Thomas Black | Bloomberg News | Transport Topics | May 3, 2019 2:00 PM, EDT
Amazon boxes being loaded manually into a UPS delivery truck. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
As FedEx Corp. and UPS Inc. beef up automation to keep pace with surging e-commerce and a potential threat from Amazon.com, they’ve been stumped at a crucial stage: loading and unloading trucks.
Robot makers are getting close to solving part of that puzzle.
Siemens AG and Honeywell International Inc. have built machines that pull packages from the back of a tractor-trailer and place them on conveyor belts, whizzing the parcels off for sorting. Making robots that can load trucks is more complicated, although clearing that hurdle isn’t far off.
“The biggest challenge in our world is: Every single package is different in size, shape, weight, color, material,” said Ted Dengel, managing director of operations technology at FedEx’s ground-delivery unit. “It makes it a very tricky problem.”
The devices, unveiled at a recent automation conference in Chicago, hold out the promise of increasing productivity while reducing the need for one of the most grueling jobs in logistics. Couriers are relying on automation to grapple with the rise of online shopping, which is fueling record demand but pressuring profit margins. Amazon’s plan to handle more of its own shipping and offer more one-day deliveries is only upping the ante.
Package sorting and scanning is already automated in many UPS Inc. facilities, but loading trucks is a completely different problem. (Kim Raff/Bloomberb News)
Automated unloaders took years to develop and still haven’t been perfected, reflecting the difficulty of working with an array of packages that are stacked differently from truck to truck. The machines also need space within logistics hubs and warehouses that already are packed with equipment. The Siemens contraption requires modification of a truck’s trailer. Honeywell’s doesn’t, but isn’t as fast at unloading.
Honeywell’s apparatus is a behemoth on wheels that has a bank of suction cups to grab packages stacked high. A portable conveyor catches or scoops them up from the trailer bed. It works in most flat-floored trailers and unloads as fast as a person can — but without the back pain and exhaustion.
“I can speak from firsthand experience from developing this machine: The job is miserable inside that trailer,” said Matt Wicks, vice president of product development at Honeywell’s Intelligrated unit, which focuses on warehouse automation. “Getting people out of the trailer and on the dock side managing several of these machines is a huge factor as it relates to employee satisfaction and retention.”
Siemens took a different approach. A rolling belt must be permanently installed on the truck trailer’s floor with packages loaded on top. When the trailer is at the loading dock, a large machine is attached to the belt and packages are pulled in and sent to the sorting hub. Unloading a standard trailer takes about 10 minutes, compared with approximately an hour for one person moving the boxes.
A robotic arm sorting Amazon containers onto pallets in a districbution hub. (Melissa Lyttle/Bloomberg News)
FedEx began searching six years ago for ways to automate trailer unloading and recently began testing two competing machines, said Dengel, the operations-technology director. One device is further along, and FedEx plans to buy two of that model and start using them in the field over the next year, he said. He declined to identify the manufacturers that the Memphis, Tenn.-based company is working with.
UPS also is working to automate unloading, spokesman Glenn Zaccara said, declining to provide details. The Atlanta-based courier is in the middle of a three-year, $20 billion technological makeover to keep pace with online retail growth. Over the past five years, the company’s union workforce has increased 14% because of rising package volume, Zaccara said by e-mail.
Solving the three-dimensional puzzle of loading a trailer is tougher than for unloading one. Yet Dorabot, which has backing from Chinese e-commerce titan Jack Ma, is testing automated loading technology with two customers.
The startup’s robots use artificial intelligence and can load 400 parcels an hour into a trailer, filling 60% of its capacity — in line with what a person can do — CEO Spencer Deng said. Dorabot expects to improve speed by about 50 parcels an hour, and fill 80% of a truck’s capacity, before going to market within a year and a half, Deng said.
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Remote diagnostics systems available on modern trucks are helping fleets avoid costly repairs and reduce vehicle downtime, and this technology is rapidly advancing toward offering better predictions of when problems might occur.
Tom Howard, fleet director for San Francisco-based Veritable Vegetable, said his fleet doesn’t have much flexibility delivering its time-sensitive organic produce. For a while, it seemed every weekend he was answering a call from a driver reporting a check engine light. With limited information, he then would decide whether to drive to a potentially expensive outside shop or return it to company headquarters. It might be a major problem, or it might be a faulty sensor.
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In January 2016, the company began using Kenworth’s “TruckTech+” on 11 of its 28 trucks. For those, he receives an e-mail telling him what the light is signaling and suggesting what to check. On the manufacturer’s website, he can see the truck’s fault code history, helping him determine if it’s a one-time problem or part of a trend. The system also provides the locations of the three closest repair facilities.
“Consequently, I haven’t had to roll a truck into a shop, on the ones with TruckTech+, except for once because I didn’t understand what the problem was,” Howard said. It was a software issue.
