By Nancy Dahlberg
What will it take to get Elon Musk’s hyperloop vision off the ground and how can blockchain help? Who’s really solving the last mile problem – or is it overhyped? Drones: toy or tool? Will autonomous vehicle technology ever be fully autonomous?
All these questions and others were explored in Wednesday’s full-day summit, Future of Logistics, presented by LAB Ventures. A key themes: Innovation will never happen in a vacuum and the more collaborative and decentralized the process is, the better.
Brent Lessard, co-founder of rLoop, told about how a volunteer team of 1,300 engineers from 59 countries, working separately and virtually through a google doc and Slack, put in more than a million hours and came up with a manufactured prototype for a hyperloop in under two years.
rLoop was one of 150 teams selected to present to Musk and his SpaceX. Then rLoop was one of 30 to manufacture a prototype, a process that was also done mostly virtually with the final assemply of parts done in Menlo Park. Blockchain technology, which is all about decentralizing and digitization, will be used to secure and manage assets created along the way, he said.
But more importantly, the process created a playbook for how people can come together – the crowd – and solve any world-changing problem they can think of, Lessard said. rLoop was the first hyperloop company to leverage the crowd, the first to demonstrate static levitation in a vacuum, and it designed the first pod with a pressure vessel capable of supporting human life, he said.
Various hyperloop companies have projects underway in India and the Middle East, so speeding people and goods along in a tube at the speed of sound is not so pie in sky.
“As convenient as a train, faster than a plane,” Lessard said.
Here are some other takeaways from the Future of Logistics Summit, sponsored by goTRG, DHL Express, Ryder System and Cemtrex:
Robots and driverless cars and drones, oh my.
Joe Provenzano, Autonomous Vehicles Operations Manager for Ford, said its pilots with autonomous vehicles in Miami and other cities are showing promise and uncovering problems they need to solve, such as what happens if the human passenger doesn’t shut the door?
You’ve likely seen Ford’s testing with Postmates and Dominos in action around congested Miami. On Wednesday, Ford announced a new pilot for Walmart deliveries. In each pilot, driverless cars are making the deliveries, but a human driver is on board.
Provenzano said Ford is interested in investing further in personal transportation as a service. In the next five years, Ford will likely be focusing on moving people and goods, developing the fleet operations, and doing what it needs to do to stay ahead, he said.
As for autonomous technology indoors and out, DHL’s Gina Chunt, Global Director for Innovation, said the shipping giant is always looking looking to partner with startups. One of its partners is Vecna Robotics, and Vecna CEO Dan Patt said robots can carry thousands of pounds and unlike humans, they will never drive faster than they should because they think no one is looking.
DHL has already done a number of robotics pilots and what comes next is picking a few and scaling that widely over the next five years, Chunt said.
Where workers are being displaced, they are doing higher level jobs with more variety, she added. “It’s not just about taking people out of jobs. It makes work more satisfying.” Also, the labor market is so tight right now, DHL actually needs those people in other roles, she said. “Of course it has to be properly managed.”
Said Patt: “Six years ago industrial robotics was just a crazy idea. Companies that wait are going to be struggling to catch up.”
Added Chazz Sims, CEO of Wise Systems: “Autonomous vehicles, drones, on demand – the most effective fleets will be mixed and matched [with these technologies]. We think of it as building a platform.”
The digitization of logistics – it’s happening … slowly.
So much paper still fills the logistics industry, mounds and mounds of it. At a gathering ahead of the conference, many of the people attending from the logistics industry said there are still too many manual processes, still too much (gasp), faxing. Luc Castera, CEO of Miami-based startup Octopi, also made that point in his pitch, what Octopi is out to change in port terminal management.
Archaic systems are holding the industry back, but with technology such as blockchain, for example, emerging markets in particular have an opportunity to leapfrog. Some markets including the Philippines and Dubai, are using blockchain alongside their paper processes until blockchain gains trust.
“A lot of this industry was built with no transparency, so this is a sea change,” said Hans Hickler, a consultant and a former DHL executive who led one of the panels. “Consumers are demanding the change and the smart companies are partnering with startups.”
Logistics is sexy, at least in the VC world.
About $3 billion a year in venture capital is flowing into the sub sector, said Tigre Wenrich, CEO of The LAB Miami and LAB Ventures, its venture-building arm. Because logistics is a key industry in Miami, Wenrich wanted to include it in its Future series, which also explores travel/hospitality and real estate. The purpose of the summits is the matchmaking, he said – that is matching startups and corporates to spur innovation in Miami’s key industries.
The investor panel – Dave Vernon, VP of Bernstein, Rimas Kapeskas, Managing Director of UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund and Stevon Darling, Principal Investment Officer of IFC -- agreed with other speakers that the future will be autonomous, fully electric and multi-platform, with blockchain and AI at the heart.
OK, but has anything reached overhype level? Some of the mobility plays such as scooter companies have, Darling said. Rimas agreed: “When toys transition to tools, that’s when it’s interesting,” he said. Think drones – toys for consumers but tools for enterprises. Google Glass was too early for consumer acceptance but the technology is used in UPS’s facilities by its workers, he said.
And the winners are…
The nine companies that pitched at the event were hoping to turn those investors’ heads and perhaps persuade a corporation to pilot their technology. Read more about the companies that pitched here; winners took home prize packages worth thousands in services. And the winners were:
Kinetic, pictured above, based in New York City, was the grand prize winner and the judges’ selection. Kinetic uses biometric analysis in its wearable devices to reduce workplace injuries. Indeed, lifting injuries are the no. 1 workplace injury, the company said. Kinetic recently closed a seed round. Its technology is in a device workers wear comfortably on their belts.
SimpliRoute, which helps transportation and last-mile companies reduce their logistics costs up to 30 percent and targets small and medium sized shippers and trucking companies, was the fan favorite. Based in Chile, it is expanding in South America and Mexico. Now its eyes are on the U.S.
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