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Technology trends transforming the logistics industry

Written by Luca Legnani - European Marketing Manager, Panasonic

Technology trends transforming the logistics industry

Global business, from ecommerce to the essential delivery of food, relies on the effectiveness of global supply chain logistics. The statistics are mind-boggling. At any point in time, it is estimated that there are 53,000 cargo ships criss-crossing the oceans and there are well over 4.3 million goods vehicles in the EU alone delivering freight nationally and internationally. In this world of just in time delivery, one break in the logistics supply chain can cause mayhem. Evidence abounds with high profile stories of the consequences of logistics failures, such as Christmas presents being left in warehouses as firms struggle to meet the ecommerce demand. But with the vast quantities and huge journeys involved, what is really surprising is that there aren’t more of these high profile failure stories. That’s where technology plays its part. As demand rises, technology continues to evolve and the advantages can be clearly seen in the logistics industry. Here is my take on the technology trends having the biggest impact:

 

Artificial Intelligence

VUCA is a term often used to describe the challenges in the modern supply chain. Volumes in logistics can vary greatly from one moment to the next (Volatility) and are not predictable (Uncertainty). At the same time, linear chains are increasingly turning into complex networks (Complexity), so the reason for certain changes often remains unclear (Ambiguity).

The result is that companies are constantly ambushed by changes in, for example, demand patterns. This is a clear case in fulfilment centres. The number of orders coming in via the web varies from day-to-day and from hour-to-hour. If a competitor increases its prices or if a popular TV program advertises a product, this leads to more demand. In addition, many consumers do not place their orders until they sit on the couch in the evening, which sometimes leaves very little time to collect, pack and ship for next day delivery.The use of artificial intelligence offers a solution. By collecting, combining and analysing internal and external data, fulfilment centres can detect changes in demand at an early stage and predict the impact on the workload. This enables them to scale up and down in good time, so that they have the right number of employees at the right time.

 

artificial intelligence

 

Appification

In our personal lives, we have an app for everything. This is increasingly becoming the case for our business life. In logistics transport, for instance, drivers are using more and more apps for the digital handling of shipments. A good example is the eCMR, the digital version of the consignment notes which are mandatory for cross-border transport. As more and more countries ratify the eCMR protocol, the use of apps that make it possible to handle international shipments completely digitally is growing. That means no more hassle with awkward decrypting or paper waybills that often do not return to the office for days or sometimes weeks later. The requirement to use these types of app is a major reason for the adoption of mobile computing devices in the cabs of haulage vehicles. There are many additional benefits. For example, more and more apps are coming to market to support drivers on the road. Think of apps for:

  • Monitoring the temperature in the cargo space.
  • Booking secure parking spaces.
  • Photographing and recording damaged goods.
  • Registering at container terminals or ferries.
  • Operating intelligent traffic navigation systems.

A pioneer in the adoption of mobile computing devices and apps in this area is logistics service provider Raben. It has 4,000 TOUGHBOOK mobile computing devices that combine the tasks of a tablet, phone and barcode reader. They are equipped with software for transport navigation, vehicle management and they provide access to the Raben document archive. The devices have also been adapted to the requirements of government agencies, such as customs in various countries. In Poland, for example, the devices are equipped with the SENT GEO app for online monitoring of excisable goods.

Augmented and Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are already widely used in gaming. With VR, an existing environment is virtually imitated, so that people are able to move in that virtual environment without having to enter the existing environment. With AR, images of the environment are enriched with additional information, such as instructions on the direction in which people should move. Mixed reality consists of a combination of both technologies.

VR and AR are also increasingly used in warehouses. Think of VR forklift simulators for training forklift truck drivers. By adapting the VR environment to the warehouse in which the driver works, it is possible to simulate realistic and dangerous situations for training purposes. AR is already used in a number of warehouses for order picking. For this purpose, the order pickers wear 'smart glasses' that project picking instructions such as the picking location and the number of articles into the order picker's field of vision.

AR is can be particularly useful in warehouses that carry out value-added activities, such as repairing, overhauling, testing or calibrating high-tech equipment. Think of projecting work instructions into the employee's field of vision, where the AR solution indicates which part needs to be removed or installed and in which way. By adding game elements to processes such as order picking (gamification), it not only adds to the employee experience but increases productivity in an intuitive way.

 

Rise of robotics

Personnel are still the largest cost item in most warehouses and, with labour shortages, staff can be difficult to recruit.  As a result, some companies are looking for solutions that make them less dependent on staff and the interest in robotics is growing. Market research agency ABI Research expects the number of warehouses using robotics to grow from 4,000 in 2018 to more than 50,000 in 2025. By that time, it is estimated that more than four million robots will be active in logistics worldwide.

The popularity has to do with the rapid technological developments, which have led to a new generation of robots. This generation consists of 'collaborative robots', in short cobots, and 'autonomous mobile robots’. Cobots can support employees in physical, repetitive tasks such as picking items from storage bins, putting together kits with various parts, packing products in shipping boxes and stacking pallets or roll containers. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are mobile robots that find their way through the warehouse independently, for example to pick locations. By using AMRs intelligently, warehouses can reduce the walking distances of order pickers and increase productivity.

For the successful deployment of robots, companies will have to simplify, standardize and digitalize their logistics processes. Robots are particularly profitable if they can perform simple tasks in exactly the same way over and over again. In addition, robots need to be controlled and provided with data about products and orders, for example. This requires a digital infrastructure, in the form of a warehouse management system, which makes it possible to link cobots and AMRs easily, so that they can be deployed quickly and flexibly at different locations.

 

robot on stairs

As social and global economic trends continue to change there is no doubt that the pressures on the logistics industry will continue to grow. However, with the rapid development of digital and mobile computing technology, I’m encouraged that there is still ample opportunity to continue to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our business supply chains.

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