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Through new glasses

Air cargo has been slow to embrace new technologies, but with forward-looking companies such as DHL aiming to turn innovation into a competitive advantage, and with IATA launching a new award, the industry is slowly progressing, finds Ian Putzger

The internet and smartphones have profoundly shaken up the way we live and do business. For all the changes wrought so far, these revolutions have not yet run their course, as companies struggle to adapt to new patterns of commerce spawned by the internet and the possibilities opened up by mobile devices. At the same time, new technologies are nervously panned for clues, in case they turn out to be the next killer application that transforms life and commerce. Is the smartwatch going to rock established patterns? Are smart glasses about to change the way we see the world and how we deal with it?


DHL has tried its hand at the latter of these two much-touted new gizmos. In cooperation with Ricoh and wearable computing solutions experts Ubimax, the integrator’s supply chain unit conducted a pilot project in a warehouse in the Netherlands to test smart glasses and augmented reality. Over three weeks, 10 employees were equipped with Google Glass and VuzixM100 units. They were guided through the warehouse by graphics displayed on the devices to establish how much this would speed up the picking process and reduce errors, if at all. The displays showed the respective task information during the picking process, including aisle, product location and quantity. According to the integrator, the tests proved to be a ringing endorsement for the use of smart glasses. They boosted efficiency by as much as 25%.


On the strength of these results, DHL and Ricoh are apparently evaluating the roll-out of this solution. “However, this is just the first step in our innovation journey, as we believe augmented reality will become relevant for even more supply chain areas,” comments Jan-Willem De Jong, business unit director, technology, at DHL Supply Chain Benelux. The company sees potential in this technology to improve transportation, last-mile delivery and value-added services, and is eyeing future experiments.


DHL regards innovation as a strategic tool to achieve competitive advantages over its rivals. To that end, it has established a business unit called Customer Solutions and Innovation. According to Matthias Heutger, senior vice president in charge of strategy, marketing and development at the new outfit, it typically works with a relatively narrow focus by targeting core industry sectors, like the automotive, energy and life science, and healthcare industries. At the same time, innovations that improve operations beyond the confines of one particular sector have been examined and developed. These include warehouse automation, sorting technologies, vehicle development, and even new delivery options like the ‘Parcelcopter’, which delivers medications and other time-critical goods to a small North Sea island.


Much of the work is driven by the integrator’s annual ‘Logistics Trend Radar’, an overview of broad trends and emerging technologies that was first launched in 2013. The company describes it as “a key tool to identify and assess important social, business and technology trends, including their impact for our customers and on logistics”.


DHL management is eager to place some of its innovation effort in close proximity to its customers. Last year, it announced plans to open an Asia Pacific Innovation Centre in Singapore in 2015. According to the company, the new facility will aim to invest in capabilities in analytics, e-commerce and last-mile solutions for Asia Pacific markets.


The centre will also host innovation workshops, events and forums, sharing best practice ideas between customers, innovation partners and industry experts.


 W rapping perishables 

Over the past few years many airlines and forwarders that have previously limited their activities to certain types of hard freight have developed a voracious appetite for perishables. At the same time, distances to market have stretched, with growers in South America now happy to send their produce to newly affluent consumers in China. To some extent, airlines have been able to use cold chain infrastructure and technology geared for pharmaceuticals in this segment, although the respective values of the commodities put some cold chain solutions out of reach of consumable perishables. But, the bars are shifting, requiring more tailored solutions.


Chris Connell, president of Los Angeles-based perishables specialist Commodity Forwarders, sees a need for packaging to explore new horizons. For the past two decades, this cargo has been shipped predominantly sheathed in bubble wrap with a cooling agent attached to the outside – a technique which has been by-and-large satisfactory. However, interest in more sophisticated solutions is rising, he notes. Citing increasingly tighter regulations for food safety as well as a commercial interest in extending shelf-life, he is convinced that this will intensify in the years ahead.


The emergence of new fabrics and materials opens the door to new packaging solutions, Connell states. “Let us look at different materials that were not around five years ago and see how they work with solar radiation and airflow.”


The development of Tyvek air cargo covers by DuPont Protection Technologies has been a significant step forward, he says. These covers offer protection against temperature excursions, physical hazards like rain and insects, condensation, and harmful gases and vapours. Their white micro-fibre exterior surface provides a reflective barrier to external solar gain, while the metallised inner surface presents a ‘low-e’ radiant barrier to help maintain core package temperatures.


A growing number of airlines, such as Air Canada, are using them – chiefly for pharmaceuticals (for which the covers were originally developed) but also increasingly for perishables.


While this has raised the bar, Connell sees a need to take packaging one step further to better match the characteristics of different types of produce. What works well for asparagus may not be as suitable for some types of fruit. “We need to be commodity-specific,” he says.


Commodity Forwarders has been working together with Ernest Packaging Solutions, a California-based packaging specialist, to examine new possibilities. However, this process does not start with new fabrics and their amazing qualities, points out Larry French, Ernest’s supply chain consultant, research and development and cold chain logistics, who is also on the steering committee of the International Safe Transit Association. Instead, the focus is on the particular qualities and requirements of individual types of produce, he says, pointing to aspects like moisture content, response to change in atmospheric pressure, loss of humidity, convection and radiation. “Convection is a huge factor,” French says. Better control of the moisture content through the use of different materials would also make a considerable difference, he reckons.


Arguably, special packaging for some commodities could go as far as a modified atmospheric pressure system. “I have not seen one yet. I think it could be done,” he reflects. The solution should aim to maintain ambient temperature for at least 48 hours to allow for a slow customs clearance process and other hiccups, French says.


Technology and processes

The air cargo industry has often been blamed for a seemingly deep-seated reticence to venture forward beyond established routines, and a resistance to embrace up-to-date technology. Critics sometimes gleefully cite the glacial progress of Cargo 2000 or the slow proliferation of the e-air waybill (e-AWB), not to mention the broader e-freight initiative. Proponents of the e-AWB usually respond by pointing out the obstacles and by asserting that it has been slowly but surely gaining ground.


There are concerns, however, that the e-AWB, for all its merits, could prove a cul-de-sac. The worry is that it might entrench outdated processes by concentrating on a change of format, essentially substituting a paper trail with a paperless one. >>

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