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The digital future of container handling

What if in the future the world's biggest container handling company didn't even touch physical containers?

The ongoing convergence of key disruptive technologies such as AI, the IoT, machine learning, augmented reality and blockchain is expected to lead to an autonomous supply chain that will react to every contextual situation based on the real-time data received from all connected devices and systems. The openness and transparency of this system of systems will drastically increase the productivity and efficiency of global container logistics. At the same time, it will remove several layers of middlemen, eliminate manual process phases and shortcut many logistics features as we understand the term today.

Redefining the marine industry

Industry analysts have identified $17 billion worth of waste and inefficiency in the global supply chain. This is, in fact, a great opportunity for both existing players as well as new entrants. We will see companies with totally new business models making profit by understanding and optimising the flow of cargo. New digital marketplaces and novel brokering models will emerge, as openness and de facto standardisation create a world in which intelligent solutions can span the entire supply chain – and perhaps redefine the entire maritime industry in the process.

Ultimately, all of this will speed up global business and result in faster deliveries, as well as a transparent supply chain for consumers and businesses alike. It will also bring about a radical shift in how business in our industry is conducted. It may not be long before the world's biggest container logistics company never touches a physical container, nor owns or operates a single ship, terminal or container handling machine.

Typically, in times of rapid industry change, the established players will seek to protect their existing markets, while new entrants will dare to think differently and challenge the status quo. For the industry leaders, the real competitors may not be who they think they are. Predictive examples from the consumer world are easy to find: Look at what Airbnb and Uber have done in their respective fields. It doesn't even matter whether the companies in question are even making a profit (Airbnb actually is). The industry disruption for everyone else is just as real.

New market opportunity

Yes, container handling equipment, ships and twenty-foot containers will still be needed, no matter what happens. But the key thing to realise about the autonomous supply chain is that by cutting many of today's existing players out of the loop, it can create a market opportunity that is vastly bigger than the business today is for any single logistics company that owns and operates physical assets.

The company, or companies, that will fill this gap may evolve from today's leaders in global logistics. It may be a major player from another field making a lateral entry into a completely new market (have you been following what Amazon.com has been up to lately?). Or, it may be one of the ten thousand software-based startups that are taking their first steps even as you read this. Paradoxically, it doesn't matter that many, or nearly all, of these startups will fail and disappear. They will. But one, two or half a dozen will end up changing the world – our world – some time over the next few years.

So, what should we do about this? Carry on with business as usual – or start changing the world, and our own ideas, before someone changes them for us?

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