Transport robot from the supermarket chain Rewe

Transport robot from the supermarket chain Rewe

2023-10-01 VDE dialog

Smart logistics: The route is being calculated

Dr. Jana Jost heads the Robotics and Cognitive Systems department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) in Dortmund. There, she works on a host of projects seeking to expand human-technology interaction in the logistics world and make the industry smarter.

VDE dialog - the technology magazine

Virtual megafleet for Europe

It’s a problem that has long occupied freight forwarders: Once truck drivers have delivered their freight, they often return in an empty vehicle – which is bad for the environment and bad for business. The tech company Sennder, which was founded in Berlin in 2015, wants to change this. It has built a platform to match shippers and carriers with the help of algorithms. This digital tool makes it possible to send out countless feelers to make inquiries that once involved constant phone calls and were limited to a company’s own address book. Sennder also allows users to track deliveries in real time. Backed by substantial venture capital, the company now organizes over 60,000 truck transports a month all across Europe.

An air taxi for warehouses

Emqopter brand flying robot
Emqopter GmbH

Even short distances can be time-consuming. Picture a machine part that is needed at the other end of a factory, for instance, or specialist equipment that needs transporting from one warehouse to another. Today, this type of “micrologistics” is typically handled on foot, which ties up employees’ valuable time. The “FlowPro” project is exploring alternatives with funding from the German government. These include the use of drones that employees can request through an app to taxi shoebox-sized packages through the air. The drones find their way around factory sites using the 5G mobile network. Lidar sensors help them plan their exact flight routes through factory doors and around production machinery. (in German)

Clever combinations

In combined transport (CT), containers switch their means of carriage mid-journey, from road to rail and back again. The most common combination involves trucks and trains, but cargo ships can also play a part. When everything works, it's a particularly efficient and eco-friendly way to get goods to their destination – but the level of complexity is high. Digitalization can help: The K.V.4.0 Hub, which launched in the spring of this year, enables the various parties involved to share information. Forwarders can see when their deliveries actually arrive at transhipment stations, freight terminals and ports can allocate their precious slots more precisely, and train drivers can see in real time when their trains will be ready for them. There are also other projects that are seeking to provide digital services for combined transport. The start-up Modility, founded by the Port of Hamburg, offers a search and booking function for combining road and rail.

Fast freight helper at the airport

Some five million tons of freight is loaded and unloaded at German airports each year. It's taxing work for the staff who transport goods between warehouses and aircraft cargo holds. In Munich, they now have a robot to help them: “EvoBot”, which was developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics, darts around the airport on two wheels at up to 60 km/h. Its gripper arms can carry packages weighing up to 100 kilograms. The fast-moving machine “makes the everyday work of our freight team easier and makes us a more attractive place to work,” says Munich Airport boss Jost Lammers.

A new way from road to rail

A transport container is loaded onto a truck by crane

A transport container is loaded onto a truck by crane

| R2L Roadlink GmbH

Switching transport modes in just two minutes? The “Road-Rail-Link” platform (R2L for short) from logistics specialists VTG and Vega and the vehicle manufacturer Kässbohrer is designed to take combined transport to the next level. This invention solves a big problem. Until recently, many semitrailers could not be loaded from trucks onto rail freight wagons because there was no way for a crane to latch onto them. Now a high-tech pallet is changing everything: a truck drives its trailer onto an almost eight-meter-long and three-meter-wide pallet structure and uncouples the tractor. The crane uses this pallet to grab the load and transfer the entire container to a pocket wagon. The container is then transported by an environmentally friendly freight train to a freight terminal near the destination. There, the whole procedure works in reverse: A crane heaves the container onto an awaiting truck, setting it down in exactly the right place. Then the last-mile leg of the journey can begin. In 2022, this idea won an award from Germany’s Pro-Rail Alliance, which recognizes innovative projects to decarbonize transport.

Google Maps for goods transport

A line on the map from A to B? Route planning in the logistics world is rarely that simple. Some products need collecting or delivering at certain times, while others need elaborate cooling systems – and then there are the intermediate stops that complicate the loading process. New and more established software manufacturers promise to plan routes as cleverly as possible, knowing that each additional kilometer traveled costs time and money. Tech firms like Smartlane, Fast Lean Smart or Greenplan claim to factor up to 250 parameters into the planning process. Their programs combine information on drivers, vehicles, deliveries and locations with traffic and route data, for instance. The software is designed to keep learning with every route completed. In practice, however, the experience of seasoned logistics experts is still needed.

A digital delivery note from the cloud

What sounds like a small step is actually a big leap for the logistics sector: the fall of last year saw the digital delivery note platform “Cloud4Log” go online. In many transport processes, it’s still the norm to have these crucial paper documents accompany shipments all the way from the sender to the recipient. Many companies have tried to put in place systems for scanning delivery notes once they have been created, but they have proven to be prone to errors and delays. With Cloud4Log, delivery notes are now saved and processed as PDF files in the cloud right from the beginning. This means all the information is available in real time. The new platform – a kind of Dropbox for the logistics sector – was developed by Bundesvereinigung Logistik and the organization GS1 along with 40 partners. Many companies that send, transport or receive large volumes of goods were therefore involved from the very start, from manufacturers like Nestlé and Henkel to freight forwarders (Dachser, DHL, Fiege) and retail chains (dm, Rewe). (in German)

The friendly local delivery robot

The product range is conventional enough, but the mode of transport certainly isn’t. In May this year, food retailer Rewe began sending delivery robots onto Hamburg’s city streets for a special trial that is set to run for several months. Test shoppers can use an app to put everything from bananas to baked goods in their shopping cart. The customer's order is loaded into a wheelbarrow-sized vehicle at a normal supermarket branch, which then travels at walking pace to the desired address. Once it arrives, the customer enters a code to open a compartment and remove their shopping. The delivery robot is supplied by a US startup, and the ordering app by another tech company. In the United States, Uber Eats, the supermarket chain Kroger and the food delivery service Grubhub have all experimented with similar devices. The companies hope to eventually get by without any human delivery drivers at all. For now, however, the Internet is full of videos showing robots driving into obstacles, falling down stairs or being thwarted by curbs.

Transport by tram

A parcel station at a tram stop in Vienna
© Wiener Linien / Topf

An ingenious solution for delivering packages in the city is about to launch on Vienna’s tram network next year. The Austrian capital is gearing up for a research project that will enable passengers to help deliver other people’s packages when taking the tram (or the “Bim,” as the Viennese like to refer to their long-standing transport system). Special package stations will be installed at stops on several lines, allowing at least some of the more than 110 million deliveries made to addresses in Vienna each year to complete their journey by public transport. A similar project started last fall in Schwerin, Germany, where Deutsche Post DHL ran a special tram every day. Instead of passengers, it carried up to 450 packages, which were sorted into the correct stations at various tram stops around the city. The University of Stuttgart is currently reviewing how successful the first months of the Schwerin initiative proved to be. Vienna's elaborate project is being supported by Fraunhofer Austria.

Smart logistics:“Technology needs to adapt to each individual person”

Evobot autonomous transport robot
© Fraunhofer IML / Michael Neuhaus
2023-10-01 VDE dialog

Dr. Jana Jost heads the Robotics and Cognitive Systems department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) in Dortmund. There, she works on a host of projects seeking to expand human-technology interaction in the logistics world and make the industry smarter. 

Interview: Manuel Heckel

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