Self-driving pods and 3D printing will be the real challenge for Royal Mail

Ian Pearson
TWENTY years ago, as the web came into existence, it was obvious that Royal Mail would be carrying fewer personal and business letters by now, that there would be a vast rise in junk mail and another huge increase in parcel deliveries thanks to online buying. All of those expectations have come true. After a peak of 80m items a day in 2005-06, Royal Mail handled 58m daily in 2012-13. And while letter volumes have declined, annual package volumes rose by 4 per cent in 2012-13.
Now Royal Mail is to float, and the equivalent trends facing it today will likely be 3D printing and automated vehicles. Both will have major impacts on postal and delivery services.
In the future, displays like cheap magazine tablets and visors, with full integration of all the apps we need, will make it even harder to justify physical mail for printed material. The obvious platform for marketing will be augmented reality, with full 3D audio-visual enhancement. Paper junk mail will go straight in the bin even faster.
And 3D printing will be used to make objects at home, or more likely at the commercial 3D print centre down the road, using hybrid print/pick & place technology. Home printers will only be able to make simple objects, so we will need more sophisticated commercial ones. But ongoing web development, and cloud-based enterprise structures, will mean that many industries use local printing, manufacture, customisation and personalisation. Local bakeries, for instance, may finish off national chain products, part-baked centrally on a bake-on-demand basis.
With print-on-demand and lots of variants of make-on-demand, it looks like a great deal of our everyday needs could be fulfilled using big manufacturers working with loose conglomerations of tiny firms. That’s how the cloud works. All this will need a sophisticated delivery system to distribute materials to local businesses, and to complete the link to the end customer.
But by 2050, self-driving pods are likely to be the basis of physical transport. The larger ones for national distribution will be lorry-sized and the local small vans-sized ones will be perfectly suited to the needs of cloud-based local manufacturing. Even today it’s obvious how future software and artificial intelligence can check diaries, addresses, and optimise logistics to make the system almost fully automated and highly efficient. There is little need for companies like postal services to intermediate. If they didn’t exist, we wouldn’t need to invent them. If they can’t somehow get especially cheap access to the delivery pods, there’s very little in the way of an obviously viable business model in straightforward delivery.
But the future isn’t here yet. There will be a lag between the development of the demands for delivery services and the means to fully automate them. That means that firms like Royal Mail will enjoy years of growing business before the peak arrives, followed by inevitable decline. The most immediate threat isn’t the evaporation of the market; it is the easy establishment of new competition, offering better services at lower cost, using social media-based marketing to capture customers.
Ian Pearson advises companies on future threats and opportunities resulting from technology and social trends. He is author of several books including You Tomorrow and the sci-fi novel Space Anchor. He is working on a new book on sustainable sustainability.