Here's How Industry 4.0 Is Disrupting Shipping & Distribution

From self-driving trucks, to drone delivery, to robotic automation and more, Megan Ray Nichols covers the new-age supply chain disruptors and what you can do to adapt to them.

Technology and industry have always gone hand in hand, so it’s no surprise new technologies are starting to disrupt the shipping and distribution industries. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — unless the companies affected can’t keep up with the constantly changing technological landscape. How is Industry 4.0 disrupting the shipping industry, and what can you do to keep these disruptions from affecting your supply chain?


Self-driving cars are constantly in the news these days, with both supporters and naysayers. While it is true self-driving cars could potentially reduce car accidents by 90 percent, what does that mean for shipping and distribution? Quite a bit, actually.

Technology startup Otto, in conjunction with Uber, has come up with a kit that allows big cargo trucks to drive themselves. The idea here isn’t to eliminate the need for human drivers, but to extend the amount of time they can spend on the road, by allowing them to take a nap while the truck drives itself. It could potentially eliminate the need for extended stops, allowing cargo to reach its destination faster.

Tesla’s fully electric semis will also likely be equipped with self-driving technology, which could eventually become fully autonomous. This could allow cargo to be shipped from production to destination without ever having to stop — especially since the Tesla trucks are supposed to have a range of more than 600 miles on a single charge. When you’re hauling things large quantities of fresh food, time is of the essence to ensure that the customer is getting the freshest product possible.

Land transport isn’t the only place where technology is changing — self-driving technology is heading to the high seas as well. More than 90 percent of product shipment in the world is done by sea, so it only makes sense self-sailing ships would be the next logical step. Rolls-Royce is planning to have a fleet of self-sailing cargo ships ready to launch by 2035.

The actual process of shipping by boat or truck won’t change much, at least for a while. The only difference will be in whether a person or a machine is behind the wheel.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a…Drone?

Small radio-controlled drones are great toys for an afternoon of fun, but what do they have to do with shipping and distribution?

For small orders, they’ve got everything to do with it. Most of the big shipping companies, such as Amazon, FedEx and UPS, are looking at drones to help take the workload off their drivers, especially in rural areas. The idea is that an autonomous drone would be able to deliver packages to both rural and urban areas. In urban areas, drone delivery removes the problem of traffic congestion, where in rural areas, the devices could help deliver to homes that are really off the beaten path without the driver having to make a massive detour for a single box.

If drone shipping is in your future, getting in on the ground floor is going to be essential. No one has quite managed to make drone shipping an integral part of their distribution process, so you’ve got some time — but don’t delay too long, or the opportunity will pass you by.

Robotic Automation is Changing the Game

Amazon gets a bad rap for the way it treats its fulfillment employees — they’ve even recently patented a wristband that tracks their employees’ every movement in an effort to decrease the time between purchase and shipment. One other step they’re taking to reduce that time even further is to replace the human aspect altogether with robots. These robots can select, package and ship an item in less than 15 minutes — a job that usually takes human employees 60 to 75 minutes, according to information released by the shipping giant.

If shipping and fulfillment is part of your business, it might be worth it to take a look at Amazon’s model. The company expects to save roughly $2.5 billion if they install the robots in all of their 110 warehouses across the country.

Looking Backward to Move Forward

We’re not just looking forward here for inspiration — looking into the past can be a great place to find old ideas and make them new again. That is precisely what many companies are doing by turning back to trains for many of their shipping needs. We’re not talking about the old-school coal-driven passenger trains, though — these trains and their tracks are top of the line. One such track was just completed in China, spanning the more than 8,000 miles from China to Spain!

Trains aren’t an option for every type of item that needs to be shipped, but for many industries, they can fulfill a demand we didn’t know existed until recently. Items like electronics, car parts and even fresh meat need to be transported as quickly and securely as possible. Trains are ideal for that. Trains provide a middle ground between shipping by air, which is fast but often prohibitively expensive, and shipping by sea, which is cheap but much slower.

If you’re looking for a new way to ship your product cross-country, consider looking at train shipment. Trains have always been an essential part of expansion in this country and can help change the way you ship and distribute your products.

Technology will keep changing — it’s up to us to keep up with it and employ it as efficiently as possible in our individual industries. Take a look at the ways Industry 4.0 is turning the shipping and distribution world on its ear — and the ways you can take advantage of those changes.


Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance STEM writer and blogger whose work has appeared on Manufacturing Business Technology, American Machinist, and IoT Evolution. Read more posts by Megan on her blog, Schooled By Science, and follow her on Twitter @nicholsrmegan.