The Autonomous Supply Chain

autonomous supply chainAutonomous technology continues to make an impact on the supply chain. The autonomous supply chain, as I am writing about it here, applies to moving goods without human intervention (to some degree at least). One of the more interesting examples I have seen is from the Belgian brewery De Halve Maan, which in an effort to reduce congestion on the city streets, built a beer pipeline under the streets. The pipeline is capable of carrying 1,500 gallons of beer an hour at 12 mph to a bottling facility two miles away.

As we’ve written about here quite often, autonomous technology is mainly seen in warehouses, on highways, and in last mile deliveries. A new entrant to the market could be autonomous freight trains, as tests are underway. Each of these areas are at different stages of the maturity curve; warehouses have fully deployed autonomous robots and drones, while autonomous trucks are still in the early testing stages. Let’s take a look at how these technologies are being used and what the future holds.

Autonomous Supply Chain and the Warehouses

autonomous supply chainToday’s warehouse is becoming more automated on a near daily basis. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are now commonplace in many warehouses, helping warehouse workers to fulfill orders quickly and efficiently. There are a few different types of robots that companies are considering, and each has its own unique set advantages. The key for AMRs is that they enable workers to be more productive due to constant collaboration. This is especially true as warehouse labor is becoming harder to find and more expensive to train. As my colleague Steve Banker pointed out last year after completing a study on AMRs, the market is exploding. There are two types of AMRs – those based on fleet management and systems that rely on picking optimization:

  • Fleet management solutions typically operate with bigger payloads and route the robots from an origin to a destination.
  • Pick optimization robots integrate the movement of machines and people in a process flow designed to increase picking throughput. Pick optimization robots support picking to cartons and totes and consequently have a small payload.

One of the biggest concerns about AMRs is how warehouse workers will interact with the bots. The fear is that the bots will get in the way of their human counterparts, cause slowdowns, or worse, cause dangerous working conditions. Generally speaking, from all of the companies we have spoken with, within a week or two of deployment, employees were used to seeing the bots scurrying around the warehouse and were no longer concerned about collisions.

ARMs are not the only autonomous vehicle technology being deployed in warehouses. Another example is the use of drones in the warehouse. When people think of drones, they typically envision ordering a package online and having it lowered down to their front door by the drone. However, given the stringent FAA regulations around drone deliveries, this is not quite a reality yet. Although, more and more tests are being conducted as we speak. Instead, drones are being used in warehouses and yards for inventory management. Using a combination of computer vision technology, artificial intelligence, and RFID sensors, drones are able to perform inventory management tasks within the warehouse or yard faster and more accurately than the human eye.

Autonomous Supply Chain and Trucks

autonomous supply chainAutonomous trucks have been a hot topic, and depending on who you speak to, could provide a solution to the ongoing driver shortage. Testing is ramping up across the country, with more autonomous truck manufacturers and states completing pilots. One of the most famous pilots occurred about three and half years ago when Uber’s self-driving truck subsidiary Otto completed a 120-mile trip on Colorado highways to transport nearly 2,000 cases of Budweiser from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. During the trip, Uber reported that a driver stayed in the sleeper berth to monitor the delivery. While the test was great publicity, it did not mean that the world was ready for fully autonomous trucks on the highway. Within two years, Uber shuttered its autonomous truck division to focus on its Uber Freight marketplace.

The regulations that stand in the way for autonomous trucks are significant. Startups have been pouring money into tests, but we are still years away from seeing fleets of autonomous trucks on the road. And in some cases, investment dollars are beginning to dry up for this technology. One of the biggest names in autonomous truck technology has been Starsky Robotics. It was at the forefront of putting autonomous trucks on the road. Its list of accomplishments is staggering. In 2016, it became the first street-legal vehicle to be paid to do real work without a driver behind the wheel. In 2018, it became the first street-legal truck to do a fully unmanned run. In 2019, it became the first fully unmanned truck to drive on a live highway. And now, even with these accomplishments, due to a lack of funding and perhaps unfair expectations, the company is shutting down. What does this mean for other big players in the market such as Embark, Daimler / Mercedes, Volvo, Tesla, and TuSimple? Public perception around the safety of these vehicles will play a big role in the future of autonomous trucks.

