Air freight is close to achieving a step-change in door-to-door shipment tracking and visibility. But this leap will require an airline or forwarder to motivate all its partners in the air logistics chain to make the process changes needed, IT specialist CHAMP Cargosystems, tells Will Waters
CHAMP’s role as a leading supplier of integrated information technology (IT) solutions throughout the air freight community, from forwarders and carriers to cargo handlers and GSAs, means it is well positioned to examine and assess the latest developments in technology within the cargo handling warehouse and the implications of these for the wider air logistics chain.
And while it is fair to say that air freight has hardly been a frontrunner in the digital revolution of the last 15 or so years, the benefits and competitive challenges of new information and communications technology are now increasingly coming through even in the investment-shy environment of the cargo handling warehouse.
Whether those investments take place depends on a number of factors, notably the willingness and also to the ability to make the investments in money and time that may be needed. This means the size and profitability of companies is crucial, along with pressure or incentives from their customers to deliver change.
Nicholas Xenocostas, VP for commercial and customer engagement, says CHAMP Cargosystems works with a large and growing ground handling community, including some of the largest global players. And he highlights two key trends influencing the application of technology within the air cargo handling technology environment in the last few years: “consolidation – the bigger players are going through a certain level of acquisitions – and we have also seen a bit of drive from smaller ground handlers at smaller airports looking at automation in the last two to three years. I think that’s probably driven by the industry putting more demand in terms of how an airline will interact with the ground handler,” he notes.
“So, the industry is moving, albeit not at the quickest pace, looking at automation.”
An example is the Austrian cargo handling market, says senior consultant Nick Barlow, where CHAMP now “corners the market – all of the airports there are now using our solutions, which is quite a coup for us”, he notes. “And it is the smaller stations that are looking now to bring in more carriers, because as the main airports gets saturated, they’re looking for other places that they can fly to. And that is generating business.”
This has that come about through word-of-mouth. “First of all we started with Vienna airport, which is quite a large and complex installation, and then moving on to some of the smaller airports,” Barlow notes.
Xenocostas notes that this “shows that there is a pressure out there to move on with digitalisation, and to be able to connect with the rest of the community”.
Generally speaking, the cargo handlers turning to suppliers such as CHAMP have either been using paper or quite antiquated systems, and they are looking for a proven solution from a specialist that can take on the responsibility for keeping the technology updated. “If we look at our cargo handling service, we are enhancing it regularly,” says Xenocostas. “We’re running software as a service, so when we make those enhancements, everyone benefits from them.
“We are also offering sustainability in terms of continuing to evolve the product. As a supplier, or as a customer, I want to feel that when I embark with a provider that I’m not only here for today, but I’m also thinking of the future.”
He says it’s not just about the technology or solution that you provide, “but also the service; will there be an expert on the other side of the phone 24 hours a day”?
What the technology enables handlers to do differently is “really about satisfying the customer requirements through data exchange and data transfers”, notes Barlow, adding: “The other thing is allowing them to manage, through one application, the service that they are providing the customers, and how much to charge for it. Within the Cargospot application that we provide, they don’t need a separate finance system or messaging system; that is all there.”
New mobility tools
One of the big drivers going forward now is the introduction of new “mobility tools”, Barlow says. “For the last many years, we have had handheld device solutions, at least for the larger handling agents. But of course, everyone is now looking for new technologies, such as via tablets and mobile telephones,” he notes.
“We are about to launch our new mobility solution Cargospot Mobile that will allow the handler to do all of his transactions on more or less any device. So, we are now ‘operating-system agnostic’. If somebody has got an Apple, we can take that. If they are using a Microsoft device, or an Android device, we will be able to support it. And that is key; we don’t want to trap our customers into one operating system.”
Xenocostas notes: “Mobility in the past was more about documents in the warehouse, but now it goes beyond that: people in the ground handling business, whether you are in the warehouse or in the sales office, need to be able to log into a screen and have the information available on your unit.
“Mobility is a result of the other driver: providing information to the right people at the right time. Moving from the rugged scanners to the smartphone opens the door so that the sales people and the operations people and the warehouse people have visibility of exactly what is going on.”
That can also extend to outside the cargo-handling warehouse environment to the truck. “So it is about being able to modularise and expose functionality that our customer wants to provide for his customer,” Xenocostas adds.
Making the technology available to new-generation mobile devices opens up an opportunity for “improved workflow management, going out to the guy on the floor”, Barlow notes. “But we are taking it one step further in so far as the intelligence that we are developing allows the system to know what activity the user is involved in. So, he will know that the guy is working on the flight buildup, or the system will know that the guy is doing the pickup or delivery.
