IoT at the heart of tomorrow’s logistics

According to Gartner, by 2020 more than 20 billion objects will be connected, making the Internet of things (IoT) one of the most important technology growth markets, with millions of possible applications.

Of the sectors that already benefit hugely from the advantage these technologies offer, logistics is high on the list, with applications opening the way to new ways to administer routing and delivery that are radically different. IoT technologies do indeed now offer highly sophisticated ways to track deliveries and automate scheduling, with up-to-the-minute support for delivery staff, transporters and technical agents working on the ground using smartphones and other mobile devices, optimizing the (sometimes tricky!) logistics of that last mile to the door. And that’s just for starters…

IoT servicing routing automation

Waste disposal experts Sita equipped their rubbish collection containers with sensors so they could remotely track the rate at which they fill. Uploading the relevant information in real time, the schedules to empty them could time interventions to coincide with exactly the right moment, when containers were nearly full, so optimized routes would only include those containers fulfilling the relevant criteria for being emptied.

Routing to replenish Selecta’s automated snack distributors is another example of how the Internet of Things can be applied to a logistical can of worms. Sensors positioned inside the machines track the outward dispensing of merchandise and trigger restocking operations before stocks are exhausted. In a completely different domain, the smart internet-connected boilers that are now coming on to the market make it possible to anticipate maintenance operations, and manage maintenance interventions more efficiently. This type of apparatus is designed to diagnose faults remotely and, in the event of a breakdown, schedule a visit from a technician automatically.

Sensors and other connected devices are rapidly becoming widely available, and will accelerate the transformation of installations, streamlining the way maintenance operations are delivered. Today it is estimated that up to 80% of interventions could be scheduled using automation. Functions to automate scheduling and real time intervention management tools are now adding a new dimension to automation in this area. In the medium term, we could see 100% of the logistics chain becoming automated, with savings both for customers (the length of time they have to wait for an appointment) and businesses (savings made thanks to a highly efficient scheduling operation) alike.

According to Gartner’s latest Magic Quadrant for Field Service Management, by 2020, 10% of emergency interventions on the ground will be sorted and scheduled by artificial intelligence tools. What are the main benefits for customers? Shorter waiting times, and peace of mind: they won’t even have to call technical services themselves, since it will be the sensors that trigger the signal for a call-out. Scheduling and logistics personnel will then be able to devote their time and effort to managing complex operations requiring all their attention and expertise.

E-commerce and deliveries: optimizing that last mile

According to Fevad (French federation for e-commerce and distance selling), e-commerce turnover in France is steadily building towards the 100 billion euro mark in 2019. With the exponential increase in B2C orders, 1 parcel in 3 is now delivered to private residences (the remainder destined for businesses and other private institutions), as against only 2% in 2010 – a service that consumers are now reluctant to pay for, and increasingly expect as a matter of course. Today’s customer not only wants free delivery, but they also want it faster, and at times of day that suit their own programme. They also want to be informed if their delivery is going to be late. Trying to satisfy this ever more exacting customer profile, on-line retailers are seeking to protect both market share and sales margins by building their business around reliable transport systems so as to be able to offer an efficient home delivery service at minimum cost.

Today, connected transporters’ vehicles can calculate their Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) with ever greater precision. Mobile telephony solutions in delivery vehicles and mobile apps dedicated to drivers allow upload of the ETA in real time to the end customer via email or sms. Information relayed to the customer will take the vehicle’s current travelling speed, position, and traffic conditions into account. Some services even offer real-time tracking views so the customer can see exactly where the delivery van has got to in real time, allowing them to make ready for the reception of the delivery.

The potential and scope for IoT to optimize delivery services are infinite. Amazon keeps coming up with new solutions: for example, delivery directly into your car boot, thanks to an unlocking device that is remotely controlled by the user with an ‘intelligent’ locking system and camera or, more recently, delivery to the interior of the house using an ‘intelligent’ locking system and a camera connected to Alexa. Something that has been on the horizon for some time now is the possibility of drone delivery to the door, and in view of the hefty investment in this technology we are seeing from Amazon and others in France would suggest this is likely to become a reality.

What will urban logistics look like in the future?

The 2017 Valeo Innovation challenge gave us an interesting glimpse of the future and a preview of the revolution to come in delivery methods that is ongoing even now, to adapt fulfilment strategies to tomorrow’s urban populations. Polish students devised the notion of a Haibu concept-car – an autonomous delivery vehicle equipped with an overnight sleeping pod. From this mobile base, the logistics of travelling the last mile would be handled either by a drone, or a delivery robot, to neatly bypass streets clogged with traffic.

Logistics in city centres is predicted to see huge leaps forward over the next few years. New challenges are trending with the development of city centre access policies that restrict vehicles more and more, and promote electric delivery vehicles: cars, scooters, and bicycles. Before delivery robots and robot couriers start to cruise our streets in the longer term, logisticians will have to take the restricted autonomy and recharging needs of the new electric vehicles into account when scheduling routing. IoT already facilitates the gathering of data relevant to this in addition to tracking data so routes can be constructed that are optimized to the highest possible level.

As modes of transport and consumer habits change with time, logistics will need to be flexible if it is to be able to reconcile the diverse needs and interests of mobile teams, logistics controllers and the end customer. Because of the expanding role played by IoT tools in reconfiguring the practicalities in the logistics arena, any company seeking to stay among the front-runners in this race will need to start integrating these tools right now, step by step, ensuring good rates of uptake by staff to maintain close association of teams on the ground with the longer term strategies of companies aiming to improve services offered to end customers, and the overall logistics experience.