There are examples of practical use cases that are ongoing. Autonomous trucks are operating at iron ore mines in Pilbara, Western Australia. The trucks were brought in to alleviate safety concerns for drivers, while increasing efficiency. These trucks are mostly operating on deserted dirt roads, not driving through crowded cities. But that could all change soon.

Another practical use case for autonomous trucks is in platooning. Platooning technology involves a number of trucks equipped with state-of-the-art driving support systems. The vehicles move in a group or platoon with the trucks driven by smart technology and communicating with one another. But a platoon of trucks still needs to be able to break itself apart to let cars enter and exit the highway and for other reasons as well. A platooning system needs to be able to temporarily disengage itself when cars cut into the platoon and then automatically resume when the car exits the line of trucks. This alone makes it unlikely that the follow trucks will be without a driver in the short term.

There are still plenty of autonomous truck tests ongoing right now though. And some states have been more welcoming to these tests than others. Over the last several months, Daimler and Torc have rolled out autonomous truck testing in Virginia, and Waymo has expanded its tests in Texas and New Mexico. However, discussions on regulations are still ongoing, and likely will be for years to come. Steve Banker asked a critical question about whether or not states should make investments in autonomous truck technology. As he pointed out, the tradeoffs involve truck driving jobs lost, warehousing jobs won, public safety, and consumer prices. The politics won’t be easy, particularly after the inevitable traffic accidents occur and deaths result.

Autonomous Supply Chain and Last Mile Deliveries

Last mile deliveries typically are the most expensive and difficult part of the B2C supply chain. And as companies look to make deliveries more efficient, autonomous vehicles are starting to come in to play. Many companies have begun testing autonomous delivery bots in cities and on college campuses. Starship Technologies has been one of the most prominent names in autonomous delivery bots. The company has moved beyond the pilot phase of home deliveries and has launched an on-demand package delivery system. Another example is Postmates, which has dispatched delivery robots in the Los Angeles area.

Autonomous technology has improved, and the interest is growing. As a result, autonomous vehicles have also been tested for home delivery. In this situation, an autonomous vehicle brings a package to a customer’s house, whereupon the customer enters a code and retrieves the package from a cargo hold. Ford has run multiple pilots to gage customer perception and acceptance of autonomous vehicles as a delivery mechanism.

Autonomous Supply Chain and Freight Trains

Last week I read an article about autonomous freight train testing in Colorado. In the test, a 30-car freight train led by three diesel locomotives covered 48 miles through the Colorado desert. The demonstration at the Transportation Technology Center was the debut of driverless train software. Federal regulators are beginning to clear the way for autonomous freight trains and have indicated that anti-collision technology could prevent fatal accidents from occurring. Many rail companies have begun implementing artificial intelligence and machine vision systems as part of safety protocols, which could be the beginning of a transition towards autonomous trains.

The interesting thing for freight trains is that there are currently no US regulations preventing autonomous trains from operating. Last year, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) withdrew a proposed rule that would have required two people on all freight trains because it would “stifle innovation.” Even so, public safety and perception is clearly the biggest roadblock for freight trains. Unlike some other autonomous trains around the world, like Vancouver’s Sky Train and Copenhagen’s Metro Loop, freight trains operate in highly trafficked areas, which poses a concern for public safety. The only operating autonomous freight trains in the world are at mines in Australia, which as mentioned above, are off the beaten path and generally do not encounter public traffic. But, as more companies look to implement artificial intelligence and machine vision, the push could be there to move to move to fully autonomous freight trains.

Final Thought

The autonomous supply chain is alive and well. Warehouses are deploying autonomous mobile robots and drones for efficiencies in picking orders and inventory management. Highway tests continue for autonomous trucks and opportunities abound for platooning technology. Last mile deliveries have seen autonomous delivery bots and cars operating in cities and across college campuses. And Australian mines are ahead of the curve, using fully autonomous trucks and freight trains to move iron ore. There are still a lot of regulatory hurdles that need to be cleared for the supply chain to become more reliant on autonomous vehicles, but the framework and interest is there. This will certainly be an interesting.

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