If you became the Head of Defence Logistics what initiatives would you invoke, and why?
Warrant Officer 2 Marcus Collings joined the Royal Logistics Corps in 1996 as a Vehicle Specialist. He has served with a number of regiments and enjoyed postings including Canada, 6 Supply Regiment RLC (Germany) and 9 Supply Regiment RLC. Deploying on a number of Operational Tours, Warrant Officer Collings has served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan where he worked within the Vehicle Replacement Section, and was responsible for the receipt, storage, resupply and back-loading of vehicles, as well as registering and controlling ‘codified’ equipment platforms that were in Theatre. During his career, Warrant Officer Collings has also carried out many Winter Repair Programmes at the British Army Training Unit in Suffolk (BATUS), Canada, and had a 6-month detachment to The Falkland Islands where he managed the Special Purpose Operational Stock Fleet. For the past four years, Warrant Officer Collings has been working in roles within the Defence College of Logistics, Policing and Administration (DCLPA). He joined the college initially as the Vehicle Support Specialist Senior Instructor assigned to 73 Training Squadron in Marchwood Military Port, and is now currently employed as a Training Analyst within the Transport and Movement Stream at DCLPA HQ at Worthy Down, and is looking forward to the next phase of his logistics career.
It is a measure of the quality of this year’s entries, and the correspondingly difficult task that the marking panel faced, that there is an exceptional award this year to recognise a fourth entry. Warrant Officer Collings’s submission placed a specific focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning, identifying the potential benefits in these ever-expanding areas of research and technology, but still being cognisant of the potential risk associated with them too. His essay was short, succinct but to the point and the research he undertook was clearly well understood – not always an outcome achieved by other authors. Warrant Officer Collings took a complicated subject area and applied several good examples of its use combined with a clear, stepped implementation process and so it is right that he be recognised by being awarded a ‘Highly Commended’ assessment in the 2018 competition.
The content and any views expressed in this essay are a personal perspective, reflect the personal views of the author, and may not necessarily reflect that of UK Defence.
Whilst ensuring operations today are fit for purpose, it’s imperative that one eye is kept on what is on the road ahead. It would be easy to enter into the role of Head of Defence Logistics and merely look to fix what is broken, or counter imminent threats that might be looming. Taking a look at which areas major logistics companies in the private sector are investing in, however, gives great insight into where the MOD should similarly allocate resource to future-proof support solutions for tomorrow.
Artificial Intelligence – a force for good or bad?
The world’s recent loss of the genius of Stephen Hawking has once again shone a spotlight on the possibilities that computers may one day develop into advanced reasoning machines that could be smarter than human beings. In our lifetime, science and engineering has advanced humanity at exceptional pace; however, Hawking’s warnings that Artificial Intelligence (AI) could destroy the human race are stark, and we ignore them at our peril. The irony, of course, being that it was AI which gave Hawking the voice with which to have the debate on whether “AI could spell the end of the human race”.
Gone are the days where AI meant robots like C-3PO. Today, many firms are enjoying the advances that AI brings, and logistics is an area where early adopters are reaping the benefits of embracing this new technology. Technology already exists that can learn faster, and process data quicker; now the possibilities exist that this technology could become self-aware – functioning with foresight that mimics or could ultimately surpass the human thinking process. Indeed, Jeff Bezos, founder and leader of Amazon made the following declaration: “Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence will be used to empower and improve every business, every government organisation, every philanthropy – basically there is no institution in the world that cannot be improved with Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence”.
AI Driving Value
For some time, major private sector logistics providers have invested in robust analytical and research teams to understand their data, to maximise their performance. By turning to AI they introduced machine learning, streamlining and speeding up processing to cut shipping times and costs, driving overall profits up by over 5%. Good data is an advantage for making AI work (but not necessarily essential) and the logistics industry (like Defence) has ample quantities of data. In a recent research report from Business Intelligence, when asked which part of their organisations were driving revenue from AI capabilities today, 42% responded that it was Supply Chain and Operations.
