Future visions for logistics

Digitization – a universal panacea?

Today's logistics world is an El Dorado for trend researchers. They dream of intelligent transport containers that will find their way autonomously from A to B. And they will be able to choose from a flexible pool of driverless, self-navigating vehicles. But how do we get to this future from where we are now?

(Image: Stocksy / Audrey Shtecinjo)

It's early evening and I'm on the autobahn, driving back from a meeting at a logistics academy in Hamburg. Two professors have just been explaining a new concept to me, the Physical Internet. This vision of the future, which extends to the middle of the century, is based on a manifesto drawn up by the American professor Benoit Montreuil in November 2012. It takes the basic principles of the internet and applies them to the world of transport. Tomorrow’s global commodity flows will function rather like emails and data packets do today, navigating their own way from senders to recipients via nodes and various connections. To this end, in this vision, intelligent containers will communicate directly with the available vehicles and find a suitable carrier in real time. It no longer matters how the freight travels between two locations. The only requirements: it needs to be at its destination at a predefined time and cost as little as possible. In this way the capacities available on the vehicles and at transshipment hubs can be exploited far more efficiently. As I reflect on the interview, I start to feel tired and look for a place to stop. But to no avail: the rest stop is packed full and blocked by several trucks. I drive on but meet the same problem at the next one.

This begs a question. Should we be trying to solve today's problems with the technology of tomorrow? Should the EU Commission fund research into the Physical Internet or start building new rest stops instead? The quest to straddle the real and potential worlds is shaping mobility today. We have embarked on this journey and know where we want to end up – but not exactly how to get there. Developers presenting the latest telematics systems at trade fairs and conventions get stuck in traffic jams en route. Scientists research new forms of digital networking in the logistics chain, while dispatchers using phones struggle to incorporate their vehicles into loading dock schedules.

Digitization is not a universal panacea. And yet it can help resolve a conflict down the line. While transport volumes continue to grow in our globalized economy, resources – time, money, drivers, vehicles, roads and rest areas – remain limited. Digital technologies can help maximize the use of existing infrastructure. But ethical issues and regulatory requirements also drive digital innovation. Given the hazards of climate change, it’s important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This can be achieved by building more efficient engines and electriced powertrains.

Another response would be optimizing supply chain processes. Industry has pursued this goal for years, but therein lies the rub: much of the increased efficiency potential is long tapped. Digitization is spawning the first new opportunities in a generation.

A good example is reducing empty truck runs to a minimum. Many – mostly larger – logistics companies have used groupage traffic to solve this problem, with break bulk cargo being consolidated on the main leg of a service. Moreover, open computer platforms are now offering digital tools that non-experts can use to manage freight. These tools automatically assemble individual loads and dispatch them on the most efficient tours. Their algorithms take account of information such as real-time traffic data, the road and rest periods of the drivers, and cargo volumes. While these platforms are still in their infancy, they bring benefits for all of the stakeholders. The platform providers – many of them start-ups – can develop new business models; transport providers of all sizes can maximize use of their vehicles beyond the options offered by their own software; customers ultimately reap the reward of lower prices; and everybody benefits because less CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

Predictive maintenance offers another approach to boosting efficiency. A multitude of sensors on vehicles record the conditions of components and electrical systems, and assess wear and tear on the brakes and tires. Once the data is analyzed, maintenance schedules can be optimized, cutting the risk of breakdowns and allowing repairs to be performed between runs. Unnecessary maintenance can also be avoided. This too conserves resources and optimizes processes.

Any journey through tomorrow’s logistics world consists of numerous small steps. These include systems which assist drivers and, for instance help them avoid accidents. By creating concrete benefits, they become self-financing and establish themselves on the market. They take the strain out of driving, allowing drivers to perform other tasks where the situation permits. Some industry experts expect drivers to evolve into transport managers. But while completely autonomous trucks are, at least technically, about to become reality, drivers will retain overall responsibility for their vehicles, if only for legal reasons. Innovation isn’t just a manifestation of technology. It is always part of its wider social context.

Laurin Paschek is the co-owner of the editorial office delta eta in Frankfurt, Germany.

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