October 22, 2019

A Short History of Logistics Technology

Logistics is one of those functions where, when done well is practically invisible. It’s also one of those industries without which businesses and societies couldn’t exist.

What is logistics?

In general, logistics refers to coordinating the movement of a large, complex group of people, supplies, operations, facilities, equipment, etc. While today we may equate logistics with delivery services like UPS and FedEx, historically logistics was most applicable to the movement of armies.

The history of logistics is truly fascinating. While it would take more than a blog post to explain every evolution, here’s a short history of logistics technology.

Before 1850

When you consider the limited forms of transportation, communication and weaponry that armies had access to before 1850, the scale of historical warfare is impressive. Ancient armies seemed to have been supplied by a combination of local supplies and depots located along their march routes.

The 13th century Mongol cavalry was especially well-known for its organized and efficient logistics system. The army was divided into corps and each one traveled with cattle, pack animals and baggage carts. Food was stored along the way, but campsites were also chosen based on accessibility to grazing and forage. Everything was carefully organized, and baggage and equipment were kept light to make transport easier.

A notable development during this period was the growth in the size of armies that were mobilized. The time of Napoleon brought about the development of magazines, or storage depots containing supplies, and rolling magazines, which were mobile versions that carried supplies for a few days.

Overtime, supplies shifted from animals to the soldiers. The growth of civilization and more densely populated areas made resupply easier.

Mid-19th to mid-20th centuries

The birth of the industrial era changed logistics considerably. Technological innovations in tools, machines, transportation and communication transformed not only military activity, but also daily life, businesses and the global economy.

In the last half of the 19th century, railroad, steamships and the telegraph dramatically changed how armies, governments, industries and people communicated and traveled. The birth of the internal combustion engine, powered vehicles that could travel on multiple surfaces, pipeline, air transport, telephone, radio, radar, television and telephotography continued this transformation in the 20th century.

More people and more supplies could be mobilized over greater distances thanks to these developments. New techniques for organization and management were needed to keep up with these advances, and separate logistics functions started emerging in military units and industry.

Mid-20th century to 21st century

From the 1940s on, logistics technology shifted from manual labor to using mechanized ways of moving goods. With the development of pallet lifts, warehouse space could be used more efficiently. Starting in the 1950s, intermodal containers allowed these pallets to be transported via rail, ships and trucks more easily. Over time, freight transport increasingly transferred from rail to truck.

Up until the 1960s to 1970s, most record keeping was done manually. The birth of computers improved logistics planning, inventory management and optimization of truck routing. The growth of personal computers in the 1980s and emergence of the internet in the late 1990s furthered this data revolution.

Companies were able to use spreadsheet technology and map-based interfaces to improve the planning and execution processes. Large-scale optimization models were built and eventually incorporated into commercial operations. During this time technological innovation led to advancements in automation. The term logistics started being used more and more to describe an important business function, rather than just describing military movements.

By the 1990s, lots of data existed in separate databases. To integrate these data sources, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) Systems were developed. These systems were capable of integrating multiple data sources, improving data accuracy and assisting in materials and logistics planning.

21st century and beyond

Globalization, development of computer technology and increasing internet access have dominated logistics developments in the current century. The term “supply chain management” is now broadly used to encompass strategy, planning and execution of the flow of goods, services and information, with logistics being an important part of this process.

Logistics technology is certainly getting “smarter.” Cyber-Physical Systems (CPSs) link IT and logistics and enable goods to flow and be tracked in real-time through diverse and complicated systems. This provides an unprecedented level of transparency and information for suppliers and customers.

Going forward, it seems inevitable that technology will continue to support faster and more complex flow of goods, services, supplies and information to wider and larger end users. As with many other industries and functions, it’s likely that logistics could also be transformed by emerging trends in the Internet of Things, automation and artificial intelligence.