Transformation or business as usual?
Speed is everything in logistics, but the transformation of industry is calling existing materials flow concepts into question, and putting engineers under pressure to come up with new answers. In the past, participants in the supply chain have called repeatedly for more flexibility and transparency. But now they mean business, and it’s time for the industry to deliver. The challenges facing the logistics sector – from data and skilled personnel to platforms.21 Oct 2019
Merging online and offline business. Buyers in industry now order online, in e-shops, just like retail consumers – and they expect the same fast response times. Warehousing processes and transport systems need to be rethought, and existing technologies are reaching their limits. Fixed conveyor systems are already too inflexible for many industrial users. Vehicle swarms may be the future. This means: rule-based systems, with mapping technology and advanced autonomous systems. A combination of good old-fashioned AI and machine learning. Bosch has shown the way with its ActiveShuttle system.
Lack of skilled personnel
Working in a refrigerated warehouse is not always a pleasant job. Despite AI and machine learning, we still need humans to put a pepper, a tomato or a carton of milk into a paper bag, as a robot can’t do that (yet). At the same time, intralogistics specialists are working on technologies to make working in a warehouse easier. Sales of motorized exoskeletons rose from 6,700 units in 2017 to 7,300 in 2018. The IFR – International Federation of Robotics – sees great growth potential for this type of robot.
Warehousing workers have to take on new tasks every day, work at new stations, pick goods. The user interfaces ensure process reliability, but without good usability and user experience, errors creep in. Plus: good usability enables workers to familiarize themselves quickly with new tasks, and delivers the right information, to the right person, at the right time, and in the right place, so that the right decisions are made.
Sustainability throughout the process chain
In the world of logistics, half-empty trucks are still an everyday fact of life. The industry needs to set itself goals on climate protection. A variety of solutions are available: fuel cell forklifts from Still and other manufacturers, electric trucks, new urban logistics concepts, or intelligent conveyor systems that come to a halt, or slow down, when problems occur in the supply chain. The last-named example is, however, dependent on data transparency and continuous data flow.
The logistics industry needs a secure data space. The sharing of data between producer, logistics provider and customer is a necessary requirement for predicting what will happen in the supply chain. And a standardized, secure data space has an important role to play here. Businesses that can be certain that the data will be used only for projects they have already greenlighted will be able to use data analysis to try out models and systems. One example is the initiative of the International Data Spaces Association.
Whoever manages the data best will deliver the greatest added value in the supply chain. Data-driven business models are not the strong side of German SMEs, so the danger is that someone outside the industry will develop a platform solution. But the domain experts here work in warehousing; they know the machines, they know the data. So the platform design needs to be driven by logistics professionals. Prof. Dr. Michael ten Hompel at the Fraunhofer IML has long been arguing the case for a platform strategy for industry and logistics.
Robotics is becoming increasingly important in logistics. Not necessarily the classic articulated-arm robot – the term can also refer to driverless transport systems. Swarm intelligence is the key word here. Additive manufacturing is also changing logistics processes. One platform model might be to set up a 3D printing platform for worn or replacement parts.
New delivery concepts
Logistics service providers are investing in self-driving trucks – in the USA as well as in China. UPS has been working together with TuSimple for some time already. Since May, TuSimple has been transporting UPS shipments between the cities of Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona. Each shipment has a driver and a technician on board. Data on travel times and distances in autonomous mode are collected en route, along with safety-related data. UPS is not the only company working on autonomous supply systems. In the autumn, the US firm Kroger will begin to trial the use of autonomous delivery vehicles in the area around Houston, Texas. The retailer is collaborating with the robotics specialist Nuro.ai. The idea is that the small vehicle will eventually deliver groceries to customers. German retailers are also following the trials in the USA with close interest. Based in California, Nuro.ai was set up by two former Google employees, and a few weeks ago the company received a cash injection of US $940 million from the Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank.
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