Talent in Logistics Journal Editor Dan Male spoke to Rob Fisher, Event Director at IMHX to discover how the logistics sector is responding to the rise in global economic uncertainty.
IMHX is the largest single gathering of logistics professionals in the UK, taking place every three years at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. Contained within 380,000 square feet of exhibition space, there are over 450 exhibitors, all seeking to share the best of their businesses and demonstrate their offerings. Ironically, this is roughly the size of a distribution centre that many logistics professionals will work in on a daily basis. However, with over 16,000 people in attendance, the conference is a little busier than the average warehouse distribution facility.
With a publishing background, Event Director, Rob Fisher, has written about the logistics sector for over 20 years. Commenting on the event as he considers the vast array of displays and demonstrations across it, Rob says: “It truly is the only place where visitors and buyers can come and see products in action. It is a very interactive and engaging exhibition.”
The winds of change: Opportunity and risk
Proud that the conference is mirroring trends across the whole logistics sector, Rob excitedly adds that this year, there was “more automation and robotics on the show floor than there ever has been in the past”. With vast leaps in the technology behind artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the tools to enable large-scale and rapid data analytics and automated processes are becoming available to all operators. “This is replacing some of those more manual repetitive jobs that exist within the logistics sector,” says Rob, meaning “there is definitely an upskilling needed to enable logistics companies to move towards semi-automated operations.”
While this does not necessarily mean jobs will be lost and staff will be replaced by machines, it does mean that a different skillset will be needed across much of the sector going forward. “I think there is definitely an opportunity for logistics professionals, as providers are seeking completely different skillsets from the ones they were looking for ten years ago,” says Rob. Increasingly, companies are looking for data scientists to join existing teams, and the sector is trying to be more proactive than reactive. This means understanding goods flows, customer behaviours and cultural habits to ensure the sector is prepared for different eventualities.
“One of the biggest challenges today is land availability,” says Rob. With a substantially limited amount of available warehouse property available for operators to rent, finding the right real estate in the right location is a limiting factor for many logistics companies. This is exacerbated by planning restrictions and high demand for land for other purposes such as housing. Due to the vast power requirements of large distribution centres, meeting this demand with adequate supply is a struggle for many developers. Some facilities even require their own substation to ensure a consistent power supply.
Considering the implications of wider socioeconomic circumstances, many conversations will certainly be centred around what happens if there is a no deal Brexit, reflects Rob. “With such little capacity and warehouse space in the UK and everything optimised for just-in-time delivery, there isn’t the ability just to start stockpiling,” says Rob. “There are only two days’ supply of toilet paper at any given time in the UK supply chain,” for example.
IMHX in 2019
This year the show featured a bolstered line up of speakers, leading discussions on everything from robotics, with Alex Harvey from Ocado Technology talking about the impact of AI and automation on logistics, to Philip Shaw from Investec asking: Is this the Brexit endgame? Alongside the Centre Stage Theatre, the Skills Zone boasted a full programme giving practical advice to employers about attracting talent, managing career development for the existing workforce and ensuring staff are engaged, for everyone from service engineers to forklift truck operators.
At the heart of industry discussions is a need to go back to basics to ensure the public know what’s being discussed when we say logistics. This, for Rob, is about helping people to understand “what happens when you buy your tin of beans on your electronic gadget and you expect it to be on your doorstep 24 hours later.”
Alongside developments in technology, core operational business and workforce skills, Rob Fisher reflects on the industry’s focus on environmental sustainability. “We’re seeing more operators adopting the use of lithium ion as a greener fuel source for powering their trucks,” says Rob. “Logistics is definitely an industry that is constantly looking at sustainability, down to how much packaging it uses and how to reduce plastics within the sector.”
Logistics is not a sector generally associated with being at the forefront of green policy, with product haulage being a key contributor to global emissions. As well as sector changes, there is a need to educate the consumer, suggests Rob. “The reality of free returns is that every purchase, especially in fashion, that is returned touches seven pairs of hands before it gets put back for sale. There is a massive cost there as well as a big carbon footprint.”
The show must go on
IMHX serves a whole host of purposes but one of Rob’s primary motivations is boosting the skills agenda and making the logistics sector more diverse and attractive to a wider range of people. “We’re delighted that for the first time we were able to host the Women and Logistics Conference,” says Rob. The four-day event plays its part in recognising the achievements of those championing diversity and kick-start the conversation. “My advice to the attendees coming next time is to make sure they book for two days rather than one,” concludes Rob.