Automated cargo handling arrives – probably
The recent launch by Speedcargo and Güdel of a robotic automated material handling solution for air freight, capable of handling cargo of varying sizes and weights, seems like a significant moment in the development of air cargo handling technology, promising to automate significant operations from acceptance to build-up. Due to the non-standard nature of most shipments, robotic automation has so far seen little success in air freight, beyond automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), and solutions for integrator parcel shipments and certain specific customers with regular-sized boxes.
Speedcargo has been working since 2015 on an automated pallet build-up and break-down solution that can handle cargo of varying sizes and weights, including odd-shaped cargo, and its partnership with materials handling specialist Güdel appears to offer a meaningful solution. In the Technology and Handling Update on page 48, senior technology and air freight specialists discuss the sector’s progress in digitalisation and whether it is now ready to move to the next stage – to physical automation rather than just information automation – based on a panel discussion at this year’s Air Cargo Europe event.
The participants agreed that air freight has made significant progress in the last five years in various aspects of the digitalisation journey, such as booking, capacity optimisation, and process optimisation – and information flows more generally – whereas physical automation has first required a combination of breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, plus wider adoption of digitalisation in the industry more generally.
The discussions highlight something common to many digitalisation and tech projects: on the technical level, the technology is available and tested; the challenge is “to make sure all the stakeholders are on the table and have the right mindset and work at the right speed”. This involves getting the buy-in from staff throughout an organisation, convincing them of the benefits of the technology and that it does not threaten their jobs.
Another closely linked element is the importance of timing. Speedcargo’s Suraj Nair notes that a process of education or “knowledge transfer” needs to be done before you can bring in the stakeholders – including “evangelising” about how useful a technology has been in other sectors. Nair says this understanding about the value and feasibility of robotic physical automation is not quite there yet in air cargo, but there appears to have been a significant rise this year of interest and more-concrete signs of wanting to bring in automation, or at least exploring it via small pilot projects.
Indeed, Speedcargo hopes to have some real-world examples of next-generation robotic automation of air cargo handling up and running in the next 12 months, probably. So, this looks like being an interesting area to watch. Probably.
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