“At the moment, in all systems, the user has to say ‘I want to do this’, and then he gets a screen that will allow him to do that transaction. The idea is to take out that selection process and make the handling process more efficient, reducing the number of keystrokes and screens the end user needs to operate: to just get on with the job, do the scanning; the system knows what you are doing.”
CHAMP is now also piloting these capabilities with ‘wearables’ as “the next phase of this”, for example using technology that followed on from the Google Glass experiment – which has gone on to be licensed and used in some logistics warehouse environments. “Our sister company, SITA, has developed wearable technology to use in airport terminals, for dealing with passengers. We are able to piggyback on that technology,” says Barlow.
Although a Google Glass-type wearable device can provide part of what the person on the floor needs to do their job, “they’re still going to need to have a barcode scanner gun in their pocket to scan the cargo to get the information”, suggests Xenocostas. “The technology is more or less there; the question is applying it smartly to the environment.
He says the applicability is coming, “but I think the industry still needs a bit of experience; how to practically put it into motion. That’s where we are right now.”
Barlow says that in terms of what technology is coming up in the pipeline, CHAMP is not identifying these ideas in isolation. “We are constantly developing our software and technology, but we involve our customers in that,” he notes. “Twice a year we have a meeting for all of the core modules that we offer, and we bring the customers in, and we say where are we going next; what do we need to do next? And we demonstrate some of the things that we are prototyping, and they may say ‘good idea’, or ‘forget it’, or ‘try doing it this way’,” he says.
But if a customer has recently bought some expensive hardware, it may be difficult to justify “another new toy” to their finance department, however good the idea, meaning handlers may be stuck for several years with an imperfect system even if a better solution is available in the market. “Those are the practicalities of investment,” Barlow notes.
Lee Booth, vice president for global products, says the initial feedback from early trials of Google Glass-type wearables with a Japanese company is that “in the cargo warehouse, there is perhaps not enough benefit”, although CHAMP is still exploring that.
“But we’ve also got other mobility applications that we are working on, and what is probably more interesting is ring scanning,” Booth adds. A small ‘ring scanner’ on a handler’s finger can connect via Bluetooth to a smartphone and tablet, for example in the person’s pocket, giving them the freedom to move and scan while still having two hands free.
“We have currently got an application that uses quite a heavyweight, traditional handheld scanner, and they are having to put it on their belt or put it down,” Booth explains. “But a ring scanner is quite effective for them, and we are just rolling that out from the end of this year.”
The use of such a device becomes possible now CHAMP has redesigned the system “so that the system knows what the person is doing, rather than having to go through a series of menus to define the task”, Barlow notes.
Booth adds: “That’s the application we are just finishing – it is a new version of a handheld terminal application. With the new technologies now, we can make use of that intelligence, so the system knows, for example, that because it’s an inbound flight, you’re trying to ‘arrive’ a shipment.
“Also, if you’re in a place where they could be doing two or three activities, we can have on the wall a 3-D barcode, and rather than having to navigate through the application, you just point the scanner at that and it gets moved into the right point of the application. So, the ergonomics of the application is very important.” Booth says even if the system misinterprets the activity the person is doing, they can override it.
All of these functions can help to optimise the workflows and the productivity of the individual workers. “If you have got somebody who can simply scan, pick, scan, pick, with both hands, it makes the warehouse more efficient,” says Barlow.
And having done that task, the system can instruct the worker what task they should do next. “This is the workflow, and this is part of the next phase of the project,” Barlow says.
Xenocostas adds: “Now that the system is getting a little more intelligent, knowing what the next step is, it also gives a bit of flexibility to the ground handlers in terms of the skills required in the warehouse. You may be able to get a more fluid workforce where each person doesn’t need to be an expert, but the systems are smart enough to guide the person to do the task.”
Booth says the goal is to move on from the need for an expert export-side team, and an expert import-side team, “and never the twain should meet. And then if you have a peak period here and a low period here, it is difficult for handlers to balance the resulting demands. All of these steps and directions in these technologies are enabling us to get to what is a much more fluid and flexible resource profile across the ground handling operation.”
He says CHAMP is still rolling out this capability, but it is one of the needs identified by the company’s client airlines – and may, potentially, deal with some of the bottleneck issues recently experienced at certain airports.
“You can put all your planning in place, but if a flight comes in late, then suddenly you will have a peak that you never quite expected to have,” Booth notes.
Besides a potential role connecting ring scanners with mobile devices, others have recently highlighted the potential of Bluetooth as a mechanism for tracking the cargo itself within the warehouse – at least at ULD level.
“It is something we are looking at,” confirms Booth. “Up until now, people have been talking about an RFID Revolution, which has never actually occurred. We think that Bluetooth is a much more likely candidate. The challenge of RFID was the cost of the infrastructure and the cost of the readers – doors through which you had to put the RFID.”
