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Technology exists to make life easier. It also provides a potentially huge competitive advantage for companies that make the right investments.

Logistics technologies are making a major impact on the productivity and competitiveness of warehousing and distribution companies. Here’s a look at how.

GPS and Sensors for Freight Tracking

Freight carriers and product distributors are only too aware of the potential risks to goods while they’re in transit. The good news is, GPS and other technologies continue to evolve and provide value-adding functionality to help cover the bases.

Just some of the areas of risk for freight in transit include:

  • Impacts and vibrations
  • Exposure to moisture or other elements
  • Theft and political unrest
  • Unexpected delays due to roadway incidents and weather
  • Errors during changes in custody
  • Failure of refrigeration systems for perishable goods

GPS has come a long way since its public debut. Trucking, freight, warehousing, and distribution companies have long relied on this functionality for basic route planning and to calculate mileage and times of arrival. Today, GPS provides a host of additional features — including making automatic, real-time route adjustments in the event of sudden changes in the weather or unusual traffic conditions.

Sensors enjoy greater ubiquity than ever and offer useful features of their own. Sensors in product packaging or case packs now deliver alerts when they detect undesirable conditions, such as an impact that may have damaged the product.

Sensors connected to Internet of Things deployments can also alert decision-makers right away if heat or moisture has come into contact with a product. Alternatively, these systems can help speed up inspections or indicate when additional inspections may be necessary.

Listen to “The Role of Supply Chain Technology for More Effective Inventory & Warehouse Management” on Spreaker.

Freight-Sharing Apps

Ride-hailing apps like Lyft and Uber are under pressure in California and elsewhere to raise the standard of living for their employees. One thing nobody argues about is the effectiveness of their business model, however. These aren’t taxi companies — they’re technology portals that connect people with cars to people who need rides.

Freight-sharing apps take a page from the Uber playbook. They provide a convenient and inexpensive way for manufacturers and distributors to find available trucks and partial loads nearby. Previously, these companies had to do business with freight brokers or absorb the cost of sending out priority freight as LTL freight shipments.

Some of the companies in this space include DashHaul, Transfix, Carggo and Cargomatic. Their platforms make use of GPS and online portals to efficiently match distributors with freight carriers without the need to negotiate prices or engage in lengthy exchanges over phone or fax.

Automation in Warehouses

The human element has long been a productivity and accuracy bottleneck in warehouses. Some estimates place the financial cost of fulfillment errors at between $35 and $50 apiece. Depending on the product, the losses could be substantially higher.

Human order pickers are one source of error and a key area where autonomous robots are pulling more than their weight. Receiving freight and stowing it appropriately are two other skill areas slowly moving toward industrywide automation.

Incoming totes and cartons may contain RFID tags or bar codes that can be scanned immediately by stationary scanners and then sorted and diverted to the appropriate location by robotic arms or automatic conveyors.

Warehouse automation is a powerful ally in warehousing and distribution safety campaigns as well. Robotic pallet trucks (also called automatic guided vehicles or AGVs) can move bulk or palletized goods through high-traffic areas efficiently and safely thanks to improved navigation and spatial awareness.

Driverless Vehicles

Autonomous passenger vehicles have earned a lot of attention and anticipation. Not to be left out, automotive warehousing and distribution companies are moving full steam ahead on autonomous trucks. Governments throughout the world and the United States, including the state of Virginia, have already given the green light to test these vehicles on some public roads.

Daimler (parent company of Mercedes-Benz), Uber (after acquiring Otto Motors), Waymo, Volvo, Tesla, TuSimple, and several other companies all have “horses” in this race.

It’s not hard to see why: a fleet of driverless trucks would be able to distribute a considerable amount of product with far fewer employees at the wheel. A much smaller team of dispatchers and engineers would be able to oversee even large and complex warehousing and distribution territories.

Analysts at Bernstein estimate that autonomous trucks could deliver gross annual savings of $300 billion in the U.S. The savings come from shedding some jobs, saving fuel, eliminating idling and improving logistics intelligence. Of course, other jobs and expenses will follow in the wake, including maintenance and troubleshooting on the autonomous systems.

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Artificial Intelligence and Other Horizons for Warehousing and Distribution

If the recent pace of technological advancement is any indication, the future will see even more impressive breakthroughs in logistics warehousing and distribution technology.

Artificial intelligence will further streamline stowing and picking operations by choosing optimal warehouse locations and routes. It’s also a powerful ally in what is perhaps the last frontier in logistics tech: anticipatory shipping. Amazon and other companies dream of a day when products are already en route to consumers by the time they click “buy.”

In the meantime, companies in this field already have lots of opportunities in front of them. Companies that drag their feet when it comes to logistics technology may quickly find themselves unable to compete with their leaner and more advanced rivals.