Logistics, Digital Transformation and Future Logisticians

By Peter Layton.

In his seminal work, Logistics in the National Defense, Henry Eccles writes: “Logistics is the bridge between our national economy and the actual operations of our combat forces in the field.” It’s a pithy description that gets to the heart of the matter, stimulating thinking. Crucially the bridge has two ends: one in society and the other at the frontline. This post concerns the former: the end located within the national support base. That end of our logistic bridge needs to start transforming.

The Australian national support base is changing. Digital transformation is impacting Australia’s major seaports, supermarket chains, package distribution, construction industry and even deep into our homes. The path that such transformation can take is becoming evident in Australia’s mining industry, a world-leader in digital transformation. A recent study sees the application of digital technology in this industry sector across this decade in three stages.

In today’s mining industry many companies have embraced automation involving individual, semi-autonomous vehicles developed as proprietary products by a handful of Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) and which are not interoperable. By 2025, mines will include smart sensors, autonomous vehicles, limited self-learning systems and some equipment from different OEMs that can operate together. By 2030 and beyond, mines will feature autonomous machines working with other autonomous machines to complete tasks. Open source platforms will integrate readily with other similar platforms allowing machine-to-machine communications and real-time data exchange so they can self-learn and make decisions. Imagine if Defence’s facilities could be like that?

Keeping up with the surrounding society is not necessarily a good argument for Defence logistics embracing digital disruption. However, it does raise the likelihood that by 2030 Defence’s facilities may be lonely outposts of 20th Century technology in a 21st Century world. The capabilities of the digitally transformed Australian defence national support base will need to be dumbed down when crossing the wire into Defence’s facilities. With such incompatibilities, Defence overall will be unable to obtain the full benefits of the fourth industrial revolution. Technological stagnation will cost. The end of Henry Eccles’s defence logistics bridge that is embedded in Australian society might be a technological antique.

As we all know, the numerous Australian industry sectors are embracing digital transformation principally to improve productivity; the ‘doing more with less’ mantra. The application of advanced digital technologies to defence facilities would be similar in that the aim would be to generate greater logistics power from fewer numbers of people. Defence always wants – and often needs – to do more than its limited size military, civilian and contractor workforce can allow.

Digital transformation involves combining numerous new technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), big data, cloud computing, the internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, robotics, 3D printing and human augmentation. Operating together, these technologies can generate more than the sum of the parts, boosting the capability and impact of each technology far more than if they are used in isolation. This can create exponential change, where the rate of change rapidly escalates as more and more new technologies join the mix. The next fifteen years could be an exciting period of non-linear change on Eccles’s logistics bridge.

The future integrated defence base might then be envisaged as a complicated machine comprising deeply interconnected hardware, software and humans. Such a machine metaphor will doubtlessly appeal to engineers but logisticians may find it less alluring. That may be a mistake, as state-of-the-art warehouses are in some respects miniature versions of what future facilities might be. Logisticians working in this specialty field may be in front: they may be the harbingers of a digital defence facility spring.

Warehouses have traditionally involved mainly manual, ‘blue collar’ occupations with some limited management positions. However, with manual occupations being transformed through digital technology, this balance shifts. The future warehousing staff will need to be skilled in the operation and maintenance of machines rather than in receiving goods, sorting, stacking, loading and delivery themselves. State-of-the-art warehouses already feature real-time monitoring of inventory; real-time ordering using technologies such as AI machine learning, the cloud, big data and IoT; order picking by advanced robotics; and stock movement by autonomous vehicles. Some warehouses are now embracing 3D printing to meet the numerous, but erratic, one-time requests for spare parts and so save on carrying large part inventories for older equipment. Logistics control towers have been introduced that integrate digital information from numerous sources and use big data analytics to provide a real-time ‘big picture’ of the complete supply chain, including transportation activities. Logistics drone delivery is in the final trial stage in several industries (including in Australia) and there is now movement towards human augmentation through logistics staff using advanced wearables and exoskeletons.

In the civilian world, the logistics’ workforce is becoming more specialised, requiring widespread digital literacy and involving new occupations. Given this technological push, there are several key roles future defence logisticians may be working in including:

  1. systems of systems networks,
  2. big data and machine learning,
  3. robotics and autonomous vehicles,
  4. augmented workforce technologies including exoskeletons,
  5. 3D printing, and
  6. electrification.

For those working on today’s defence facilities having such technologies present in the workplace might sound like science fiction and a matter for the distant future. They are though being applied today elsewhere across Australia. Why not also in Defence? It means that future logisticians will need different knowledge, skills and attributes; perhaps like the table below suggests:

 

Continuing Requirement Greater emphasis needed in future
Technical expertise (balanced equally across hardware and software aspects) Human-focused, big picture systems of systems thinking
Problem definition

Problem solving

Problem finding, including critical thinking and design thinking

Creativity and innovation

Digital intelligence

Collaboration

We are hoping all this stimulates your thinking about what future logisticians might be doing, should be doing and how they could be trained and educated. A new publication from the Air Power Development Centre, Surfing the Digital Wave, goes into much greater depth on all these issues. It uses airbases as a hook to grab the reader. However, the basic ideas apply across all the Australian national support end of Eccles’s logistics bridge.

The ideas in this post and publication are a minor part of the work of a small Air Force review team busily thinking about the future of logisticians across the next ten years and beyond. The team would like to hear your ideas, especially if you have new insights and certainly if you disagree with the future just painted. They may be found at: AIRFORCE.ENGLOGSWR@defence.gov.au Please contribute and join the logistician revolution.


Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and a RAAF Reserve Group Captain. He has extensive aviation and defence experience and, for his work at the Pentagon on force structure matters was awarded the US Secretary of Defense’s Exceptional Public Service Medal. He has a doctorate from the University of New South Wales on grand strategy and has taught on the topic at the Eisenhower College, US National Defence University. For his academic work, he was awarded a Fellowship to the European University Institute, Fiesole, Italy. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

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