Flex for success: why logistics real estate must adapt to survive PART TWO
In a two-part study of flexibility in the logistics sector, James Nicholls explores how property can best respond to some of the new and emerging technologies that are progressively being integrated into all operations of the industry.
Supporting technological change
To meet the demands of ecommerce, the logistics sector has been quick to explore and embrace emerging technologies such as predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, automation, electrification storage and generation, 3D printing and robotics. Whilst full of potential, technology comes with its own unique set of problems when designing a building, not least the fact that traditional building infrastructure tends to have a long lifespan in comparison to the short lifecycles of technological systems which can be anything between six months to three years. We therefore need to design flexible and adaptable buildings that can support technological changes and the implementation of new systems over a long period of time.
Many businesses may now be considering technologies that align with post-pandemic attitudes to the working environment or that can facilitate remote and hybrid working and real estate owners will need enough flexibility and adaptability to respond to these demands and maintain a competitive edge. A good example is the advance of contactless technologies that enable staff to complete routine tasks without touching a shared surface – these can be applied to everything from lift or door controls through to taps, water dispensers and coffee machines. In secure spaces, advances in mobile technology, retina or facial recognition software, will also play their part.
In the warehouse, too, technology is being progressively integrated into all operations to improve efficiency and the speed of processes. This increase in automation through robotics and AI is sometimes mistakenly perceived as a threat to jobs, but the technology will mostly be used to support human activity, resulting in safer environments and reducing repetitive tasks. What used to take hours of walking, can now be done in minutes thanks to robotic warehouse fulfilment systems such as Amazon’s Kiva or Geek+ which counts the like of Alibaba and Suning amongst its clients.
As architects we need to make sure that floor areas are designed with enough flexibility and adaptability to accommodate these specialist pieces of kit. Forward thinking design on automation and robotics can also create opportunities and maximise space, for instance locating storage underground because it will not be serviced by people and does not need to be naturally lit – the storage ‘box’ beneath the surface can be serviced by robots roaming throughout the spaces and fulfilling various tasks.
Preparing for an autonomous transport future
Autonomous transport has been one of the most discussed topics in logistics for some years, particularly in the US where the likes of Starship, Waymo, AutoX and Nuro are competing for an ever-growing market share. Here in the UK, Milton Keynes saw the first commercial deployment of Starship’s autonomous vehicles to deliver food to its almost 200,000 residents at the start of the coronavirus lockdown in April 2020. Starship Technologies has launched similar services around the world and is looking to expand into university campuses by late summer 2021, where a population that loves to order out and often doesn’t own cars will benefit from the service’s contactless delivery.
And then, of course, there are drones. Widely trialled around the world by the likes of Amazon, USPS and DHL, drone technology has been slower to take off in the UK, in part due to the regulatory environment that makes it illegal to fly drones near airfields or in public areas unless they are specially-designated places. However, this year saw Royal Mail join forces with a consortium of established UK drone companies to become the first nationwide UK parcel carrier to transport parcels via drone to rural communities. And with a recent study by PWC estimating that drone technology could add £42bn to the UK economy by 2030, we can be in no doubt that the market for drone delivery is set to grow.
It seems clear that, in the very near future, logistics facilities will need sufficient flexibility to accommodate new means of delivery; whether that’s a designated area within the service yard or at roof level for a launch pad, or spaces to load and upload smaller autonomous vehicles onto the back of wagons before they head off into the urban environment to make their deliveries.
Future proof and competitive
The logistics sector is now one of the UK’s most innovative and dynamic industries, driven by operators flexible enough to respond to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors and adopting and implementing new technologies and multi-modal delivery.
The ‘industry standard’ building now faces more challenges than ever to adapt to these changes and owners and developers, too, should embrace flexible design to respond to their tenants’ needs and the increasingly diverse nature of the logistics sector. In essence, logistics facilities will need to become smarter, more integrated and flexible if they want to remain future proof and competitive.
Click here to view Part 1: Flex for success: why logistics real estate must adapt to survive