Meanwhile, the price point of Bluetooth has fallen, although there are “still obstacles insofar as Bluetooth will work in an enclosed environment”, notes Barlow.
Booth adds: “That’s been the perpetual challenge, because as a ground handler or an airline, you can say I will take responsibility for putting an RFID or Bluetooth infrastructure in place. That’s fine as long as the shipment comes into your warehouse and goes out for delivery from that warehouse, which never happens because there is normally a plane between the two of them. And then you arrive at this environment over here, and they haven’t got any infrastructure, and so you don’t have any information at all.
“And so, one of the things we think will see coming this year is a broadening of infrastructure in multiple locations, because you really need that as an industry in order to be able to ensure that we have end-to-end information. At the moment, it’s very patchy.
“From a core system position, we can get all the information provided back to the user, but we need that infrastructure spread for it to be particularly effective for the airlines. I think we will start to see that broadening from this year.
“So, we think this is an area where there will be some focus. We don’t envisage directly supplying the technology, but we will be partnering with suppliers that are out there and providing the sort of Bluetooth devices and systems. We can get that information and very easily make it available to our carriers and partners.”
Once that technology is available more widely at a ULD level, the benefit comes from linking the ULD’s location and its contents. “As long as I know that my shipment is in this ULD, I just need to know where this ULD is,” says Booth. “That’s a much easier entity to track than a particular box throughout your network.
“In our system, we know what is in the ULD – because they scan (the shipments) into the ULDs. Once that relationship is made, if we then go to ULD level tracking, we have much better visibility of ‘yes, that (shipment) has definitely gone on a plane’.
“At the moment, we scan into a ULD, and often it then turns into a manual process: I manually assign this ULD to the plane, to the manifest, and then the plane departs, and then I manually press a button to say send an MVT message. Then we don’t know for certain that the ULD has gone on to this plane, because we don’t have any hardware at the ramp that shows it has gone past this point and got onto the plane.
“So, there would be much more specificity about where the shipment is within the end-to-end transport.”
Xenocostas adds: “And then you can link that to the growing business of e-commerce and tracking. There are a few ‘blackspots’ that this kind of technology can start filling in. Right now, as a consumer you go online and you order and you expect minute-by-minute tracking of where your shipment is.”
Booth notes: “One of the innovations that we did last year was create an application called ‘Shipply.Vision’. What that is trying to do is address the challenge of, once it comes out of the handlers’ or airlines’ control, for example goes on to a trucking network, we have no visibility of where it is.
“So we developed a mobile application that effectively allows truckers to send information to our cargo hub application so that we can actually see the routes of a shipment, effectively from door to door.
“Once we get this part of it, we have quite a good picture in the middle from the ULD tracking. With the flight tracking that we can do as well, we can get a picture from beginning to end, which is starting to address what someone like FedEx can do – which up until now, the air cargo industry was struggling (competing) with, because they (integrators) have full end-to-end control. So, we are slowly starting to get the pieces of the puzzle, which allows air cargo to address the same sort of domain, the same amount of visibility, which people are starting to expect.”
He says CHAMP now has a prototype of that, and is in a position to start to roll it out, with quite a lot of interest from customers.
Xenocostas adds: “We’re integrating that with Google maps, and flight-tracker (apps), and so forth, so on the dashboard you can see the whole thing. From talking with the airlines, the technology is there, the application is there, and the next phase is for the airlines to either impose or talk to their trucking companies to say ‘you are going to start doing this’.
“Again, this is not a technology challenge; it’s more about how an airline works with its suppliers to get this to happen.”
At the moment, CHAMP does offer a product to airlines that tries to achieve that aim of following the whole door-to-door process, “to some degree”, via Cargo iQ.
Barlow explains: “If you become a Cargo iQ member, you’re expected to file your route map, which will give you different milestones as different things happen. We operate a CDMP (Cargo iQ Cargo Data Management Platform) that manages the route map and processes the updates as the shipment moves along through the process. That is there today, and we have quite a significant number of customers that use that.”
The customer there would mostly be an airline, but increasingly also freight forwarders and shippers, “because we do have a huge community of airlines connected to our distribution network”, he explains. “So, just from the information we have sitting there, we can more or less know where their shipment is and what stage.”
Barlow says the company’s recent investments in its products and services mean that it now has very open systems that can easily interface with other systems or apps. “So, it’s a question of getting the stakeholders aligned on what has to happen; and sometimes there’s enough motivation in each of the stakeholders to want to play ball, or the dominant one says this is the new way to work.”
One of the larger freight forwarders has achieved some success in aligning the various parts of the air logistics chain, and makes available to its customers a Cargo iQ-driven door-to-airport route map.
