A quiet whirring announces the arrival of the logistics drone. In the garden, the customer waits for the order that they placed only an hour before. The drone lands safely on the lawn, the customer takes out their package, and the quadcopter starts again. A scenario of the future? According to a survey conducted by the German Federal Association for Information Technology (Bitkom), the majority of logistics companies believe that drone deliveries will be commonplace in ten years.
In hardly any other industry digitization is changing business models as radically as in logistics. Due to the booming online trade, not only is the market growing, but the demands of customers are also increasing. Deliveries within 24 hours with an individual delivery time slot are already standard. However, high price pressure means that increasingly efficient processes are needed – companies have no choice but to forge ahead with their digital transformation. According to the latest Bitkom study, the industry is also aware of this: 74 percent of transport companies consider digitization to be their biggest challenge. A further problem: more and more companies from the high-tech sector are pushing into the industry and securing large market shares through their IT know-how. This makes the competition for traditional forwarding agents ever harder. Experts are already talking about an "uberization" of the transport industry.
Logistics companies are therefore being called upon to enhance business models as well as product and service portfolios: for example, offer customers the possibility to track goods. For instance, with the support of Roambee. The U.S. startup has worked with T-Systems to develop a tracking service. Small "bees" – that is, yellow devices attached to the containers, parcels, or trucks – collect data via various sensors and send it to an IoT platform in the cloud. Roambee analyzes this data and also links it to information from ERP systems or external sources. Customers therefore know not only about the temperature or humidity in the transport container, but can also assess the risks of a particular route.
Few digital pioneers
According to the Bitkom survey, logistics companies expect the widespread use of future technologies in 10 years' time, with 75 percent anticipating the use of data goggles in warehouses, for example. However, only a few pioneers are already working with these today. One of these is cosmetics manufacturer Babor in Aachen, Germany. Warehouse workers have replaced order slips and handheld scanners with data goggles. They receive their orders directly on the goggles via Wi-Fi and see which storage space they have to drive to. By tapping the goggles, the warehouse worker starts the built-in scanner to read the item's barcode. Their hands are free to take the product off the shelf. For Babor, this is a worthwhile step into the digital future: according to the company's own data, the data goggles optimize routes and thus bring time savings of about 20 percent.
Autonomous vehicles are also an important topic in the logistics of the future. According to the study "The Era of Digitized Trucking", experts from Strategy&, the strategic consulting department at PwC, predict that truck drivers will have disappeared from highways within ten years. Human vehicle drivers would then only still be used in city areas or for local deliveries, and these could even be replaced after a further five years. For customers and suppliers, this is a rewarding development: by 2030, logistics companies could reduce costs by up to 33,000 euros per year. A method called platooning offers further savings potential: the trucks, interconnected by Wi-Fi, drive closely one behind the other and thus in each other's wind shadow. As a result of the closer tailgating, air resistance is reduced and fuel costs fall by 10 percent.
Drones in test phase
The third trend is the use of drones for internal organization and the delivery of goods. Although quadcopters and multicopters still do not play a role in reality, initial tests are already underway. Amazon delivered its first package by drone last year in the UK. In Germany too, flying delivery boys are in the testing phase: DHL is trialing "parcelcopters" that load and unload parcel stations.
But the expansion of drone services is being thwarted by the same obstacle as autonomous driving: laws are yet to be aligned to such future technologies — in the U.S., for example, drones still cannot fly over public spaces. And in Germany too, legislation is lagging behind development when it comes to regulations for self-driving cars and trucks. The federal government launched one of the first laws for autonomous driving in March. However, many questions remain unanswered: for example, what the driver is allowed to do during that time or how long it can take for them to take control again in the event of an emergency.
Only in theory
Logistics companies know that they can only compete with the help of digitization. However, concrete plans to introduce new technologies are stagnating. For example, according to Bitkom, only two percent of transport companies would like to use drones for their internal organization. In addition to the continuing deficiency in legal regulations, lack of knowledge and doubts about the practicability of the solutions could play a role.
Digital hubs could help here: that is, artificial ecosystems in which research facilities, universities, and investors solve very specific logistics problems using digital technologies. For example, interested companies can test self-learning systems using these systems. "If the future scenarios, of which the companies are convinced, are compared with today's use and concrete plans, then this is a warning signal," says Dr. Bernhard Rohleder, CEO of Bitkom. "Companies need to at least experiment with the solutions, because with drones, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence, logistics could be about to undergo a real revolution." Then drone deliveries to the customer's own garden could actually be part of everyday life.
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