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Logistics: under the influence of Industry 4.0

6 minutes | 29 Oct 2018

QR Labelled packages in warehouse with robotic arm
Drone delivering parcel

Are you keeping up to speed with robotic deliveries and driverless trucks?

Robots delivering parcels to your door may sound like something from a Hollywood film set in the future but with Industry 4.0 reshaping the logistics sector at breakneck speed, it is fast becoming an everyday reality. The smart factory is expanding its reach.

Close up of user with smartphone, tracking delivery

A US firm called Starship Technologies has devised and is trialling robots that can carry and deliver items within a two-mile radius. Parcels and groceries are directly moved from stores or specialised hubs at the time that the customer requests via a mobile app. The robots’ entire journey can then be monitored on a smartphone.One delivery made media headlines recently when UK takeaway firm Just Eat used the robots to transport food to customers, despite deep snow.

Customer expectation

That’s just the consumer market. In industry, the changes are happening just as quickly and it’s imperative that manufacturers take advantage, otherwise your competitors will. According to a recent Future of the Logistics Industry report from PwC such robotic innovation represents just one area of that the Industry 4.0 supply chain industry can and must utilise to meet growing challenges. It said the industry had to respond to customers who now expect to get goods faster, more flexibly and at low or no delivery cost. More customised manufacturing also adds extra pressure to logistics firms in terms of how and when to store, pack and deliver.

PwC said the industry can only hope to meet these challenges "by making maximum and intelligent use of technology, from data analytics to industrial automation to the Physical Internet".

Warehouse innovation

So, what else – apart from snow-defying robots – is being developed worldwide? In the US, automated technology group Dematic is working on a variety of projects, including a recent tie-up with AutoStore to improve order fulfilment and piece picking in warehouses. Through the collaboration, Dematic integrates its automated order picking into existing manual processes to increase picking efficiency and improve order accuracy.
Dematic has other technologies at play including smart control systems used by pallet trucks and forklifts to manage routing, navigation and obstacle detection.

Swisslog is using 'intelligent' warehouse software systems, such as SynQ, to offer customers virtual and augmented reality tools and business intelligence to optimise performance and forecasting. It also has a robotic system called ItemPiQ which ‘is able to detect grasping points of unknown items’ via an intelligent vision system.
It has four different grasping methods, selected according to the products being picked and packed. It claims processes can be optimised by sharing tasks efficiently between robot and worker and that the gripper can pick up to 95% of products that are common in retail, e-commerce and pharmaceuticals. It also has a SynQ Cockpit Manager, which uses big data to help users see how its warehouse looks in 3D and real-time.

“Robotic innovation represents just one area of Industry 4.0 that the logistics industry can and must utilise to meet growing challenges”

Driverless delivery lorry concept

Transport innovation

Of course, warehousing is only one part of logistics, the other, as seen by the earlier robot example, is transport. We are seeing a move to driverless trucks and vans, where drivers will sit at a table and plan the route or get themselves prepared for the upcoming delivery, rather than sitting behind the wheel with their elbow on the window. They are freed from the task of driving to take on different roles. Managing the movement of those trucks is also vital and we are beginning to see that role also becoming increasingly digitalised.

Steve Twydell, Chief Executive of transport management experts 3T Logistics, is developing applications that can carry out all the functions of a transport manager.
“We use data and machine learning algorithms to optimise the utilisation of vehicles,” he explains. Logistics companies try and sell resource and get as much space on their vehicles as possible.

"We try and reduce resource and make transport more efficient and cost-effective. More and more firms are wanting to take back control of their transport operations and are rejecting the old outsourcing trend. By using our platform, we can help them do that".

Twydell says it is primarily larger logistics firms who are taking advantage of digitalised transport management systems. “Some transport companies are still laggards and just see logistics as metal on the roads. they read about AI and Industry 4.0 and know they need to do something different but they think it’s too scary, so decide to push it down the road three or four years,”

He also states, "the opportunity for improvement is there. Logistics is a very fragmented, very manual industry with lots of human beings doing routine processes. We automate those processes and cut out the human mistakes. You can run the right product on the right route on the right kind of transport more effectively".

3T offers a transport management system called 3T Event, which can automatically optimise transport planning, integrate with carrier telematics, calculate freight bills and track by order and parts.
It is a platform you can easily plug into, Twydell says:

“In six months, we will have a web-based modular version for SMEs. The cost is coming down. One of the main stumbling blocks is culture. Can we accept replacing Julie and her £25,000 salary in the transport management team with an app that can do the job better and more efficiently? It’s a tricky one for many companies. But transport, like all the industrial revolutions before it, will be the sector that eventually drives this change."