In evolutionary theory, the term ‘gradualism’ describes evolution as an incremental process that occurs over an extended period. It is safe, steady, and perfectly describes the evolution of the distribution industry over the past century.

COVID-19, on the other hand, is what’s known as an extreme climatic event (think asteroids, or ice-ages) and is not merely a temporary blip to be endured. The habitat we operate within is now irreversibly altered, and there are just two options available: evolution or extinction. So just as the dinosaur’s asteroid prompted the Age of Mammals, COVID represents the dawn of a new age for our industry: The Intelligent Warehouse Era.

Now, you may believe that your well-run warehouse is already intelligent. However, do not confuse “intelligently operated” with being “intelligent”. To be the latter, the warehouse itself – not its operators – must become artificially intelligent (AI) and be able to acquire knowledge and apply it in ways that improve its effectiveness over time.

By now, you may have some questions. Firstly, how does one go about creating an AI warehouse? And secondly, is it even remotely feasible?

So, before we continue, let’s dispel a common misconception. Artificial Intelligence is not a space-age technology that solely describes robots with human-level intelligence, accessible only to silicone-valley tech giants. Rather, AI is simply a computer capable of using data to improve how it performs a particular task. It has existed since the 1950s at which time it ran on computers approximately 100,000 times less powerful than an Apple watch. AI is very accessible to you.

To illustrate this, I can offer my own organisation, SEC Storage, as an example. Like many businesses reading this, we are an established, independent SME, funded through revenue. Yet, in the last three years, we’ve been able to adapt our supply capability to complement traditional storage-equipment with modern, affordable, intelligent warehouse technologies such as collaborative robotics and self-driving vehicles. Additionally, we’ve affordably invested in a suite of AI tools that we use to run our operations and analyse our clients’ data to produce innovative, award-winning warehouse designs.

So, if not affordability, what has held the logistics industry back from embracing AI? The answer is a general level of contentment with the way things were, particularly from external stakeholders. The damaging myth that has pervaded boardrooms for so long – that warehouses are simply cost-centres to be managed – has stymied our evolution for decades.

But this is no longer the case. Businesses started to understand the value logistics can add a few years before COVID. The coronavirus has, however, acted as a magnifier of its importance. To prevent a second economic catastrophe, government and industry will be forced to engage with the need for a rapid-evolution event in the distribution sector, and we need to be ready.

So, for logistics professionals reading this, considering how to adapt to a post-COVID world, I encourage you to view this extreme climatic event as an impetus for evolution and an opportunity to embed intelligence into your warehouse operations. It could just be the most important thing you ever do.