Transporting goods is a vital part of supply chain and a key economic concern for organizations today. Effective logistics, transportation and distribution professionals are addressing this challenge by tapping into enhanced visibility with sensors, mobile devices and automation — particularly for last-mile challenges. These competences provide a more global view of the supply chain; empower companies to correct or avoid issues via collaborative data sharing; and reduce human intervention, freeing people to focus on more valuable tasks. Every supply chain is different, but these proficiencies offer noteworthy benefits for any type of network.
“Shippers, third-party logistics (3PL) providers, brokers, freight forwarders — it’s such an interesting challenge trying to pull at the few threads they have in common,” says Mitch Weseley, founder and CEO of 3Gtms, a transportation management system (TMS) solution provider. “The issues really vary so much. But one thing we’re seeing in the industry, which is wonderful and long overdue, is a lot of people getting creative.”
Although the word “creativity” may not be synonymous with transportation, the ability to think outside the box offers a meaningful advantage as companies work to address an infinite list of evolving constraints. Weseley believes much of this creativity is driven by new people entering the space who “don’t have the baggage of previous years.” He explains, “They have degrees in supply chain and logistics, and they’re much more open to new ideas for their customers and their customers’ customers.”
Technology is enabling the shift, as well — although Weseley recognizes that even TMS vendors such as his own firm cannot build software that meets every challenge. Because of that fact, the goal of these solutions should be to provide support that offers enough flexibility to enable users to maximize their own ideas and ingenuity.
Far-reaching supply chain visibility requires integration among numerous tools. Often, master data must run in harmony across TMS, warehouse management systems, multiple enterprise resources planning systems and others. When separate elements exist across geographies, getting products from point A to point B is even more challenging. The good news is that the cloud, the internet of things (IOT), and a variety of inexpensive and commonly available tools are enabling dispatchers to control and optimize transport flows. These professionals can easily access information on every aspect of an anticipated shipment, including the shipper, the flow of goods, traffic conditions and much more.
“We are at a point now where visibility is really changing,” says Anne Goodchild, Ph.D., academic director of the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Master’s Program at the University of Washington. “We have sensors in all these vehicles moving around. We can put that information on people’s phones, and users can see it in real time, anywhere they are. The same things that made Uber, Lyft and bike share possible are now happening on the freight side.”
As the data from these communication and computing systems matures, it also is changing the act of travel and transport. One way this is happening is through supply chain control towers. According to Capgemini Consulting, control towers are hubs that provide visibility by gathering and distributing information and enabling users to detect and act on risks or opportunities more quickly. When building a control tower, various systems are integrated, united by a common middleware software so information can be gathered at a centralized location.
Capgemini’s “Global Supply Chain Control Towers” report explains that these tools capture, monitor, organize and store data about “every product ordered from a supplier, every shipment shipped to a customer, every document created, every cost accrued and every event generated in the flow of product from order to final delivery.”
According to the report, control towers enable three levels of management control:
1. Strategic control encompasses the design of the overall supply chain network.
2. Tactical control involves proactive planning of procurement, operations and distribution according to market demand.
3. Operational control enhances real-time functionality, including transportation management, inventory tracking and exception management.
“A single system can provide visibility to let you see everything, to manage by exception and to take action based on an event,” Weseley says. “If you’ve got some freight that’s moving internationally, some that’s [less-than truckload], some that’s parcel — and then some drivers who don’t communicate — control towers create a single place where all the freight from an entire organization resides. You get a single source of truth, and that’s something very, very exciting.”
Finally, because control towers enable real-time data sharing, they create greater resilience when handling orders, shipments and capacity constraints across a multi-party network. In this way, users can better align countless moving parts. As Goodchild notes: “Transportation is all about matching things in time and space. The ability to match things up efficiently is the function of how much information we have [and] how dynamic that information is.”
Augmented delivery capabilities
Beyond having access to data, supply chain professionals must use the data to optimize inventory, improve shipping and receiving, and track and trace workflows. The IOT is a valuable visibility tool in this regard. “Thanks to smart devices equipped with vision-and-image-recognition technology, the IOT can even be extended beyond connected items that are embedded with a computer chip,” explains Samuel Mueller, chief executive officer at Scandit, a bar code scanning and mobile data capture solution provider. “With a quick scan or capture of a code, text or image, you can identify any object to learn more about it and document its status.”
He offers the example of bar code applications that are integrated with a scanning engine. Using this technology, overnight distribution service CDL Last Mile Solutions measures the performance of its drivers through proof-of-delivery activity, scan accuracy and GPS functions. Equipped with mobile computer vision capability, the apps give CDL’s Customer Relations representatives and dispatchers, as well as customers, real-time visibility. Likewise, Swiss Federal Railways has been able to replace dedicated bar code scanners and streamline internal delivery tracking using smartphones within its railway network.
