Every day, trillions of things float, fly and drive around Earth — trying to get to their destination. The supply chains that move all these things around are incredible, enabling people to take raw materials from far away places, transport them great distances, and combine them in magical ways to create nearly anything. But these networks are also highly interdependent and brittle.
Like a game of dominos, where moving one piece impacts everything before and after, even small disruptions to this system can cause big, rippling consequences (who could forget the Ever Given?). Shortages of everyday items like toilet paper, pasta, and used cars, as well as masks, sanitizer and oxygen over the last few years have exposed vulnerabilities in our supply chains and how devastating they can be. What’s less obvious to everyday consumers is why.
For the last three and half years my small team at X has been working with partners to explore these challenges and better understand why these bottlenecks, delays and waste occur. From logistics companies in the U.S. and Europe, to medical distributors in Asia- Pacific, the reason we heard over and over is a lack of visibility into where various product components and finished goods are, and what condition they’re in. These insights reflect my own experience in the pharmaceutical, energy and manufacturing industries, where I often saw life-saving medicines go missing, patients left waiting unnecessarily for critical care, or power plants come alarmingly close to failure simply because there was no way to know where the medicines, medical devices or critical parts we needed were.
Despite trillions of dollars worth of goods moving through the world’s supply chains each year, too many businesses today still lack the tools they need to see where things are in real time. What's more, critical information about these things, like their location or temperature, either simply doesn’t exist or is incomplete or inaccessible to all the people who need to know it.
My team wants to change this. Project Chorus is developing new sensor technology, software and machine learning tools to radically improve our real-time understanding of where physical goods are located, where they are needed, what state they are in, and how they are used. While at this early stage we’re testing some promising supply chain technology approaches in the field with various partners, we have a long way to go before we know what works best. But we’re increasingly confident there’s a moonshot-sized opportunity in new sensor technology, recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, and visibility tools that could dramatically improve the orchestration and movement of the world’s goods.
Finding ways to reduce waste and improve efficiency by changing how we move things around is something X has been working on for many years, from improving last-mile delivery with Wing drones, to reimagining how people get from A to B with Waymo, to reducing food waste with Project Delta (which, incidentally, was part of our project before moving to Google).
Chorus is exploring this problem from a real-time visibility perspective. Some of the questions we’ve been asking include: What if every pallet, box and item had a voice? What if perishable objects like food or medicines could alert us if they are too hot or too cold, or how much shelf life they have left? How might we give businesses predictive, real-time insights they need to prevent unnecessary waste or delays? What if we could match supply and demand in a dynamic way?
To help us answer these questions we’ve been piloting Chorus technologies with partners around the world. Out in the field we’ve seen how temperature can vary greatly within delivery trucks depending on where an object sits inside it. How opening the back of a temperature controlled delivery truck one too many times can spoil an entire shipment. How it can take five days to ship goods to a certain city, while only taking three days to an adjacent city, for no apparent reason. How critical medical equipment is often purchased or rented but the very same equipment is lying unused at the same location. And how international shipments that routinely take four weeks can actually spend two weeks just sitting at the point of origin, with nobody knowing that.
Chorus' routing technology tracks the movement of goods to delivery locations
Chorus’s sensors were onboard delivery trucks for a number of months and were able to detect patterns and anomalies in delivery times. Dark red indicates locations that take longer to get to, orange indicates less time, while yellow locations show the fastest delivery times. As anticipated, locations farthest away from the origin city of Tokyo take longer to get to. However, deliveries to some sites right next to each other show consistently different delivery times which highlight opportunities to be more efficient. The sizes of the circles show how busy each delivery site is - the bigger the circle the more deliveries that site has.
The insights we collected have been crucial as we develop our supply chain technologies and work towards building the tools businesses need to make better decisions, reduce waste and use the assets they have more efficiently and effectively.
Long term, Chorus hopes to make all aspects of the supply chain work in harmony and dramatically improve the orchestration and movement of the world’s goods. For now we’re working with partners in transportation and logistics, healthcare and food, but over time we hope to work with partners in construction, retail and manufacturing. If this sounds like an adventure you’d like to collaborate with us on please get in touch.