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The next 50

Living on Mars and travelling in vacuum tubes?

Predicting the future is never easy. If DHL’s first 50 years have shown anything, it’s that the world changes fast and in unexpected ways. There’s little doubt that the same will be true over the next five decades, but some trends already underway today provide a glimpse of tomorrow.

An age of autonomy

Algorithms, data analytics and artificial intelligence are already changing the way business is done. Companies increasingly rely on insights derived from digital data to support their day-to-day operations. Over the next 50 years, they are likely to hand more decision-making responsibility to the computers themselves. Fully automated planning and forecasting tools will be linked to the systems that manage business operations.

Meanwhile, the development of new automation technologies will allow execution to become increasingly hands-off too. In manufacturing, “lights-out” production is already a reality. Industrial equipment maker Fanuc has operated fully automated factories since 2001, for example, and electronics company Foxconn opened its first fully automated production site in China in 2012. 

Automation and autonomous decision-making are now extending beyond the factory floor and into the wider supply chain., a Chinese e-commerce company, opened a fully automated fulfillment warehouse in Shanghai in 2018. Self-driving trucks are already operating in off-highway applications, such as large mine sites. The International Transport Forum predicts that on-road automated trucks will be in widespread used by 2030. Trials involving the use of robots for last-mile deliveries are underway in several cities and university campuses. By the middle of the century, it is quite possible that consumers will be buying products that have been designed, procured, manufactured and delivered entirely by robots

The zero-carbon world

In June 2019, the U.K. became the first major economy to commit to net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. The announcement came the day after energy major BP warned that an increase in the number of extreme weather events during 2018 had pushed up global energy demand, leading to an unexpected rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Governments and corporations around the world have pledged to make significant reductions in their emissions over the course of the century. Keeping those pledges will require a significant acceleration in the adoption of energy efficiency technologies and alternatives to fossil fuels.

The shift to a zero-carbon economy will demand behavior changes too. In logistics, airfreight and long-distance shipping will be difficult to decarbonize. Their costs could increase, encouraging the adoption of alternative modes, such as rail. New technologies, such as vacuum-tube “hyperloop” systems, may emerge as a solution for the rapid transit of goods and people between cities. In urban environments, deliveries may be piggybacked onto existing shared mobility infrastructure, using spare capacity in autonomous vehicle fleets.

New frontiers

If DHL’s founding coincided with the peak of the first space race, its 100th anniversary may be associated with the age of interplanetary travel. U.S. Space agency NASA has plans to establish a permanent base on the moon during the 2020s. A key goal of the mission is to test technologies that will eventually be used to take people to Mars. In the private sector, SpaceX is developing heavy-lift rockets and crewed spacecraft for a Mars mission. Founder Elon Musk has told journalists he is targeting a 2024 launch.

Supporting people who live and work at least 54.6 million kilometers from Earth will be a logistics challenge of unprecedented scale and complexity. The first trips to the red planet will rely on supplies the crews take with them, and on equipment dropped in advance by unmanned spacecraft. Any permanent colony would need to be highly self-sufficient, probably using additive manufacturing techniques to fabricate critical parts and equipment on-site. For everything else, they will need to plan ahead: Express delivery services to Mars will take at least five months, orbits permitting. — Jonathan Ward   

Published: September 2019

Images: Adobe Stock