Mueller also notes the usefulness of sensors and smartphones for automation — particularly for the last mile. As global e-commerce activity increases, this is having a significant impact on the market and bringing about some substantial challenges. Again, creative approaches can make the difference as packages are identified, placed in delivery vehicles and recorded by drivers to ensure they arrive at the proper destinations.
“Operating costs are high, and errors or delays usually result in diminished profits and unhappy customers,” Mueller says. “Fortunately, advanced mobile data capture technology offers … a foundation for digitalizing last-mile delivery processes. Innovations in computer vision, machine learning and augmented reality enable … carriers to use affordable smart devices such as smartphones, tablets and wearables to leverage existing product bar codes on delivery items to cut costs and improve efficiencies.”
According to the white paper “Mobile Computer Vision in the Post and Parcel Industry,” published by Mueller’s company, these relatively inexpensive tools are being maximized in the following ways:
- Loading: Drivers use smartphones to read multiple items in a single scan and obtain augmented reality instructions on how to place packages more efficiently.
- Identifying special parcels: Mobile computer, vision-enabled smart devices highlight packages that are high-value, timed or undergoing delivery changes.
- Sorting: Employees use augmented-reality-enabled smart devices to see instructions on how to sort multiple packages in order to improve accuracy and save time.
- Proof of delivery: Drivers use smartphones to scan bar codes, record electronic signatures or take a picture of where a package is left.
- Search and find: Augmented reality-enabled smart devices identify parcels in a vehicle, enabling drivers to locate specific packages.
- Digital parcel status check: Drivers scan a parcel with a vision-enabled smart device right before delivery to check that any special requirements have been met.
“One of the things people forget is that drivers are out of their vehicles nearly 85 percent of the time,” Goodchild says. “They’re walking, they’re carrying packages, they’re taking the elevator, they’re climbing stairs. People overlook the challenges.”
Streamline and automate
Another creative approach to the last mile, which continues to gain traction in supply chain, is the use of drones. When Goodchild began hearing about drones, she says her first instinct was, “You’ve got to be kidding me; these things are flying, right?”
Her framework was costly, energy-intensive traditional airlines. Because of that, she recalls thinking that there was no way drones could compare to on-the-ground travel. “But they actually do,” she admits. “They are remarkably energy efficient because engineers made them light enough to carry a battery and a payload while traveling a meaningful distance … and because you don’t have to pay for and protect a driver. Drones are a dramatic transformation in terms of cost.”
Due to the challenges of air fleet management and public safety and privacy, Goodchild doesn’t think transportation, logistics and distribution professionals will be using them at a high rate in dense urban areas. However, she does believe drones will become increasingly pervasive in rural locations, where overland travel is difficult or costly.
Mueller notes that the same computer vision scanning technology that is so effective in smartphones and tablets can be embedded in drones and autonomous vehicles. By equipping them with mobile computer vision-and-image-recognition capabilities, users can streamline and automate processes while freeing employees to handle other important activities.
“Logistics firms anticipate that human-directed platoons of autonomous trucks and fully autonomous trucks will replace human-driven double- and triple-freight trailers as quickly as practicable and legally permitted,” write authors Laura Koetzle and Carlton A. Dotyof in the Forrester report “Autonomous Vehicles Will Reshape the Global Economy.” (See sidebar.)
In fact, Forrester estimates that, although the U.S. transportation and materials moving category will lose 1.67 million jobs due to automation by 2027, more than a half-million new jobs will be created for the people who monitor and control the fleets remotely.
“We also expect increased demand for software developers and robotics engineers,” Koetzle and Dotyof assert. “These are higher-cost employees, so the shipping companies will compete fiercely for volume as they attempt to differentiate on speed and price. And this reality is closer than most think: The managing director of PortXL, the accelerator for the Port of Rotterdam, expects the first fully autonomous ship to dock within five years.”
Goodchild has a slightly different viewpoint, saying this kind of automation isn’t going to be an all-or-nothing scenario. “People like to imagine everything driving around by itself,” she explains. “But I think we will see assistance technologies a lot sooner than full automation — meaning, under controlled conditions, increasingly using the computing power of the vehicle over the driver itself.”
Like drones, she believes these technologies first will become common in rural places. Urban areas will need to be completely redesigned before these innovations are viable options. “We can’t just take the system we have now and replace that with automated vehicles,” she explains. “We would have to have drop facilities on every curb. We would have to be willing to come outside and meet the vehicles. So, there’s still a lot to think about before many of these tools are implemented. But there’s no doubt that things in transportation and logistics are happening right now. It’s a very exciting time.”