The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with KUER.
The Utah Inland Port Authority believes technology will be a big part of the future of shipping in the state. The Port wants to attract high-tech jobs and also make green tech investments like electric vehicle charging stations they say will keep the port clean and green.
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project reached out to experts in supply chain management and shipping to get a glimpse at how technology in the near future will — or won’t — impact jobs and environmental quality around the port facilities.
Five years ago Chinese e-commerce company JD.com showed the world a glimpse of its fully automated warehouse in Shanghai. In a slick promo video set to upbeat corporate light techno music, robotic arms deftly pick up boxes and move them from conveyor belts to shelves with crisp efficiency.
Experts say the warehouse went from 400 human workers to just five. The rest were replaced by robots.
“When it comes to warehouse automation and logistics, things have changed drastically,” said Vinit Pednekar, a distribution manager with SLB, a Texas-based technology company serving the oil and gas industry.
Globally, he said warehouse management is projected to be a $900 billion market by 2026. The demand is intense, even as cities run out of good locations for warehouses close to population centers. That dilemma, according to Pednekar, helped push more development in automation. Robotic sorting, automated vehicles, material handling vehicles — even drone technology — are increasing efficiencies and maximizing the use of warehouses.
“Where we used to have to look in manuals to see what to do, now there are smart glasses you can use to see what you have to do,” Pednekar said.
These tech trends inevitably mean the workforce is going to change — with clear reductions in human labor.
Still, robots can’t do everything, said Jason Miller, interim chair of the Department of Supply Chain Management at Michigan State University. He said the kind of freight that will come into an inland port will still require plenty of human hands.
“Taking product out of containers, repacking them into intermodal containers for further rail movement of a larger shipment or a truck trailer for delivery that is still very, very labor intensive,” Miller said.
Robert Handfield, a professor of supply chain management at North Carolina State University, said workers will still be needed in warehouses, but it will be less “blue collar” than it has been historically.
“With more of the automation coming in, we're going to start to see greater skill sets, you’re going to have to interact with computers and so forth,” Handfield said.
Utah Inland Port Authority director Ben Hart agreed warehouse jobs will change. But that’s not his focus.
“If we're just out there creating logistics jobs, and that's the only thing the Port is focused on, then we failed in our mission,” Hart said.
Hart believes the Port itself will be a catalyst for bringing high-tech jobs to the state. He sees biotech, aero-defense and clean energy companies arriving and thriving in Utah. And he thinks the Port can help bring them here. Those jobs that are more than just warehouse work are the kind Hart said will provide stability to workers — allowing them to buy homes and cars in the community.
“It creates that ripple impact throughout the economy,” Hart said.
Even if warehouse work changes, some experts say it’s important to realize that these changes bring with them unexpected economic opportunities.
Yossi Sheffi heads the Center for Transportation Logistics at MIT. He also recently wrote “The Magic Conveyor Belt,” a book about A.I. and shipping.
The creation of highways in the 1950s created whole industries around truck stops, service stations and roadside diners. He said high-tech inland ports could create jobs we can’t even imagine today.
“We know that people are going to lose their jobs. We know what the job is, we know what they are doing because they’re our neighbors, our friends,” Sheffi said. “[But] we don't know what the new jobs are. We cannot imagine them right now.”
The Port also sees technology as a way to make shipping more eco-friendly. That’s why they’ve invested in sophisticated electric vehicle charging stations. Researchers from the ASPIRE Engineering Research Center at Utah State University are currently developing wireless charging strips to be installed at the Utah Inland Port. Those would be embedded in roads and charge electric vehicles as they drive over them. Efforts are also being directed toward hydrogen research.
But even with the technology, Handfield said the trucking industry won’t be going green anytime soon.
“People don't realize a lot of these green metals that are going into these batteries, things like lithium and cobalt, zinc, copper — they're in short supply,” Handfield said.
Electric trucking technology is still also very underdeveloped, said Willy Shih, an economist with the Harvard Business School.
“Electrification of cars is easy right? We know how to do that. But electrification of heavy-duty trucks? That’s hard because you’re just dealing with a lot of weight.”
The experts agreed there are more gains to be made with smaller delivery vehicles that take goods from warehouses to nearby stores and outlets, but electrifying heavy trucking is a very difficult prospect. Handfield said creating an electric-based transportation system to replace the fossil one is a long way out.
“It could take decades to really transition it over, and there's no guarantee that it's going to be a supply base that's as capable as the one we have today,” Handfield said.
Port director Hart said that might put Utah ahead of the EV industry, but he’s fine with that.
“When it gets closer, can our organization, the Inland port, really focus on building out that infrastructure here in the state of Utah? Absolutely. And that's kind of what we're designed to do.”
Hart believes the Inland Port system can lead in bringing technology to Utah. Until then, experts agree electric charging stations will go unused by trucks. And until the Port does bring new, high-tech industries to the state, more blue-collar warehouse employees may find themselves loading and unloading freight alongside robots.