The new normal
SARS-CoV-2 hit logistics with full severity. While individual areas such as eCommerce, food logistics, medical device logistics and some areas of technology logistics were able to benefit from the effects of the pandemic in the short term, many other areas of logistics have almost come to a standstill. The "new normal" - a sustainable handling of global risk scenarios in connection with environmental factors or even extreme medical situations - has quickly become a reality due to the innovation management of companies prepared in the fields of digitalization and automation. Medium-sized companies or representatives of third-party logistics providers (3PL), who must operate at very low margins and have not been able to adequately adapt to possible threat scenarios that result in a lock or shutdown, have clearly lagged behind the competition.
The need for automation
The Bundesvereinigung Logistik (BVL e.V.)1 sees the economy in a critical situation, from which, based on all known forecasts, it will be able to gradually free itself in the first quarter of 2021 at the earliest. The Deutsche Verkehrszeitung (DVZ)2 adds that this recovery must go hand in hand with digitization and automation of critical processes along the supply chain. This also includes the topics of digital twins and automated data acquisition, analysis, and processing. The human being is recognized as a critical factor along the global process and value chains. While these factors have already become apparent in areas such as the meat industry or agriculture, logistics has so far been spared. This can and will change if, similar to the areas mentioned, unknown staff must be called in temporarily for seasonal activities such as inventory and other related tasks.
Drones for logistics
Other industries have already benefited significantly from the use of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones (UAV or UAS). Digital agriculture is almost unthinkable without the support of aerial photographs, sensor data from the air (multi- or hyperspectral data) or volume information based on point clouds. Land surveying, digital construction sites and industrial inspections have also benefitted from automated drones for many years. In comparison, logistics is still in the early stages of development. While the topic of drone transport is still reaching the limits of the regulation of air traffic, the use of drones in areas such as logistics with block storage outdoors or pallet racks in warehouses can already be implemented today. The first successful pilot projects have shown that drones offer essential added value in terms of cost and time savings – reductions of 80% and more are possible - as well as relief of human resources in connection with inventory recording in the area of pallet racking warehouses or empties storage areas in the automotive industry. Another aspect is the independence of additional staff for inventory tasks. Experience in connection with COVID-19 has shown that drones that can automatically collect data and complete flights have a positive influence on reducing the risk of infection if direct contact between employees can be avoided. In addition to automation, using a digital image of reality provides a number of reasons to rely on drones paired with artificial intelligence in logistics.
A digital twin
Based on the analysis of the Fraunhofer Center for Applied Research, innovative technologies and digitization are two of the main drivers in the further development of logistics. According to the study, however, these fields must not be an end in and of themselves but must directly contribute to optimizing process quality and effectiveness. In an environment that is still characterized by many manual activities that are taken over by staff. Accuracy, planning security and seamless communication play crucial roles. At the same time, short contract periods between logistics service providers and customers influence the scope for innovation in the medium and long term. Automation is only possible where flexibility and agility can be maintained. New technologies, which are associated with high initial investments, are only slowly gaining acceptance on this basis. The automated, digital, and regular comparison between target and actual values in enterprise management systems (WMS or ERP) can, however, be carried out with the help of drones without high investments and a far-reaching intervention in the established process landscape. With the most advanced solutions, such as the inventAIRy XL or summAIRy. sky, it is already possible to take stock in off-peak times without the use of valuable employees. Both systems can be activated at the push of a button from a control center and then autonomously record the basic data for later evaluation of the inventory. This data is also processed automatically: the information collected is processed with an upload to a local server or a private cloud and then transferred to the WMS or ERP process control systems. In addition, such solutions also offer a 1-to-1 twin of reality in visual form, archive the status quo, and create evidence security and provide image data that can be used for further analysis (detection of anomalies, inspection tasks, empty space detection, target area exceeded, etc.) with the help of machine learning (ML).
The future of logistics drones
As soon as drones are used in logistics on a large scale, there will be numerous other application scenarios in addition to inventory recording. Process monitoring, monitoring of critical systems and inspection tasks on shelves, smoke alarm systems or other relevant indoor areas. The limits of what is feasible can be pushed further with the requirements.
(3) Top 100 in European Transport and Logistics Services 2019/2020, Martin Schwmmer and Alexander Pflaum, Nuremberg, 2019