Autonomous Trucks Must Pair With Supply Chain Automation

August 16, 2021 by Trucks.com, @trucksdotcom

Editor’s note: Written by Brian Belcher, chief operating officer and co-founder of Vector, a contactless pickup and delivery platform. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders

The trucking and logistics industry has talked for years about how autonomous vehicles will be the solution to the driver shortage. The technology has finally reached a point where that is looking more realistic, as level four autonomy – meaning fully autonomous operations but with a driver in the cab – is currently undergoing roadway testing in the Southwest corridor of the U.S.

However, before the industry arrives at a point where fully autonomous vehicles can operate effectively, there remains much work to be done. Supply chain automation technology is evolving rapidly, as many companies are seeing the efficiencies it helps create across different areas like back-office operations, warehouse management and bill of lading (BOL), among others. And while many businesses in the industry are reluctant to adopt new technology, it can bring significant near-term efficiencies for freight and logistics handling.

What is a Smart Facility?

The art of moving things from one place to another is vital to our economy and will rely heavily on advances in technology. Smart facilities will be a key part of that discussion within the supply chain. A smart facility, such as a distribution center, uses technology throughout the operation. Functions such as self-service appointment scheduling, security check-ins, door assignments and temperature and seal trailer verifications can all be automated and connected through software.

These connected systems can ensure trucks arrive at facilities on time, drivers get in and out quicker, warehouses are efficiently managed, shipments are tracked from origination to final destination and inventory and billing is transparent for all parties and completed accurately. These are just a few of the processes that can currently be automated, helping to solve supply chain challenges.

A prime example is the BOL process. Currently, a lot of companies still use paper receipts for BOL. From the time a product is created to the time it reaches a store’s shelves, that BOL can pass through multiple people’s hands – especially when a mass shipment needs to be divided at a port and sent to different parts of the country. That opens the door for human error and complicates tracking processes if something does go wrong, not to mention the BOL has to be checked when a shipment arrives at the distribution center – only further slowing things down.

Now, imagine if that BOL was in an electronic format. Every person involved in transporting a good from origination to the endpoint can transparently see everything – from the location to who transported it and from how much product is sent to where it is delivered. All that information is accurately tracked and can be easily shared with the back-office billing systems, even eliminating the need for checking in at the guard shack and with clerks.

What does this look like inside a warehouse?

For the supply chain to become more efficient, technology adoption is also needed outside of the cab of trucks, too. Warehouses have been at it for years trying to improve operational flow and automate as many tasks as possible. A warehouse management system (WMS) is a perfect example of software that was designed to help users improve the efficiency of tracking inventory and supplies as they move through a warehouse or distribution center.

A WMS can let workers know where a product is within the warehouse, how much stock they have and tells workers what dock to load cargo at, among other tasks. Then that connects to back-office tools that track order fulfillment and bill processing.

But technology in warehouses goes beyond just a WMS. Robots and cobots – robotic equipment that assists humans with tasks – have been highly adopted in warehouses as ways to assist with the physical aspect of the supply chain. While this technology operates on different systems than a WMS, it has helped businesses overcome labor shortages by automating tasks such as restocking shelves or moving products around the facility to be loaded onto trucks. These tools are just as important in supply chain automation for the functionality of smart facilities.

How does this impact autonomous vehicles?

For fully autonomous vehicles to work, there needs to be fully autonomous processes in place. AVs can’t interact with people. Let’s use the BOL example from earlier. If an AV arrived at a distribution center, it wouldn’t be able to communicate with the guard or the clerk at the security check-in point. However, if the BOL was done electronically, all the information involved in that process can be completed ahead of time, enabling drivers to confirm shipments before arriving and eliminating the need to hire security guards and clerks.

That electronic bill of lading (eBOL) is also updated once the AV’s trailer is unloaded, and that information can go directly to the billing department. Then, the next shipment can be quickly loaded onto that trailer, and the AV has a new eBOL with it. This vastly improves turnaround times in facilities and both boosts bill of lading transparency and accuracy across the supply chain.

So, while fully autonomous vehicles may be years away, companies can futureproof themselves by adopting technology that enables further automation across their business processes. Further digitization and automation will lead to better tracking and visibility across the different stages of the supply chain. This will allow companies to gather and analyze more data, which can lead to better control towers and enable blockchain applications. This can improve near-term efficiencies and help overcome some of the present challenges in the industry – eventually leading to the rise of smart facilities and a more autonomous future in the supply chain.

Trucks.com welcomes divergent thoughts and opinions on transport technology and trucking industry issues. Use the comments section to cite yours. Qualified opinion leaders are welcome to offer suggestions for opinion columns. Contact info@trucks.com.

Jerry Hirsch August 2, 2021
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