There are a number of benefits associated with the introduction of AI, namely, cost reductions through reduced stock and equipment redundancies, risk mitigation, faster deliveries through optimised routes, and better customer service. It must be acknowledged that the initial investment in updating IT systems could be substantial, as well as hiring data scientists to support the implementation. However, partnering with industry could see efficiencies derived in shared learning. Transitioning in this way could support how roles change as AI systems automate specific functions in the future.
Commercial examples of AI development
Chinese retailer Alibaba has just 60 robots deployed in its Warehouse in China, and claims that productivity has increased by 300%. The robots charge themselves, pick the right shelving units, select the required goods and moves them to the dispatch area for the humans to pack and process. 70% of the work is done by the robots which the company claims allows the employees to focus on less transactional and more gratifying customer service activities as part of an enhanced end to end customer journey.
Google is another progressive business, continuously looking for its next big project, and one of its current ambitions is Project Wing. Whilst Amazon has been busy building a helicopter-type drone-based delivery service, Google has been developing small aircraft that can fly pre-planned routes autonomously. It has already completed test flights in conjunction with the FAA and NASA. (Inc Magazine, Linkedin).
DHL’s 2016 Logistics Trend Radar report says that worldwide supply chains are beginning to undergo a fundamental transformation as more AI is deployed to handle both the domestic and international movement of goods. “Predicting trends is notoriously challenging. It is difficult to know ahead of time which trends will have long-term effect on businesses and which ones are simply parts of a short-lived hype.” said Markus Kückelhaus, Vice President Innovation and Trend Research, DHL. The report shows AI as being one of the key trends to impact logistics within the next five years.
Defence logistics exploitation of AI
The realm of AI is a vast one, but there are some areas which could, with some focus, deliver immediate impact that may not require a complete overhaul in terms of process or investment. Big data processing in many organisations happens in spreadsheets or by managing multiple outdated systems. The MOD is no different, particularly in forward theatres of operations, but what AI technology offers is an opportunity to simplify the methods for exploiting real time logistics data. Having one single source of data management and data flow will benefit operational effectiveness in real time.
In the United States, investment has been approved to extend IBM’s support of cloud services and software for the US Army’s Logistics Support Activity, delivering maintenance information on a large proportion of the vehicle fleet. The next step, once systems are introduced to analyse and interpret big data, is to find ways to execute operations and change based on the intelligence gleaned. Their aim is to use the data to identify what’s important and figure out the best ways forward. This initial step will likely extend beyond simple fleet management. It could be used to streamline and modernise other aspects of their logistics capability once the proof of concept has been delivered. The belief is that freeing up analysists from the more routine technical work will allow them to use their expertise to forward plan the shape of the Army’s future. AI capability has the potential to audit at a faster rate than humans which means driving bigger efficiencies with a reduced and simplified human workload.
Risks with AI
There are risks of course that AI may progress sufficiently to displace human skills, increasing unemployment in the way feared during the automation of manufacturing which saw robots replace humans in factories up and down the country. A “One Hundred Year Study” on Artificial Intelligence was launched in 2014 by Stanford University, into how AI will affect automation, national security, psychology, ethics, law, privacy, democracy and other issues. As yet, there has been no evidence to suggest any imminent threats to humankind.
There is no silver bullet to radically change how logistical tasks are performed in Defence, as explained by the European Union Institute for Security Studies; however, capitalising on proven new technologies makes sense given the benefits already being experienced in the private sector. The ultimate goal of this initiative would simply focus on being more effective in a modern combat environment.
My first 100 days as Head of Defence Logistics would of course see me spending time understanding and helping overcome the challenges that today’s military logisticians are facing, but spending the right amount of time and effort looking at what the future holds will not only be exciting, it could potentially unlock many opportunities with bigger prizes.
This essay was edited for publication by Chris Markey FCILT, Chairman CILT Defence Forum.