New technologies and innovations promise a pathway through the latest challenges, providing greater efficiencies, helping combat recruitment challenges, and making the sector more resilient, says Hactl CEO Wilson Kwong
2023 promises no respite from the headwinds of 2022, and we recognise the need to continue adapting and perfecting in order to safeguard our business. Here at Hactl, therefore, we are continuing our constant drive for smarter ways of working, and innovation based on the latest technology remains a vital focus. Technology is playing an ever-greater role in our business, and will do so throughout our industry, as we all look for greater efficiencies, combat recruitment challenges, and make our industry more resilient.
Autonomous vehicles are one of the areas we believe is most likely to see development in handling in the next year or two. Hactl is already involved in a trial with Hong Kong Airport Authority for the use of autonomous tractors for dolly transfers between our terminal and aircraft on the ramp. We are also working on the possible use of autonomous forklifts for cargo movement within our warehouse.
Robotics may also play an increased role in our business. We have now been operating our robotic Automated Parts Store successfully for over a year, which has provided useful practical experience. An obvious further area for robotics would be the very labour-intensive process of pallet-building, but this is fraught with challenges because of the complexity of reaching pallet weight and volume at the same time, working with cargo pieces that are never uniform, stacking heavier and less-fragile items first, and so on. Others have tried and given up on this, but we are prepared to attempt to solve the issues.
IoT will be an increasing trend for the logistics sector, as it can contribute to the end-to-end visibility required, especially for eCommerce and special handling cargo. Hactl will explore with any interested customers (either airlines or forwarders) the deployment of IoT devices for cargo tracking and condition monitoring where it brings mutual benefit. IoT devices are already being used by Hactl for GSE and dolly tracking and status monitoring, to improve asset deployment and reduce manpower in locating equipment for routine maintenance.
AI and Machine Learning are also in use at Hactl in a variety of functions, such as the logistics control systems that manage our Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems, enabling them to use storage more efficiently and reduce processing times. We are also using AI and Machine Learning to assist in predictive analytics for more effective management decisions and resource deployment.
Video Analytics (VA) is another technology that Hactl is using, in monitoring for wear and faults in our Container Storage System’s power feed rails, unauthorised parking, and restricted area unauthorised access. We plan additional CCTV with VA capability using Edge technology, which could reduce reliance on security guards and improve the scope and timeliness of our surveillance. In the related area of Image Recognition, this could also be deployed in AWB scanning, pallet contour recognition, and special handling cargo label recognition (such as for dangerous goods) to minimise the potential for human error. There are many potential applications throughout the industry.
Virtual Reality (VR) is also already at Hactl, and being used for training new recruits in aircraft loading in a safe environment away from the hazards of the live ramp. VR-assisted training is likely to become more popular when the technology becomes more mature, affordable and user friendly.
Data Analytics will play an increased role in the industry, as it does already at Hactl, in areas such as routing optimisation for our giant container handling system, improved staff deployment, and more responsive, agile rostering.
We are constantly setting up systems integration with our customers, to facilitate more sophisticated, seamless digital supply chains. This will facilitate the growing demand – particularly in e-commerce – for total end-to-end visibility for all parties. But overall progress towards the digital supply chain is still being hampered by the quantity of physical documents used by some carriers. Digital Cargo initiatives such as eAWB, One Record, and Cargo iQ, while useful, still have a way to go to achieve universal adoption. An added complication in Hong Kong is the need to cater for forwarders who are largely SMEs, and therefore not able to invest a lot in IT, automation and adoption of e-initiatives.
There are a variety of other technologies that will see greater interest and use in the industry going forward, including voice recognition to replace keyboard inputs in the warehouse, wearable devices to improve workforce efficiency, and Next-Gen identity management (where, instead of using current smart cards, access controls will be based on biometric inputs).
Still a people business
Air cargo remains a people business and, given the continuing major challenges of recruitment and retention particularly here in Hong Kong, we have made caring for our staff, nurturing our talents, and conserving our collective skills base fundamental elements in our sustainability programme.
We propose to make greater use of e-learning for staff engagement and efficiency purposes, having proven the concept during the pandemic lockdowns. Succession management is vitally important to preserve knowledge and maintain quality; so we are introducing a company-wide Knowledge Management Initiative that uses video to capture and pass on experience and knowhow from senior and retiring staff to younger colleagues, in order to help build their own expertise. Our engineers, for example, can now access relevant videos via their mobile devices during their fault repairing and services tasks, anywhere in the warehouse.
Recent building refurbishments have embodied many features designed to create a happier and healthier working environment, but we are going much further – with a fundamental re-working of our Management Trainee Programme, introduction of more flexible working, and staff health care and wellness events such as health check-ups, physiotherapist assessments and nutrition awareness and guidance.