beverage giant to found Hyer, an on-demand labor app that connects businesses with individuals looking for on-demand work assignments.
Hyer set out to transform the temporary labor industry in 2019 and has since found a niche serving companies in retail and warehousing, along with labor firms that support those industries. About half of Hyer’s business is in retail—mainly grocers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies that supply those grocers. Another 16% of its business is in warehousing, manufacturing, and distribution; and the remaining portion is with labor companies that help retailers scale up for seasonal demand.
“As soon as we built [the company], the pandemic hit, and it was an accelerator for us,” Dempsey explains, emphasizing the rise of the “gig economy” as workers sought to balance home and work life amid government lockdowns and health concerns. “We were filling needs in multiple industries—distribution, warehousing, retail—and grew beyond this idea of disrupting temp agencies. It’s labor on demand; and I say that because tonight I could post [an assignment] and have people show up the next morning.”
In practice, Hyer works much the way Uber does. But instead of connecting drivers to those in need of a ride, the Hyer app connects a network of more than 350,000 pre-vetted, insured gig workers (Hyer “taskers”) to companies in real time. With no upfront costs or commitments, businesses can download the app and use it as needed—avoiding the time, resources, and high overhead that comes with traditional employee recruitment, according to Dempsey. Whether that means responding to seasonal demand, filling labor gaps, or optimizing their workforce, posting tasks is as “quick and easy as ordering an Uber,” he says. The process gives businesses full control: They can post tasks/shifts, set the desired hourly pay or fixed rate, and choose the tasker they want.
Dempsey says Hyer saw immediate demand from companies operating warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) during the pandemic, due to the volatile labor conditions and accelerating volume of orders as e-commerce activity skyrocketed. And demand for picking, packing, and loading positions has continued as workers become accustomed to the flexibility of on-demand work, he says. Hyer is expanding on that demand by developing a platform for higher-skilled labor, including forklift drivers and equipment operators.
Dempsey says the trend toward on-demand work will only increase as workers continue to seek flexibility and companies struggle to balance their labor needs and address high turnover rates.
“My point of view is that [warehouse work] is changing. And it’s changing because of what’s happened with the gig economy,” he says, pegging the gig-worker community at 60 million people and growing—a factor he says is driving more companies to make on-demand hiring part of their workforce strategy.