Capital Equipment News

By Quinton de Villiers, MD of Bridgewater Logistics

The international transport logistics industry continues to take centre stage as a major driver of innovation, and this includes the successful introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) into various components of the value chain.

Leading truck original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are competing to be the first to commercialise driverless vehicles which, they claim, will improve productivity and safety levels on the world’s major road arteries.

Quinton De Villiers Bridgewater Logistics

At the same time, major strides have already been made on both the in-plant and warehousing fronts, where AI is being used to manage the growing complexity associated with manufacturing multiple product variants and bespoke products.

These self-driving materials-handling vehicles sense obstacles and adjust their course to follow the most optimal route. The extent of progress already achieved in the field is evident at Amazon’s large international warehousing operations where robots perform mundane operations that were previously undertaken by many people.

Amazon initially deployed these technologies at its facilities in the United States after acquiring Kiva for more than US$700-million in 2012, and is now reported to operate thousands of these robots at its global facilities.

Meanwhile, a number of international health-care equipment manufacturers have deployed these technologies in their sizeable repair centres. Similar to Amazon’s warehouses, these vehicles stop if they encounter obstacles and autonomously determine an efficient route without being guided by magnetic strips or conveyors.

As machine learning algorithms become even more sophisticated, these robots could eventually use data on material outflows and inflows, inventory levels and turn rates to self-optimise warehousing operations. This is in addition to recommending the movement of low-demand items to more remote locations and to convey those that are in high-demand to nearby areas for quicker access.

Contentious topic

Despite these breakthroughs, AI remains an extremely contentious topic. First and foremost, experts remain concerned by widespread job losses, especially in developing economies where unemployment is already rife. 

These robots have replaced many unskilled and semi-skilled workers. They walk up and down long aisles to find items, pick and scan them, before placing them in a tote or onto a cart to transport them to another point.

Unlike the launch of other new technologies in the past that have actually created new employment opportunities, AI diminishes or limits new prospects to increasingly sophisticated areas that require high skills levels, such as machine learning.

Moreover, the technology has already demonstrated its power to disrupt entire industries in developed economies, which have better performing educational systems and are, therefore, equipped to adequately respond to the demands of new workplaces.

While South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, recently emphasised the need for South Africa to accelerate its entry into the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, it remains to be seen how this will be managed without far-reaching ramifications on the already delicate socio-economic fabric of the country. 

Bear in mind our very high unemployment rate, especially among the youth, and compounded by the low skills levels of the general workforce. The situation has led to the formulation of policies that have largely favoured labour-based production practices for many years, as is very evident in the mining, construction and agricultural sectors, all large employers of unskilled and semi-skilled people.

They are also unionised and will be met with fierce resistance to widespread job shedding, unless opportunities can be created elsewhere in the value chain. This is a complex undertaking and will take years to manage, starting with basic education.

Clearly, South Africa has a long and winding road to travel before it is ready to implement AI in a responsible manner that will also not widen the existing inequality divide. However, can we really afford to continue falling behind the technology curve? Bear in mind that experts have also warned that AI will exacerbate existing disparities that exist between developing and more developed regions of the world.

Competitiveness matters

Mining, construction and agriculture have all shed jobs over the years due to an inability to remain competitive in a globalised economy that is already transitioning into the so-called Fifth Industrial Revolution, the merging of technology with humans.

The South African deep-level mining industry, for example, has shed about 700 000 jobs since the 1970s and will continue to decline if it fails to mechanise, or automate aspects of its operations. A similar fate awaits the country’s underground platinum-gold mining industry, which still mines using out-dated methods that rely mainly on low skills.

South African construction companies, on the other hand, have been shrinking as a result of an on-going decline in state spending on infrastructure since 2010. Despite immense opportunity to lower costs and bolster productivity by modernising operations, these companies are being hampered by the requirements of government contracts that insist on labour-based construction techniques. Many of these employment opportunities are extremely short in nature and provide very little scope for real skills development during the construction phases.

The demise of our many textile and apparel manufacturers, once a proud and significant employer, is another example of an industry that has “fallen off the edge” of the globe due to complacency!

Quinton de Villiers is the founder and MD of Bridgewater Logistics with a long and impressive track-record in African logistics and security. Follow Quinton at @InTheFastLane for more insights and expert commentary on African transport and logistics.

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