Google: The World’s Most Innovative Supply Chain?

The internet giant may have started off in a garage, focusing on indexing the world’s information, but Google has since become famous for other experiments it runs, from automated cars to internet routers on weather balloons. The secret behind the innovation is Google X, a lab whose boss has the job title “Captain of Moonshot”, focused on looking at what everyone thinks is impossible and flipping it on its head.

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So when I asked Cathy Roberson, a senior analyst at Transport Intelligence and a tech-enthusiast who is vox supplychainus on Twitter at cmroberson06, I was not surprised when she sent me back an analysis that seems to match up perfectly with some of Google’s recent projects: Google Glasses,  Android and 3D printing.

But first, some background

Over the past month, we’ve been posting supply chain predictions, brought to you by some of the most creative thinkers in the industry, including Joel Clum of CarrierDirect, Martijn Graat of and Steve Brady of Supply Chain Innovations Today. Today, we’re proud to present Cathy Roberson’s…

3 Technology Trends Changing the Supply Chain (2015-2020) Part IV


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Technology Trend 1: Mobile

iphoneMobile is on the rise – tablet, smartphone or other. In fact, a new hybrid of tablets and smartphones is emerging, the phablet. While the tablet market has been growing, it is the smartphone (and phablet) that has seen the greatest growth. In fact, according to eMarketer, there were estimated 1.75bn smartphone users worldwide in 2014. This represented about 24.4% of the total population.

By 2017, the market research company expects the number of global smartphone users to increase to 2.50bn and represent 33.8% of the total population.
The overall impact of mobile has been well documented in the press. In particular, emerging markets such as Asia-Pacific, Africa and Latin America, the adoption of mobile devices is rapid as consumers and businesses bypass traditional laptops and desktops in favor of smartphones and tablets.

What roles will this play in supply chain?

Mobile is already playing a big role in supply chains. For example, it has already taken hold in online B2C transactions – placing orders and tracking delivery among other things. During the 2014 holiday season in the US, IBM Digital Analytics estimated that 25% of US online sales were via mobile. In addition, Amazon noted that almost 60% of its transactions were via mobile devices.
It also is playing a role in B2B transactions – although, the distinction between B2B and B2C is blurring as more and more transactions occur online.

Marketplaces such as Alibaba’s Tmall, caters to suppliers and manufacturers. Even Amazon offers a B2B marketplace, Amazon Supply. Inventory management and replenishment as well as reverse logistics can now be managed by mobile as well as payments. In fact, online payments is going through a major disruption with a variety of offerings available – bitcoin, Apple Pay, AliPay, PayPal and more.

The mobile start-up, Uber, is also letting itself be heard loud and clear. What started out as an app to obtain taxi service, its name has now become synonymous for instant, real-time fulfillment whether its ordering Chinese take-out, socks or flowers, one simply downloads an app, place an order, track it in real time and in many cases rate the experience and/or driver or delivery person.

Why is this important?

The importance of mobile is fascinating as it is changing the way business is conducted as well as how consumers interact with brands and stores. No longer is one bound to a desk 8:00 to 5:00 but rather now one can conduct business anytime, anywhere and in real time and in many cases it just starts by downloading an app.

Technology Trend 2: 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing

According to, 3D printing is the “process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file”. Gartner expects 3D printer sales to reach $13.4 billion by 2018 with 2.3 million units shipped. Globally, Gartner expects shipments to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 106.6% with revenue climbing at a CAGR of 87.7% through 2018.

What roles will this play in supply chain?

Implications for the supply chain are numerous. According to a Ti white paper, “Implications of 3D Printing for the Global Logistics Industry”; authored by Ti’s CEO, John Manners–Bell and Ken Lyon, CEO of Virtual–Partners Ltd, 3D printing could provide lower levels of inventory, a potential increase in near–shoring as well as the possible emergence of a new sector within the logistics industry – the storage and movement of raw materials that feed into 3D printing.

In 2013, UPS became the first logistics provider to offer 3D printing services at select UPS Stores. UPS is targeting start–ups, small businesses and retail customers. The service will be able to produce items like engineering parts, functional prototypes, acting props, architectural models, and fixtures for cameras, lights and cables.

The office supply store, Staples began offering similar services in 2014 in the US. The service was originally launched in the Netherlands and Belgium in early 2013 and called “Staples Easy 3D.” It allows customers to upload electronic files to the online Staples Office Center and pick up the models in nearby Staples stores, or have them shipped to their address.

Why is this important?

According to Ti’s white paper on the topic, some goods manufactured in Asia-Pacific could be near-sourced to the US or Europe. This, in turn, could reduce shipping and air freight volumes. Also, the mass customization of products would mean that inventory levels fall, as goods are made to order. This would have the effect of reducing warehousing requirements.

Finally, major new sector of the logistics industry would emerge dealing with the storage and movement of the raw materials which ‘feed’ the 3D Printers. As 3D Printers become more affordable to the general public, the home delivery market of these materials would increase.
See the white paper here

Technology Trend 3 – Augmented Reality

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Augmented reality, as defined in dictionaries, “is an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device such as a smartphone camera.”

What Roles will this play in supply chains?

Augmented reality’s role in supply chains appears to be well in its infant stages. However, within e-commerce, there have been several interesting projects. For example, as cited in Ti’s Asia Pacific E-Commerce Logistics Report, Yihaodian launched over 1,000 augmented reality stores. Consumers can only see, visit and shop in them by using the Yihaodian Virtual Store App. To buy products, the user just scans each product with their mobile device, adding it to their online shopping cart and then goods are delivered to their homes.
In addition, DHL has identified augmented reality as a potential innovative tool in its white paper, “Augmented Reality in Logistics”. The company noted augmented reality would be beneficial in the following areas:

  • Warehousing Operations
  • Transportation Optimization
  • Last-mile Delivery
  • Enhanced Value-added Services

In fact, in 2014, DHL carried out a pilot project testing smart glasses and augmented reality in a warehouse in the Netherlands. In cooperation with DHL, customer Ricoh and wearable computing solutions expert Ubimax, the technology was used to implement ‘vision picking’ in warehousing operations. Staff was guided through the warehouse by graphics displayed on the smart glass to speed up the picking process and reduce errors. The pilot proved that augmented reality offers added value to logistics and resulted in a 25% efficiency increase during the picking process.

Why is this important?

Within ecommerce, augmented reality will enhance customer experience while within warehousing and transportation; it will assist in improvements in efficiency and quality assurance.


Cathy Roberson is a senior supply chain analyst at Transport Intelligence, who focuses on e-commerce, startup logistics companies and technology. She tweets at @cmroberson06 and blogs at Global Supply Chain Insights.

Bottom line is that if you look at Cathy’s predictions, they complete coincide with some major Google initiatives. Google is dominating the mobile market, with a market share in the mobile world of over 80%. Google Glass may have been the largest augmented reality program in history (even though Google is reevaluating it) and the tech giant has made a foray into 3D printing for a new cellphone line. Plus, there’s no doubt that a self-driving car can change last-mile delivery.

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