At P.A.M. Transport, which operates about 2,000 trucks, the company has reaped the benefits since becoming more proactive with remote diagnostics in recent months, said Paul Pettit, vice president of maintenance.
Previously, the company used fault codes mostly to triage driver road calls. When a check engine light would appear, the driver would be asked to pull the codes himself, which some had trouble doing. Or, drivers wouldn’t contact the company when a light appeared, and the first time the company learned anything was wrong was when the driver called to say the truck had been derated and had slowed to 5 mph.
The company has identified one individual who monitors all incoming telematics from the fleet’s Peterbilt, Freightliner and Navistar models. That information is used to route drivers and ensure dispatchers don’t assign loads to trucks that need service. If necessary, another power unit can be prepared to service the customer.
Not only can the fleet learn what’s wrong, but also how long it’s been happening, the recommended repair, and, in some cases, what nearby shops have the needed parts.
“Pretty much if anything is breaking down right now, we know it when it’s happening or before it happens,” Pettit said.
Other fleets also have benefited from remote diagnostics.
Reyes Holdings, a private fleet with more than 4,000 tractors, started using Navistar’s OnCommand Connection in 2016. Annelies Van Thillo, operations analyst, said within a week of rolling out the product, a technician identified two trucks with low diesel exhaust fluid and another with a required regeneration.
At Maryland-based D.M. Bowman, Chief Operating Officer Brian Hall said the 380-tractor truckload carrier saves six to seven hours in downtime per truck per quarter, or about $80 per hour per truck, with the remote diagnostics system his company uses.
Fleets always have operated reactively and still do, according to Kenneth Calhoun, fleet optimization manager for Birmingham, Ala.-based Altec Industries. The difference is that with remote diagnostics, they can shorten that reaction time, he said.
Calhoun, who also is general chairman of American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council, said that while a significant percentage of trucks have the technology installed, fleet adoption varies. Fleets that are progressive elsewhere, such as with electronic logging devices, tend to be the most progressive with remote technology as well. Vocational applications have trailed the rest of the industry, he said.
Providers still are learning what the payment model will look like, Calhoun said. Generally, the service is free for a certain amount of time, and then fleets can subscribe.
Fleets can be overwhelmed by the data, so they must prioritize the information and look for trends, Calhoun said. If a particular group of faults is spiking, the fleet should find the root cause. Fleets should consider a truck’s year model, engine, where it’s domiciled and who is maintaining it. The biggest wins involve finding a problem in groups of vehicles, leading to changes in preventive maintenance, he said.
Looking ahead, Calhoun predicted that in the next 10 years, a vehicle will understand its own issues and then adjust its operating characteristics, allowing the driver to travel to a preferred destination for repairs and updates.
“I think that in our lifetimes, we’ll see the vehicles, for lack of a better way to put it, become self-aware, and then begin to mitigate those situations to extend its life and to optimize the availability of the asset,” he said.
Chris Morrow, fleet management customer service specialist for Entergy, an electric utility, said that because the volume of information can be so overwhelming, fleets should start by focusing on critical codes. Technicians will embrace the technology after seeing it prevent catastrophic failures.
Morrow said Entergy’s main focus has been on its 1,200 medium-duty hydraulic trucks, mostly Freightliners and all with Cummins engines. Following Calhoun’s advice, the fleet focused on those critical codes such as high engine temperatures and low coolant levels.
“That turned out to be fantastic,” he said. “We got those results that we hoped for. Our technicians bought into it, and then twofold, it did end up having a huge financial return for us because those critical codes were just that critical, and they did lead to many of our engine failures.”
Morrow estimates the fleet is saving $250,000 to $300,000 annually avoiding catastrophic engine failures. Remote diagnostics provides information that drivers sometimes didn’t provide. Sometimes the check engine light warned of problems, but the driver would be working in an aerial and didn’t see it.
Remote diagnostics technology is expanding.
Andrew Dondlinger, vice president and general manager for connected services at Navistar, said OnCommand Connection was developed initially to collect and display diagnostic codes. Now, fault code action plans help fleets validate if something is an issue and determine a course of action. Live fault code action plans, which launched about a year ago, show the needed part number, nearby dealers with the part available and standard repair time.
Other engine manufacturers also are providing remote diagnostics systems.
Dheepak Rajannan, product manager for Cummins’ electronic service tools and information business, said the company’s Guidanz system helps fleets and service providers diagnose and respond to problems. The mobile app includes an immediate assessment feature that helps users understand the issue.
Service providers can use immediate assessment to start a work order in Guidanz Web, a guided service event workflow system that automatically transfers information, such as engine specs and the VIN number. The driver can use the application to find the closest certified service location and e-mail the truck’s GPS location and fault code information. Cummins plans to offer different tiers of packages so even owner-operators can obtain support.
