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The future of retail: how trucks will drive product technology and innovation

For most people, the announcement of a new type of truck wouldn't elicit much interest. I certainly struggled to raise more than a sarcastic yawn from my colleagues when attempting to introduce into conversation the news of electric carmaker Tesla stylish truck with semi-autonomous capabilities.

However, what most people miss is that the supply chain distribution industry is drafting the blue print for all of our futures. Those 18 wheelers are our crystal ball to see the future for head office own label retail functions like Technical, Quality, Product Development and the wider commercial operations.

Why Trucking Tech Matters to Product Tech and Innovation

Today, technology within the trucking industry centres around a small computer called an Electronic Logging Device (or ‘ELD’ for short). Automatically tracking information like speed, location and whether the driver is working or resting; the device admittedly still falls well short of any description of ‘workforce automation'. After all the truck still requires a human to drive.

But the area of most interest is how the ELD manages the truckers schedule and route. Amongst other functions, ELD prescribes the most effective route for the driver to maximise their productivity. Think of this as a sophisticated SatNav.

You may be familiar with similar technologies that have begun to be applied within warehouse facilities. Algorithm-powered headsets guide Packers item-by-item, analysing hundreds of data points to remove the need for individual planning and allow their focus to be on getting the job done.

Trucking and this type of technology provides a useful metaphor to describe the most likely form of artificial intelligence (AI) interference that most of us will see in our own jobs:

Computers will provide us a guided route to get us through our day in the most productive way possible.

Addressing Information Overload

Just as a trucker consumes hundreds of pieces of road signage and traffic information a minute, you too spend your day making judgements on the information around you.

The modern Technical Manager is tasked with sifting through a dozen systems, hundreds of spreadsheets and thousands of emails to assess the risk and competency of a product or supplier site. The volume of the information means that even the most competent professional cannot get beyond the tip of the iceberg.

This problem is not unique to Technical Managers. The same multiples of information sources and ‘data overload’ complaints can be seen in most retail 'knowledge workers'.

That little ELD computer under the dashboard already plans the turns and stops that the trucker takes each day. Within a decade, there will be a retail equivalent for you.

Mapping your Job

Think of it like this: Artwork reworks are your stop signs. 'RAG' spreadsheet trackers are traffic lights. Online customer ratings are your engine warning lights. Product recalls are the 8am accident on the M1 that causes you to re-route before your day’s journey has begun.

Your little black box will consolidate all of those sources into one view of product and supplier performance. Then the computer’s analysis of that consolidated information will trigger your daily route: your task list.

Tuesday 7 January 2027

9am – a 12% increase in customer complaints has been observed by the system for the 5 Bean Vegetarian Chilli. The supplier was notified yesterday and asked to perform a consistency test and inspect the production line machinery. Here is their report and recommended corrective actions for you to review, comment or approve.

9.45am - a meeting was automatically scheduled for 10am with SupplierCo as the product sales for their line is failing to meet sales expectations and has lower than average online ratings. The supplier has on-demand access to sales and customer feedback and was asked by the system a week ago to review this information and provide a proposal on a reformulation and promotion to address this. Click here to read the meeting agenda and their recommended next steps.

10.43am (phone notification whilst you are in the meeting) – a product recall is required for the own label Greek Style Yogurt due to small bits of blue plastic being reported to our customer call centre. All parties who need to act have been notified. Click here to see the progress and completion of those actions.

AI will mean Less Data, More Doing

Just like they have for truckers, warehouse packers and many more: computers will remove the need for most of the individual planning and organisation and allow us to focus on applying our expertise, experience and creativity to getting things done.

It may seem like an unrealistic utopian future, but the underlying technology is coming, as a species, the pace of technology advancement continues to increase.

After all, within our pockets we all have a piece of technology more sophisticated than what helped Neil Armstrong land on the moon.

Google, Amazon and Apple have all made AI-powered 'personal assistance’s’ accessible to billions of smartphone users.

And for enterprise, IBM and Microsoft continue to innovate.

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, is successfully reposition his organisation to deliver the “democratisation” of AI and the computer processing power required for scale to deliver this future world. Just as they did for with the Personal Computer 30 years ago.

Amongst all other retail advancements, this is where I’d place my bet. After all, why back a horse when you could drive?

Tags: Product development

David Taylor

david.taylor@s4rb.com

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