How Robotics and Real-time Data are Upending Freight Logistics

Chris Farmer, Founder & CEO, SignalFire

How Robotics and Real-time Data are Upending Freight LogisticsChris Farmer, Founder & CEO, SignalFire

The long-established freight industry is ripe for change. The potential for data to modernize traditional workflows cannot be overstated. Advancing shipper and carrier operations, offering benefits that were never before possible to players throughout the supply chain, fueling the development of automated robotics, eliminating waste — the advantages of implementing new technologies are boundless.

Data has already made a positive impact on supply chain operations in recent years and will continue to reorganize logistics processes. Timely, accurate, and complete data is the key to succeeding in the complex and dynamic logistics industry, especially in an age where Amazon has taught the world to expect absurdly fast shipping with a smooth experience.

Shippers and carriers that leverage real-time data insights from their systems and partners are more prepared to navigate this challenge and meet ever-increasing consumer expectations. And, importantly, they’re also more likely to understand their own transportation operations. With meaningful data and a mandate to apply it, shippers can:

• Provide customers with freight tracking updates, such as shipment status and damage notifications
• Identify issues in the transportation process
• Learn how to optimize transit methods (often via alternate routes or shipping modes)
• Avoid fees, delays, and other headaches

Zooming out, gleaning data insights from new technology also helps shippers accomplish their high-level goals, like staying competitive, reducing costs, and improving productivity.

Relevant data helps carriers, too. By better understanding where their shipments will be and when, they can:

• Eliminate waste in their business activities
• More accurately estimate arrival times
• Increase driving capacity

• Grow their revenue potential

Carriers that make data-driven decisions in turn score a number of downstream benefits, like giving customers better freight visibility and boosting their retention.

But for supply chains to operate smoothly, shippers and carriers must tightly coordinate many moving parts. 

Data unlocks software and robotics opportunities

Reliable data makes this coordination possible. A number of companies have developed digital infrastructures and automated robotics that cater to the needs of shippers and carriers. While digital platforms add transparency to logistics operations, automated robots help sellers fulfill orders efficiently. project44 and Flexport are two that has used data to more closely connect each phase of freight to produce the transparency and predictability businesses need to constantly optimize their supply chains.

Automated robotics, including self-driving trucks and autonomous forklifts, is another major area of rapid advancement for freight logistics.

While designing self-driving cars for busy city streets has proven an enormous safety challenge, the widespread adoption of autonomous trucks on more formulaic highways is one of the most promising initiatives in the trucking industry. A few of the major players in that space are:

• Waymo LLC: A subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Waymo is building trucks for the long haul, focusing its efforts on autonomous technology that can travel great distances. Waymo has been running trials in California and Arizona since 2017, and, in March 2018, started using its self-driving trucks to haul freight to various Google locations in Atlanta.

• TuSimple, Inc.: TuSimple started building autonomous trucks in 2015, and has been at the forefront of technological developments ever since. The company had a big year in 2019, when its self-driving technology delivered mail for the United States Postal Service over the course of two weeks, moved loads for UPS over several months, and reeled in over $120 million from investors.

• Peterbilt Motor Company: Peterbilt is a truck manufacturer that’s headquartered in Denton, Texas. In May 2017, Peterbilt joined forces with Embark and raised over $15 million in Series A funding. It unveiled a Level 4 autonomous truck in 2018 at CES, an annual conference that focuses on consumer electronics. In early 2019, one of its trucks successfully completed a drive from Los Angeles to Jacksonville.

While we’re probably years away from seeing the industry-wide implementation of fully autonomous trucks, automation around the edges—such as loading, unloading, and warehouse logistics—has already arrived.

Automated forklifts enable businesses to move freight more efficiently and improve safety. Buyers can expect to pay for the installation, maintenance, sensors, software, traction control, and drivers. Though the upfront investment is significant, these mobile vehicles yield positive ROI in 12-18 months.

Along with designing new, technology-charged forklifts, manufacturers are adding artificial intelligence and other smart technologies to existing models – with no need to overhaul the warehouse infrastructure. Fox Robotics, for example, creates self-driving forklifts that don’t require IT or WMS integration to unload trucks. These vehicles can be set up at a new dock in less than 30 minutes and can unload 30 pallets/hour. A single forklift operator can unload 20 - 100 trailers in a shift. This level of efficiency ups productivity by 200-300%.

Fox Robotics delivers these impressive results with the help of cutting-edge learning capabilities, cameras, and sensors, which allow for robust navigation and picking functionality. To prevent collisions, Fox Robotics incorporates 360° safety-certified obstacle detection in every unit. With the help of automation, the company has prioritized both safety and efficiency in the design of its self-driving forklifts, strengthening the case for technology in supply chains.

Updating an industry

Fox Robotics uses full-stack technology in its business model. When it comes to data and programming, “full-stack” refers to front- and back-end development in web, mobile, and native applications. In other words, “full-stack” gives developers a complete picture of the information, rather than just a frontend or back-end view. Many next-generation companies are reinventing full-stack models to streamline dated shipping methods and provide better service within the freight industry. Some of them include:

• Convoy: Convoy runs a mobile app that matches shippers and carriers. With aggregate data functionality and Carrier Insights, the app shows shippers the performance levels of different trucking companies and helps shippers make informed decisions about their freight allocation. Truck drivers, on the other hand, benefit from the ability to secure available loads on routes of their choice and avoid deadhead miles. Convoy has automated a practice that once required a freight broker.

• Uber Freight: Uber Freight’s platform brings shippers and carriers together, too. It points to its location and freight tracking capabilities—which save carriers the hassle of calling truck drivers for status updates—as main benefits of using its application. Shippers can simply pull up the load in the app and see its whereabouts in real-time. They can also opt in to email notifications and receive updates every time the load hits a milestone in transit.

• Flock Freight: Flock Freight’s algorithms solve a complex optimization problem—accounting for dimensions, commodity type, pallet count, and other constraints—in near real-time and at scale, enabling shared truckload shipping and streamlining dispatch activities. The company is boosting visibility for LTL loads by moving them with TL service and enhancing transit by optimizing not just shipping routes, but the loads themselves. As a result, shippers and carriers benefit from fundamentally better service.

By taking physical elements (like hubs) out of the stack and replacing them with data, these full-stack businesses are eliminating common issues—such as damage and theft—and building more sustainable shipping workflows.

Logistics companies that embrace the data and the opportunities it unlocks will find themselves in a better position to service customers, connect with partners, and conquer hurdles—no matter where they fall in the supply chain. 

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