In association with Leidos UK, SHD Logistics editor Kirsty Adams speaks to Lisa DeVine, a logistician with over thirty years of experience in the industry. A former United States Army officer, DeVine now supports the US Department of Defense as a Chief Technology Officer for the Logistics and Mission Support operation.
Firstly, can you tell us about what significant US projects Leidos has been working on?
DeVine: One of our common sayings is we execute logistics from glaciers to galaxies, which references our Antarctica Support Contract and our NASA Cargo Mission Contract.
The Antarctica Support Contract is a National Science Foundation project that provides all the logistics support - from ice breaking ships and materials to facilities operations - required to support McMurdo Station in Antarctica. It’s the longest supply chain in the world.
The NASA Cargo Mission Contract resupplies the International Space Station. We procure and assemble the supplies used by the scientists at the International Space Station, which is particularly complex because we have to get all of those supplies into very specific containers and which also have weight limitations. Included in the shipments are sensitive scientific equipment that must be packaged and handled in a very specific way.
This is very different from how logistics is perceived. How has the industry changed in recent years?
DeVine: Logistics today requires software development, data science, and as we just discussed with our NASA effort, systems engineering. Logistics has not traditionally been perceived as a white collar job but it is increasingly becoming one. And that’s probably the cultural change that people will have to adjust to.
As you can see from the success of Amazon, there is opportunity for real innovation even in the most common, mundane type of effort. As you recall, Amazon initially sending books to people’s homes.
What trends - in particularly new technology - do you see shaping logistics in the coming years?
DeVine: I would say that data analytics will change how logistics is done going forward, but fundamentally it’s the whole suite of technologies around logistics that is changing how work is performed, for both defense customers and any other federal government customer.
As an example, in logistics, we have significant amounts of paperwork. There are procurement activities with invoices, and significant back office functions. And the paperwork that’s generated, including the data that is generated in those activities, can live in silos.
So “robotic process automation”, which is fairly new, is taking away a lot of the tedious and intensive writing of documents and manually transferring of information from one system to another system, by training bots to go and fetch all those different pieces of data and assembling them into a new form or visualization. It’s taking tens of thousands of labor hours out of a back-office function. That allows people to focus on the tasks higher up the value chain rather than working on tedious tasks.
How are these new innovations meeting supply chain challenges?
DeVine: One of the biggest challenges that all companies are facing is what we call the Amazon effect. The rise of Amazon has meant the expectation of instantaneous deliveries permeates all areas of supply chains. Technology that accelerates your ability to process and execute a delivery from the time it is ordered to the time of delivery is hugely important.
I just talked a little bit about robotic process automation: within a warehouse itself, Leidos is investigating technology such as wearables like AR/VR enabled glasses that help you find a supply in a warehouse within the lenses themselves, down to the exact row and shelf. Similarly, as you’re walking down an aisle in the warehouse, the glasses will connect information and inventory the stocks, giving you a near-real-time understanding of the inventories.
Automation is another key innovation, including autonomous forklifts and automated warehouses. You see these types of technologies in high-volume, high-scale operations, and we believe as the technology becomes more affordable for small entities, you will see significantly more application of automation.
We also have additive manufacturing, or what they call 3-D printing. Instead of holding large stocks of items on the shelf, particularly if they are low demand items, we can print parts and components on demand, so you can meet the need for parts without storing large stocks. This will present more opportunities for small businesses with 3-D printing capabilities to partner with companies that hold stocks.
Underpinning all of this is 5G. As 5G infrastructure is built, the opportunity to put sensors within a warehouse and on items will increase. You’ll see data being pulled from those sensors and then aggregated, which will further reduce the amount of manual labor needed for activities, and increase our abilities to be predictive about our operations.
You mentioned data analytics. Do you have any examples of how that’s transforming logistics?
DeVine: The best example has to do with the supply chain itself. If a shipment is disrupted, your data analytics dashboard can alert you not just when the shipment failed to arrive, but also if it failed to depart the originating location. Data analytics give you a better understanding of the events happening right now, but far more importantly, it gives you the ability to predict what the impact on your supply chain will be.
COVID-19 revealed the fragility of a lot of supply chains, in that they discovered they only had a single-source supply or a single location from which that supply was coming. If there was a positive case of COVID-19 in that location, and that office or business was required to close for a 14 day quarantine, suddenly your supplier was no longer available.
I think companies really need to invest in artificial intelligence and machine learning. The insights that data analytics can reveal to a company will deliver such a significant return on investment, they really need to be focused on that, because understanding what you have today, what you might need tomorrow, and the ability to predict the impact of this lets companies see where they can improve their efficiencies, and more importantly, where can they grow.
Leidos has made a significant investment in people, tools and algorithms to perform the analytics. We also have a significant up-scaling program within the company because the demand for data analysts and data scientists is so high that we can’t find them on the market. We’ve decided to educate our own workforce to turn them into data scientists.
How has Leidos gone about recruiting and training new data analysts?
DeVine: We have partnered with several universities, and specifically for data scientists, we are sending them to graduate school, identifying between 10 and 20 students per semester to participate in both online learning and virtual lectures.
Probably the more relevant up-skilling effort in our company is that we have partnered with several different companies which deliver on-demand, virtual learning courses available in 45-minute to one-hour segments, where an employee can go online and learn about a topic. Several of these courses will actually provide a certification of learning; they start from a virtual learning course you can watch in the background to train yourself on a particular course all the way up to graduate degrees in data science.
By offering multiple levels and types of training we offer training to the whole workforce in a time and a manner that works with people’s personal situations, which in the age of COVID-19 is key: in America, most of our kids are not back in school so a large majority of people are telecommuting from their homes.
Leidos are already investing a lot in training and recruiting people. Do you think the way the rest of the logistics industry approaches this will change too?
DeVine: I believe that the traditional model of going to school as a teenager and then a percentage of people moving on to university is not how we will be educated, and this will have a big effect on logistics.
I believe there will be more certification programs, in which you gain a skill and then certify that level of knowledge, like how trades are done in the US today. A person will study to become an electrician, then get an electrician’s certificate. I believe that significant amounts of education will be certificate-based, even in the white-collar world.
I would tell a young person to focus on the areas that they enjoy and have an interest in, then look at what types of certificates are associated with those activities, because a certification will demonstrate they have a certain level of knowledge and capability. And in that way, people can embark on lifelong learning and reimagine themselves just by having a new interest.
I believe the future workforce is going to be significantly more dynamic and less structured than today.
First published on SHD Logistics website.