A driver accesses information from the Detroit Connect Virtual Technician. (Daimler Trucks North America)
Jason Krajewski, director of truck connectivity for Daimler Trucks North America, said the Detroit Connect Virtual Technician quickly notifies fleets of a fault’s severity and whether the driver can resolve the issue. In critical situations, the Detroit customer support center receives engine data from 60 seconds before the fault event and 15 seconds after. Experts then notify the fleet about the cause, recommended parts, and nearest service locations with parts available. Technicians at the selected location receive a copy so they are prepared to address the issue.
Mack GuardDog Connect reduces diagnostic times by 70%, according to David Pardue, Mack’s vice president of connected vehicle and uptime services. Pardue pointed out that software updates can be done using Mack Over the Air programming.
Navistar’s Dondlinger said the technology is advancing to predictive diagnostics. For a per-vehicle subscription fee, Navistar tells a fleet what units are at the highest risk for major problems, and then it works with them on their maintenance schedules. The manufacturer can spot patterns such as a periodically appearing low coolant indicator, which means the driver is simply refilling the coolant when a long-term fix is needed. Fleets can manage the influx of vehicles needing repairs and have bays available for vehicles predicted to have a problem.
The next step: prognostics, in which the manufacturer won’t even need the fault codes to know a serious problem could occur, Dondlinger said. It will use other information such as sensor codes, how the vehicle is being driven and its location.
“We aren’t yet at that point where we can say we have prognostics,” he said, “but … we have our feet firmly on the ground on the predictive diagnostics and are improving that daily through our interaction with our customers.”
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Eric Miller | Staff Reporter|Transport Topics|March 29, 2019 10:15 PM, EDT
Technology panel at the Mid-America Trucking Show by John Sommers II for Transport Topics
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Is technology in the trucking industry moving too fast for the men and women who sit behind the wheel of big rigs?
That was a concern voiced by a number of truck drivers attending a March 29 session at the 2019 Mid-America Trucking Show. The drivers’ questions and comments seemed to keep a panel of executives touting the promise of driver-assist technologies and autonomous trucks on their heels.
The primary concern expressed by drivers attending the session centered on how soon they would be replaced by “robot trucks.” But there also were questions about how to disable driver-assist in certain situations, and how soon the technologies would be mandated by federal regulators.
“There’s a lot of noise in the media and by some people running for president that automated trucks are going to be here tomorrow and everyone’s going to be out of work,” said Robert Brown, director of public affairs for Tucson, Ariz.-based TuSimple. “I can assure you that a young person going into trucking today will retire a truck driver, if he or she wants it.”
Brown by John Sommers II for TT
“The technology really, truly is amazing. I always tell people we can handle the freeways, but we can’t handle the infinite number of things that you all do on a daily basis.”
“I think like everyone else that as long as there are trucks, there are going to be truck drivers,” said Ognen Stojanovski, CEO of San Franciso-based Pronto, a company that makes driver-assist technologies.
However, he said trucks with assist technologies can help a driver see and react fast, but they don’t have the instincts that drivers have.
Stojanovski by John Sommers II for TT
“But having great eyes and reaction times is not a substitute for having a great brain.”
The development of the driver-assist technologies will not happen like “turning on a light switch,” they will be “evolutionary,” Stojanovski said.
“I guess I’m here for the drivers’ point of view,” said Don Logan, a 30-year veteran driver for FedEx Freight, who has amassed nearly three million accident-free miles. “I have witnessed a lot of change in technology just in my career.”
It wasn’t all good, but lane departure warning systems, which he said were annoying in the 2014 model truck he once drove, have vastly improved in the new 2019 model he’s now driving.
Logan by John Sommers II for TT
“It’s not near as sensitive. However, I think it can still be a benefit and not an annoyance,” Logan said. “Just in that brief five-year period, the technology is getting better all the time.”
Still, he said he’s not convinced there will ever be a truck that can travel across the country without somebody in it. He also said he’s not concerned that technology will ever replace him.
“If you’re driving that truck and you’re being the professional driver that you should be, you’re never going to know it’s on,” Logan said. “You’re not going to get those buzzers and those beepers. It’s something that I welcome because it makes me a better driver.”
Minor by John Sommers II for TT
Larry Minor, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s associate administrator for policy, said his agency has worked on a number of driver-assist technologies to remove regulatory obstacles that can improve safety for drivers.
For example, he said the agency removed a long-standing regulation that prohibited putting lane departure sensors on tractor windshields after the systems were tested for safety, and only recently, FMCSA also gave the go-ahead to substitute cameras for conventional mirrors because they improved visibility.
“We want to make sure though that as an agency that we’re having conversations with not just the academics, but also with the industry, with professional drivers on the road every day,” said Selika Gore, a senior advisor to FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez. “How is it impacting you? What role would you like us at the federal government to take? And how can we make your lives better and safer on a day-to-day basis?”
http://pointgl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/POINT_GL_LOGO.png00Point Global Logisticshttp://pointgl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/POINT_GL_LOGO.pngPoint Global Logistics2019-04-01 15:31:522019-04-01 15:31:52Even Tech Companies Say, ‘There Are Always Going to Be Truck Drivers’