“That would be message-based, so any time that somebody touches a shipment or moves the shipment, there will be a status message sent to the CDMP,” notes Barlow. “This is how Cargo 2000 started – taking on the integrators, finding a way to meet the same standards as the integrators.”
This aim is now finally getting closer, believes Barlow. “And with more granularity, and as technology advances, I am sure that the airlines will have exactly the same visibility as Amazon can give you, or FedEx or UPS.”
This is still only at ULD level, although there is the linkage between the ULD and its contents.
The piece-level challenge
Booth notes: “I think the challenge of piece level is that you’ve got to get the information. If the airline doesn’t get given the information about each piece, they can produce labels themselves saying that they have got piece one, piece two, piece three, piece four. So, we can track pieces, and we can say box 1 went missing, but no one may know what went in box 1. So that is the challenge.
“A lot of these are not technological challenges; these are business process challenges, because you have so many participants in the supply chain, compared to an integrator, where the moment they touch the first box, they say ‘I am scanning that and labelling that’; they know exactly what that is. So, it has to start with the shipper.”
Xenocostas says: “20 years ago, I attended a piece-level meeting with IATA, and all of the airlines said ‘we are going to go piece level’. But then the forwarders said, ‘I’m not going to stick something on all of the boxes, and you’re not going to stick anything on every box… who is’?”
Piece-level tracking would be possible, but it is currently a question of who will pay for it.
“You can use chips or you can use Bluetooth devices or whatever, but if you’re going to have Bluetooth device in every single box, that must be some considerable cost,” Xenocostas notes.
For the foreseeable future, piece-level tracking is therefore most likely only going to be for targeted premium services, Booth says.
Another area of potential technological change that has been discussed for the air cargo warehouse is the use of robotics. “That domain is outside our direct remit,” notes Booth. “But what we need to think about is if a customer comes that wants to deploy a robotic environment, how do we interact with that? We do it already where we interface with a number of warehouse management systems.
“The issue for us is we need to know where the ULD or the shipments is, so that when we hand over responsibility to the warehouse management system, this is communicated, so I can find out where it is. It is same thing for robotics: we will need to be able to interface with any robotic system. And they would be modern systems that would be easy to talk to. But we haven’t had a customer yet asking us to look at robotics.”
However, there is also a lot of work currently going into data and analytics, which is important in order to get visibility of your operations, notes Xenocostas. “So, that is another thing we are working on. The other area is in and around enabling our customers to improve their interactions with their customers, for example by providing portals. So it’s all about being able to help provide services for the customers of our customers.”
And in terms of providing visibility of air cargo shipments and their movements, the potential of applications such as CHAMP’s Shipply.Vision, in conjunction with Cargo iQ and new automated tracking capabilities via Bluetooth, seem to be leading towards a step-change in cargo visibility, agrees Xenocostas.
“Absolutely. It is not any more a technology challenge; it is really a question of motivation, and someone saying ‘we want to do this, because we see the benefit in terms of giving visibility to our operations or to the shipper, because otherwise that customer may go to someone else’; because it is all about differentiating your service,” he explains.
“So, if I look at the testing we have done, it is about how we take this to the market. But it is not like selling widgets; there’s a conversation to be had with a major stakeholder, and they need to bring in their suppliers or stakeholders. “The other key theme is about collaboration. Do I trust you with my data?
He continues: “But if a customer says tomorrow they want that, we are good to go. But if we build mobile apps for a trucker’s handheld, then we get into whether the trucker is going to turn on the phone and punch in this code – because change management is probably 50% of the battle, not technology. We see that with our customers. They say we want this, but we say if you are not going to get your people behind it, it is not going to be of benefit.”
Demonstrating the benefits of these kinds of new capabilities is to some extent a bespoke process.
“We always start with certain routes and then the proof is in the pudding,” says Xenocostas. “The stakeholders need to see the benefit of it and then show that to their organisations. Prove it, adapt, move forward.”How long it then takes to roll out across a major carrier, and that process, will vary.
“If you start focusing on an airline with their domestic market, they probably have the most leverage with their stakeholders,” Xenocostas says. “If it is just one trucking company in a country, then one CEO talks to the other CEO and says we want to do this, then we can roll it out in six months. But in a fragmented market, then maybe the other option is to say maybe we just start this with valuable shipments.
“It could go fast, but it is a question of how many stakeholders are involved. The integrators control the entire process, but for the air freight sector to do that, everyone has to line up. That has been the challenge for this sector.”
This may be more easily achieved by a freight forwarder, he agrees. “But you could also have a major airline – or even a smaller airline that has very good relationships with their stakeholders,” Xenocostas says. “So either you collaborate because you want to, or someone comes with a stick and says ‘we want you to do this.”