5 technologies that point toward the future of ecommerce logistics

Check out vehicles and devices that were on display at Home Delivery World.

5 technologies that point toward the future of ecommerce logistics

(Illustration by the Current)

Ecommerce marries the internet-based selling of goods and the physical process of moving those goods to a customer’s door.

The latter took center stage in Philadelphia this week at Home Delivery World, where logistics, fulfillment and delivery professionals gathered to check out the latest in last-mile at a time when the growth of ecommerce and supply chain challenges make this typically behind-the-scenes part of the equation more important than ever.

On the expo floor, attendees didn’t have to look too hard to find the future. Innovative vehicles, robots and devices were front and center in many of the booths. Throughout, sustainability was just as important as efficiency.

Here’s a look at five products that point toward where delivery is heading next:

Gatik: Autonomous box trucks for B2B short-haul logistics

A Gatik truck

A Gatik truck. (Photo by The Current)

This commerce conference doubled as an auto show. A standout feature at Home Delivery World was the vehicles on display around the expo floor.

Even with a number of vans and systems on display, Gatik’s box truck was impossible to miss. The company operates class 3-6 autonomous trucks, which range from 11-26 feet. They are designed for urban, semi-urban and highway environments.

It points toward an area that logistics companies are exploring that could have benefits for efficiency and the environment: The rise of autonomous technology brings opportunities to deploy vehicles without drivers. Gatik said its vehicles arriving at a time when the growth of ecommerce will necessitate more last-mile trips to be taken from hubs that are closer to consumers. Being able to send an unmanned vehicle to traverse the middle mile, in turn, will help transport goods through the network of distribution centers, micro fulfillment and stores or pickup locations that puts items in place for eventual delivery.

This truck isn’t just appearing on trade show floors. As the conference was kicking off, Gatik announced a new partnership with Pitney Bowes that will see its Class 6 trucks deployed in Dallas, starting in Q1 2023. According to the companies, Gatik’s trucks will make multiple deliveries a day as part of a “continuous, operational loop” across Pitney Bowes’ logistics network for ecommerce in Dallas.

Locus Origin: Autonomous mobile robots for fulfillment and distribution

Locus Origin

Locus Origin's mobile robots. (Courtesy photo)

Efficiency is critical for logistics operations, meaning space and movement is critical, even in warehouses. This is an area where robotics is making a difference, as machines can assist humans with accuracy, and even remove some of the physically arduous work of lifting and walking. Locus Origin is the maker of an autonomous mobile robot system with multiple devices that are designed to hold the items that people pick from shelves in warehouses like fulfillment distribution centers, and help them organize it. The robots can hold a range of containers, such as bulk bucks, tote-arrays and shipping boxes. Plus, they have a tablet-based interface that gets workers up to speed.

They will soon be fanning out around the world, thanks to a new deal announced in late August that is said to be one of the largest in the industry. Transport and logistics provider GEODIS is set to deploy 1,000 of the autonomous mobile robots at 14 of its sites around the globe, including warehouses in the US and Europe. It marks an expansion of a partnership that began in an Indiana warehouse in 2018.

“As we continue to navigate industry-wide challenges such as skyrocketing ecommerce demand and labor constraints, it is crucial we remain committed to implementing the most innovative and effective robotics automation solutions available into our warehouses to allow us to best serve our customers,” said Eric Douglas, EVP of technology and engineering at GEODIS for the Americas, in a statement.

DroneUp: Unmanned aerial vehicles for last-mile delivery


DroneUp's UAV. (Courtesy photo)

When talk turns to the future of ecommerce, few innovations have the power to shift the paradigm like drone delivery. It would not only make delivery an unmanned endeavor, but move the transport of goods from the ground to the air. The idea of a drop takes on a new dimension when the package is being lowered from the sky.

It’s why DroneUp drew plenty of interest at Home Delivery World. The company’s delivery drones are currently being used in a pilot program with Walmart that is set to enable the retailer to reach 4 million households in the US. As we wrote when the pilot was launched in May:

Walmart’s service will make under-30-minute delivery available between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. The fee is $3.99 for items totaling up to 10 pounds.

In testing, Walmart said it expected customers to use the service for emergency items. But the more popular use case has been the convenience it provides. The most-ordered item so far, the company said, is Hamburger Helper.

With drone delivery, operating at scale, this pilot has implications in plenty of areas, from the ongoing evolution of FAA regulations to customer interest in drone delivery in general. The results are likely to be influential.

Phononic: The Intelligent Actively-Cooled Tote

Phononic's cooling tote. (Photo by The Current.)

Phononic's cooling tote. (Photo by The Current.)

Curbside pickup and delivery have blossomed in the grocery space over the last two years, leading customers to increasingly expect that all items will be able to be ordered online, and that they will be able to arrive fresh. This brings a need for cooling solutions in the area of frozen and refrigerated goods, so that items can stay cold not just when they are being delivered, but also in a logistics network that is now involving a growing number of facilities beyond retail supermarkets.

Phononic’s totes are designed to answer that call. The totes harness cold chain innovation that uses CO2 and water to keep items cool while they are transported during the fulfillment process. Using basic elements as opposed to refrigerants, the totes are built with sustainability in mind.

According to the company, the totes offer a compact container to refrigerate or freeze items. They can be used to move items around a fulfillment hub, or create efficiencies in delivery by batching multiple items. Given the size and uniformity of the totes, grocers can scale the volume of totes they use as operations grow.

The totes can be deployed in a variety of steps of the grocery ecommerce process. One use in micro fulfillment centers, which are the smaller hubs being stood up in close proximity to customers to enable fast delivery. The totes can be moved around the centers, preventing the need to build large refrigerators. They could also offer an easy way to keep and move items for curbside pickup at grocery stores, or they could be used in delivery. It’s a reminder that logistics doesn’t only require considering the vehicles that transport goods or the warehouses where they are stored, but the containers they are carried during and between those steps, as well.

Zoomo: E-bikes for last-mile delivery

A Zoomo ebike.

A Zoomo ebike. (Courtesy photo)

As delivery must cover more terrain, specialized vehicles can be applied to navigate distinct environments. In cities, ebikes can be useful for traversing a last mile with narrower streets, heavier traffic and shorter distances. Zoomo is providing these two-wheeled delivery vehicles to marketplaces and retailers, alike. The company is pitching itself as a solution for fleet management. With a motor onboard to make pedaling easier and GPS tracking, the ebikes are built for efficiency. A trailer can also be affixed to carry larger goods, pointing toward the potential for ebikes to carry more than just a few orders.

Taken together, the innovation on display at Home Delivery World made it clear that there won’t be just one way to get a product to a customer’s door. Logistics requires a network that is moving an ever-growing assortment of goods with different needs. A variety of technologies and vehicles will be necessary to transport them. The winners will be those who make it all work together, in the most efficient way possible.

Subscribe to The Current Newsletter

Trending in Operations


Target is taking an inside-out approach to scaling ecommerce

Sortation centers are helping the retailer build on its stores-as-hubs strategy.

a van with target

Loading a van at a Target sortation center. (Photo courtesy of Target)

Like many retailers, Target undertook a massive digital buildout during the pandemic as ecommerce demand spiked.

The new capabilities proved to be the launchpad for impressive growth. In 2020, store pickup grew 600%. Same-day fulfillment grew 400% from 2019 to 2021. By 2022, the company was ready to double down on digital. It announced plans to invest up to $5 billion to scale operations, with store-based fulfillment capabilities among the big areas that would receive a boost.

Keep reading...Show less

Latest from Operations